In 1999 The Blair Witch Project scared the beejaysus out of us with handheld cameras, an unknown cast (who also shot much of the footage) and not much of a budget at all. It didn’t exactly invent the “found footage” format but it was easily the most influential example of the form ever, and, helped by its massive popular success, it revolutionised the modern horror film.
In 2007 we got Paranormal Activity, which complemented the formula with the even more lo-fi aesthetic of a locked-off camera at night (and, essentially, a cast of two – unknowns, of course). Stratospherically successful, it needed The Blair Witch Project to exist, but definitely was ground-breaking and original and took horror into another new direction.
Now director Leo Gabriadze and writer Nelson Greaves give us Unfriended, which absolutely belongs in the royal company of Blair Witch and Paranormal. What may sound trite and gimmicky in one sentence – “The whole film takes place on a teenager’s computer screen” – is actually a deeply intricate, beautifully constructed and very creepy horror film that is its own brand of wildly original. (It’s interesting that it comes just two weeks after It Follows – we seem to be in a quality horror renaissance).
Set in absolute real time on the anniversary of a teen’s suicide, the film mainly takes place in a Skype video conversation among five friends. We are viewing the screen of Blaire (Shelley Hennig, excellent) so we see everything she sees; besides the hang out, we are privy to her private messages to her boyfriend Mitch (Moses Storm) as well as anything else – such as websites or YouTube videos – she decides to check out. Wrapping around the Skype universe is, of course, that of Facebook as well, and all those environments are rendered authentically – I assume under license or approval from each company. Over the course of eighty minutes, and completely as viewed on Blaire’s computer screen, mighty horror ensues.
The more you know about how Facebook, Skype, messaging and YouTube work the more deeply appreciative you’ll be about just how clever the screenplay is and how precisely its been brought to life. This is some sort of post-cinema: here, we don’t even need a silent actor’s face as they ponder, and then make, a decision – instead, that is all accompanied by a mouse cursor lingering over a “Reply” button before clicking it. And if you don’t believe that can be suspenseful, see the movie.
Along the way – and along with the very decent chills and scares – there’s also a more than decent examination of cyber-bullying and cyber-shaming. It’s in no way exploitative, despite the genre. It’s impressive stuff, perfectly acted by the young unknown cast, and – once again, in the wake of It Follows – pretty much a must-see for the horror fan. May this original trend continue!