[Screen It]

"UNFRIENDED"
(2015) (Shelley Hennig, Moses Jacob Storm) (R)


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QUICK TAKE:
Horror: A group of teens must contend with being harassed online and then some by what may be the spirit of a classmate who committed suicide a year ago over being shamed by their actions.
PLOT:
One year ago, Laura Barns (HEATHER SOSSAMAN) committed suicide after being shamed online for a night of drunken stupidity. Her former friend, Blaire Lily (SHELLEY HENNIG), watches a graphic video of that act, only to be interrupted by a video chat with her boyfriend, Mitch Roussel (MOSES JACOB STORM). It's not long before they're joined on the Skype call by their other friends, Jess Felton (RENEE OLSTEAD), Val Rommel (COURTNEY HALVERSON), Ken Smith (JACOB WYSOCKI) and Adam Sewell (WILL PELTZ).

But there's some anonymous other person on the call as well, and despite their best efforts, they can't get rid of this online presence that goes by the name of Billie. At first, the teens think it's someone who's hacked Laura's old accounts, and then perhaps some sort of computer glitch. But when Billie reveals personal information about the teens and one of them ends up dead, the survivors wonder if this could somehow be Laura's ghost who's arrived to torment them and worse. With Billie turning the tables on them and turning them against each other -- all taking place on the screen of Blaire's computer -- the teens start dying one by one, with the survivors worrying that they might be next.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
I have no idea when it was first deployed, but Hollywood has used the split-screen effect over the decades to allow two or more characters in different locales to be shown together onscreen. Back in 2000, director Mike Figgis took that notion to the extreme in "Timecode." It was a drama where four different stories -- that occasionally overlapped -- took place in four different quadrants on the screen, with the audio moving from scene to scene.

The greater experimental aspect of the production -- and one that had to have been a logistical nightmare -- was that all four stories where shot simultaneously but in different locations and in real time. All of which meant that if anything went wrong in one, they had to "rewind," so to speak, and start again. It also proved to be an engaging if exhausting experience for the viewer who had to keep his or her attention split between the various tales so as not to miss any potentially crucial element.

Of course, that was long before people really got into the swing of multitasking on their computers, where they might have various separate applications on their screen at the same time, shuffling their attention from email to Facebook, Twitter, Skype, YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat and a myriad of other programs. Yes, we're a nation (actually a growing world) of short attention meets attention deficit disorder victims, and that's certainly highlighted in this week's new horror flick, "Unfriended."

Like Figgis' movie before it, this one features multiple shots all simultaneously occurring on the screen, reportedly also shot together in real time. All of which puts a slightly new twist on the old and, frankly, quite tired genre storyline of a vengeful spirit offing -- one by one, natch -- those partially or fully responsible for an earlier death that prompted the release of the angry spirit. In this case, that may or may not belong to the late Laura Barns (Heather Sossaman) who killed herself a year ago after being embarrassed by an online video of her night of drunken stupidity that then went viral, followed by taunts from her "friends" telling her she should kill herself.

In another slight twist of the usual, the victim was not on the lower rung of the high school caste system, and those responsible weren't the typical hierarchical bullies. Instead, Laura was the popular girl at school who made a mistake, paid for it socially, and then took her own life as a result. Those now in the crosshairs of the old process of literal elimination (played by Shelley Hennig, Moses Jacob Storm, Renee Olstead, Courtney Halverson, Jacob Wysocki and Will Peltz) first believe someone is simply messing with them as a joke, or that it's a computer glitch of some sort. They soon realize neither is the case and they might be facing something far more sinister.

The entire film takes place on the screen of Blaire Lily's computer that first shows the playing of the video of Laura Burns' suicide. That's interrupted by a video chat with Blaire's boyfriend, Mitch, followed by their friends Jess, Val, Ken and Adam ending up on the Skype call. As does a mystery figure who first messes with them, has them turn against each other (mainly through unexpected revelations about past teen treachery) and then, somehow supernaturally, ends up offing them one by one.

In essence, it's just an online version of "I Know What You Did Last Summer" as filtered through the visual look of "Timecode." I had heard from another reviewer who earlier saw the film that he was freaked out by it and couldn't sleep the following night. Maybe it was something he ate as the only scary thing about the film is the notion that young people are so addicted to being online and interacting electronically (rather than in person) that they can't simply log off or close their computers to stop the mayhem. And in that regard, the flick already feels antiquated since most teens nowadays interact with their smart phones rather than computers (although, admittedly, that would have made it tough for director Leo Gabriadze to show screenwriter Nelson Greaves' unfolding plot on such a small device).

If your idea of fun is to watch a bunch of teens turn against each other, yell and scream at the top of their lungs, curse like sailors, and then meet their various demises as their video feeds conveniently buffer or feature broken and blotchy video, then you might enjoy this offering. Decidedly low-budget and low on true scares, "Unfriended" proves that revenge is a dish best served in person as the likes of "Star Trek: Wrath of Khan" and "Cape Fear" proved so well. Mercifully short at 82 minutes, "Unfriended" rates as a 4 out of 10.




Reviewed April 15, 2015 / Posted April 17, 2015


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