This Friday, Blumhouse productions' latest and arguably most interesting project, [Unfriended](movie:2115877), hits theaters in ways that several horror films past have not: towering over the audience, the screen is set to display six Skype feeds on a desktop. That's it - that's the movie's principal cinematography. Captured on desktop-mounted GoPros, the experiences of six separate cast members will be told through a Skype conversation, instant message windows, YouTube videos, and Google searches.
The film, originally released under the title "Cybernatural," found a warm reception at last year's SXSW and Fantasia festivals, with its terrifying look at how cyber-stalking and bullying can take a horrific turn for the worst. The usual horror tropes are prominent in the trailer (karma's a bitch, revenge is sweet, and cheaters never win to name a few), but Unfriended takes those basic elements and builds them into a real situation - one that might cause a particularly terrified 5'1" writer to rethink how she uses the Internet.
The appeal of Unfriended, to someone like me who scares easily, isn't exactly the horror itself - the blood, the gore, the mutilation - but the lead-up to it. That's probably not the most original thought, but here, it counts: co-creator and horror magic man Timur Bekmambetov took several meticulous steps to keep the movie alive and real.
Bekmambetov, who commutes across the world on an almost weekly basis, practically lives on Skype, where he takes meetings, contacts family, and has casual chats with friends or colleagues around the world. It was this dire need for connection that Moore first connected with, and Greaves felt the same way:
It’s real. These are stories that we experience every day. You know, you’re writing an email to a girl and you’re thinking about how to end it, and you say ‘hey babe, we’ll hit you up later” - and then it’s like, agh, no no no, that’s too much, and then you say ‘respectfully yours’ and ah, no no no, that’s too formal, and then you end it like - ‘maybe we can get lunch sometime - send!' And stories like that are things that we experience every day, but have never found a place on screen, and we tell them in the most genuine, grounded way, I think.
Cyberstalking and online harassment can be particularly terrifying in this day and age because it's an extremely real problem that we, as a community, are dealing with on a daily basis. The very thought of an Internet troll somehow turning into a horrific, supernatural being that can viciously murder you on camera, in front of your friends who are too far away and too afraid to help, takes that real-life terror to an uncomfortable new level for me, particularly.
That, in itself, is probably the reason I want to see Unfriended. I want to see the very concept of online harassment broken down into what it often feels like, but more importantly, I want to know who the original bully was. After all, the film's villain, Billie, is taking revenge on a group of friends for the suicide of their classmate, who was viciously cyber-bullied and embarrassed in exceptionally vulgar ways on the Internet before she took her own life in the middle of the schoolyard.
The film's writer, Nelson Greaves, was extremely hands-on when it came to being present during filming. He elaborated on the actual terror of cyberstalking with a personal experience of his:
I think there are a couple of things that are just terrifying about how we use our computers, and how we use the Internet, and the first thing is anonymity. You never know who’s on the other side, who’s actually saying things.
Me, personally - someone keeps sending me e-mails from [email protected], and they’ve been sending me these e-mails for five years. Sometimes it’ll be a year and a half before I get another one. But even though the e-mails are jokey and I think it’s somebody I know - I don’t know! And there’s something terrifying about that.
But in the end, it's more than just the concept that makes this film appeal to me, personally. I'll be honest and say that I'm not the best kind of horror fan. I scare very, very easily, and can't sit through most films without closing my eyes and cupping my ears. In fact, when I was assigned to this movie, I was terrified already. It wasn't until I listened to the cast and crew talk about it themselves that I was finally hooked, and the reasons all rest behind the scenes of this innovative new film.
Beyond the interesting choices in cinematography, the film is a roller coaster of emotions that the actors had to accurately portray while sitting in separate rooms by themselves. After a stressful round of shooting, the film's star, Shelley Henning, had an idea...
I remember I was having a difficult time starting and stopping because it’s such an emotional ride ... we were at lunch and I was like, “Can we just do the movie in one take? and I remember a couple of looks around, like, "uh, are you kidding me?" but then Nelson and Leo said: “That would be amazing, are you guys up for it?" And we all were.
This quick suggestion from the starlet launched a few runs through the movie that left the actors exhausted, but also pulled honest, real performances from each of them. Will Reitz, who plays the snarky Adam, wasn't exactly a fan of the idea, but it worked out in the end.
The production team would play upon the cast's reactions to several random things, such as creepy instant messages or terrifying photos popping up at random instances during filming. Nelson Greaves recalled a particular moment where Timur Bekmambetov rebooted his own stamina when Greaves hit a creative wall:
“Nelson! Trust. We live on our computers,” which is true, most of us spend most of the day at a computer. He said, “This is human drama, this is real, the love is real, the fear is real, believe that it’s real.” and I think that the reception that the film has gotten has proven that he’s right.
All of these elements come together to make an honest-to-goodness, horrifying movie about revenge, secrets, and the idea of our memories or actions living on the Internet for the rest of time. Most horror films come with a tagged on, fairly campy lesson about common sense and decency, but Unfriended takes it a step further, weaponizing the most terrifying aspects of cyberstalking and giving them a body, a voice, and murderous intentions.
We absolutely do live on our computers (for the most part, our very livelihood now depends on being connected in order to access various technical aspects of our day-to-day) and while the living embodiment of a supernatural cyberkiller may not be on the other side of the screen, it certainly isn't always easy to tell who is. If you're looking for a thriller that will leave you flinching when you open your laptop, turn down that stranger's friend request and head to theaters this Friday to check out Unfriended.