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Watch List: Unfriended

This indie techno-horror flick is scarier than you think.


Faceless, nameless trolls spewing hatred more vile than the gunk coming out of Jeff Goldblum’s orifices in The Fly: The Internet is a murky cesspool that spawns some of today’s most awful creatures, and, for lack of a more perfect descriptor, it’s mother-effing scary. So why not make a movie about it?!

Several have tried. Nacho Vigalondo, whose first two exceptional features, Timecrimes and Extraterrestrial, would lead any fan to believe that his first English-language film, Open Windows, a thriller that explores Internet leaks and voyeurism, would be great. It isn’t. Smiley, a techno-horror film about an urban legend with e-roots, is the stuff of nightmares (not in a good way). So we get it if the idea of a teen scream that unspools over a laptop screen doesn’t sound too enticing. But allow us to change your mind.

Fresh off SXSW success, Unfriended puts cyberbullying on blast, is 85 percent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, and is being dubbed the Ringu of its generation. Plus, it isn’t the big-studio production it wants you to think it is. And that’s a good thing. Sure, it kicks off with the ubiquitous cosmic Universal logo, but Unfriended actually started out as an indie film orbiting the film festival circuit under the title Cybernatural. So rest assured, you’re not getting regurgitated studio hijinks.

What you are getting is clever techno-horror that thinks outside the haunted house, thanks to writer Nelson Greaves’s contemporary tweaks to a prosaic formula. So what’s it about? Well, at the risk of sounding like a PIR, it’s about a group of high schoolers who spend way too much time online. Each character plugs into a stereotype: the stoner, the good girl, the slut, the etc. And that’s where the clichés — and the fun — begin. When said crew hops online for a Skype video conference, they’re interrupted by an uninvited mystery caller. Just who is this mystery caller? Oh, you know, an old friend who died exactly. one. year. ago.

Get used to it. Clichés are thrown around in director Levan Gabriadze’s modern horror like body parts at a Robert Durst shindig. But it — and the film’s gimmick — work. As the innovative story continues to unfold via nothing but a laptop screen and pervasive software applications, the characters’ stereotypes give way to complexities. Like the girl who died a year ago, Laura Barns. We learn that her friends leak a humiliating video of her online, torment her, then suggest she kill herself. So she does.

Things continue down the sinister superhighway, and the action takes a turn for the absurd. Again, don’t misunderstand. We don’t mean messy. We mean deliberately absurd, like Sam Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell or Drew Goddard’s Cabin in the Woods. Jump scares lurk around every chat box. And each kill gets more inventive than the last. In fact, the kills are the stuff of MSG-induced nightmares. Think Final Destination on way too many 5-hour Energy shots.

Armed with a prescient script, highly relatable aesthetic (there’s no hokey mumbo-jumbo software like Friendbook here), heavyweights like Wanted director Timur Bekmambetov attached to the project, and excellent performances from all involved, Unfriended might just be the sensation today’s plugged-in generation has been craving. If we could hit like, we would.

Unfriended hits theaters Friday.

Photo: Courtesy of Universal Pictures