“Unfriended” is a found footage horror film from Blumhouse that is directed by Levan Gabriadze and written by Nelson Greaves. The film follows six high school friends on a Skype call who are terrorized by a malevolent entity.
Unfriended is one of those rare found footage films that breathes new life into the genre by introducing a wholly new and innovative approach to cinematic storytelling. The film does just enough differently and uniquely to expand the scope of what is possible in found footage, adding to the cinematic toolbox for future found footage directors.
Unfriended is prefaced on the fictional backstory of Laura Barns (Heather Sossaman), a high school student who commits suicide after an embarrassing video is leaked on social media and she becomes the victim of malicious cyberbullying. The film opens one year following Laura Barns’ tragic death.
Blaire Lily (Shelley Hennig) and five of her friends are talking on a Skype call one evening when they notice a sixth unidentified person on their call. Believing the unidentified caller is a Skype glitch, the group hangs up and starts a new call, but the unidentified caller reappears. Shortly thereafter, the unidentified caller reveals herself as the deceased Laura Barns (and is using Laura Barns’ Skype account). It isn’t long before the group receives messages from Laura Barns’ Facebook account from the same unidentified person. Convinced that someone hacked into Laura Barnes account, the group decide to end the call. Before they hang up, the unidentified caller warns everyone that if they leave the skype call that all of their friends will die. The group is collectively forced to confront their inner demons and face their worst nightmares if they are to survive the evening.
A Film with a Message
Unfriended is much more than a thrill-seeking horror movie. The film delves into the consequences of cyberbullying, vengeance (or perhaps revenge), redemption, and atonement. On a deeper level, the film is a social experiment exploring the nature of humanity. What measures is a person willing to take in order to preserve their reputation? How about their very lives? When the protections and safeguards of modern civilization break down and an individual or group of people are left to fend for themselves, will they band together or turn on each other to fulfill their own self-interests? Whether intentional or not, these are the topics and questions explored in Unfriended.
Found Footage Cinematography
The found footage cinematography used throughout Unfriended is exceptional. The entire film presents as a recorded screen capture of character Blair’s laptop computer. This filming approach is plausible as there are many commercial software products on the market that can save all computer activity as a movie file, including mouse motions, typing, browser windows, all running applications, video feeds, and sound.
Adding to the realism of the experience, director Levan Gabriadze uses real websites and programs throughout the film. Some of the more noteworthy brands include Skype, Facebook, YouTube, Gmail, Google, Google Chrome, and Spotify.
One of the challenges historically faced by many feature films and television programs displaying on-screen use of a computer is the complete lack of realism. Typically, the mouse motions and typing are too smooth, exacting, and rhythmic, and the user interface is, for lack of a better phrase, dumbed down for the viewing public. Unfriended’s execution is near-flawless and is maintained for the film’s full 83-minute runtime. The film uses actual applications in a tiled/overlapping windowed environment. The typing and jumping between windows/websites looks completely organic and real—right down to the typos, deleting and retyping words as Blair gathers her thoughts in real-time, and even the variable speed of file downloads and video bandwidth bottlenecks comes across as perfectly real and convincing.
Also noteworthy are the computer sounds. The film brilliantly uses Spotify to add background music without breaking the found footage conceit of the film. Blair’s laptop integrated microphone also picks up the hard drive read/write sounds (audible clicking) during file downloads.
Where the film falters ever so slightly in the found footage execution is the dulling/muting of the Skype audio during some scenes where Blair puts Skype in the background and uses a website in the foreground. During these scenes, we presume director Levan Gabriadze believed the Skype audio would distract viewers from focusing on the flurry of content and activity on the screen. Additionally, astute viewers and fans of Paranormal Activity (2007) may have also picked up on the use of a low-level background hum whenever the antagonist is actively doing something to Blair.
The filming reason used in Unfriended is single fold, character Blair has software installed on her laptop computer that is recording all of her activity on the night in question. While the presence of such a software product on Blair’s laptop is never mentioned in the film, we must assume that such a product is installed—otherwise there would be no way for the found footage to exists in the first place.
Another, albeit remote possibility, is that the malevolent entity is responsible for recording Blair’s laptop activity. Very early in the film, the entity demonstrates the ability to manipulate Blair’s laptop, post videos to the Facebook timelines of Blaire’s friends, and manipulate Blaire’s Gmail. Saving Blair’s laptop activity as a movie as a warning to others contemplating cyberbullying isn’t something completely out of the realm of reason. After all, the entity’s actions are focused on avenging Laura Barns’ wrongful death (or an act of revenge if the entity is actually the spirit of Laura Barns)—leaving this approach open as a plausible filming reason.
Found Footage Purity
The found footage purity is a measure of how closely a film comes across as real found footage. In the case of Unfriended, the found footage purity is exceptionally done. There’s no better measure for a successful found footage film execution than the ability to convince viewers that what they are watching is real. When watching Unfriended on a laptop computer (as opposed to a television or the original theatrical release), many viewers reported that they sometimes forgot that they were watching a film and tried to click on the windows and links in the film—to this end, the film is very successful.
Examining the film from a purely technical perspective, there are a few digressions that impact the found footage purity of Unfriended. As mentioned earlier, the film dulls/mutes the Skype audio during some instances where Blair is viewing websites or chatting via messenger. While the intent of this technique is most likely to help keep viewers focused on specific content onscreen, the approach detracts somewhat from the found footage purity.
Further, the film contains subtle sound design that is employed during scenes where the antagonist is up to something. This is a common trope used in found footage films to create tension, but astute viewers of many found footage films are likely to pick up on the sounds, which again, may detract from the found footage purity.
Finally, we have the white elephant in the room, which is the very ending of Unfriended, which appears to completely break from found footage. To avoid spoilers, we won’t delve any further than into the ending, other than to say that the approach is intended to create a jump scare.
At the onset of Unfriended, all of the characters present as having some degree of self-interest or self-centeredness. Despite these undesirable traits, the protagonists initially come across as innocent. As the story progresses, the characters slowly reveal their true selves—each has secrets they would rather soon forget.
Shelley Hennig performs exceptionally as Blair, former friend of Laura Barns, and the most seemingly innocent member of the ensemble cast. She demonstrates a wide range of emotion as she shifts from the role of mediator to victim to sinner. The ensemble cast appearing on the Skype call perform wonderfully in their respective roles and character transformations. Credit goes out to actors Moses Storm (Mitch), Will Peltz (Adam), Renee Olstead (Jess), Jabob Wysocki (Ken), and Courtney Halverson (Val). Heather Sossaman performs convincingly as Laura Barns, the distraught high school student who took her own life.
Surprisingly, Unfriended was filmed in real-time in one take. Each of the actors was placed in a separate room and sat in front of an actual computer to interact with the other cast members. Filming was performed with Go Pro cameras mounted on each computer
On its face, Unfriended follows a rather simple plot—a malevolent entity exacts revenge on a group of friends that presumably had some involvement with the death of Laura Barns who took her own life as a result of cyberbullying. However, the heart of this film extends far beyond the film’s synopsis.
As discussed earlier in this review, Unfriended is groundbreaking in its found footage execution. The film is presented as footage captured from the activity of the protagonist’s laptop. Other found footage films created in a similar vein include The Den (2013) and Ratter (2015), but neither film comes close to the realism invoked by Unfriended.
Looking beyond the technical correctness of the found footage approach of Unfriended is the film’s underlying social commentary. Unfriended poignantly highlights the consequences of cyberbullying, going so far as to turn the tables on those who took part in the act of cyberbullying, giving them a taste of their own proverbial medicine.
The film also closely examines human nature. Unfriended presents six friends, all high school students who are forced to confess to their role in the death of Laura Barnes through a question and answer game orchestrated by the malevolent entity. As the game unfolds, the shroud of innocence melts away from each character, revealing their true self. Exposed for the bad people who they truly are, the characters turn to excuses, deceit, and deception to prevail in the “game”—according to the rules of the game, only one person will live. Will the winner of this game be the least culpable person or the most conniving? Will good (or less bad) prevail over evil? And if evil wins, what is the consequence if any? The game does have a winner, but as we learn, even the winner has a price to pay that’s far worse than the quick deaths of those that didn’t make it.
How to Best Watch Unfriended
Unfriended takes found footage to a whole new level of realism. One of the benchmarks of an effective found footage film is whether the movie convinces the viewer, even fleetingly, that what they are watching is real—Unfriended hits that mark on many levels.
If you have a choice of watching Unfriended on a television versus a laptop—we recommend a laptop (or PC), hands-down! This film looks and feels like an actual PC screen, so much so that you may catch yourself trying to click on one of the links in the film, rewind one of the in-film YouTube videos, or resize one of Blair’s windows. This reviewer openly admits for falling for that trap once (…okay twice)!