LOS ANGELES (AP) — Taking aim at cyberbullies on their home turf, Levan Gabriadze's "Unfriended" envisions an I Know What You Did Last Summer-style vengeance scenario conducted by a ghost entirely via social media. Presented as if it were being witnessed on one of the protagonists' laptops, the pic sticks with its gimmick more honestly than Nacho Vigalondo's Open Windows, a Fantasia entry with a similar visual conceit. Though it's substantially less successful in dramatic than in technical terms, the pic could draw some attention from genre diehards in niche bookings.
The setting is a group Skype chat in which five high-school friends log on together for no reason other than to have company while wasting hours of their youths sitting alone in their bedrooms. Around the time they realize this is the anniversary of the suicide of Laura Burns, a classmate they hated, a mysterious sixth person enters the chat — an anonymous digital intruder claiming to be Laura's spirit.
Assuming this to be a creepy hacker, they try and fail to hang up on "him," but this hacker has skills. He's soon taunting them (and a sixth friend) across an array of platforms, controlling texts, video messages and the like. (The services are all depicted with their real brands — YouTube, Facebook, Skype, et cetera.) As they grow increasingly agitated, he turns them against each other by revealing secrets he has no way of knowing — betrayals, insults and worse — before proceeding to grisly physical punishments that apparently involve psychic control.
These kids are more loathsome than the average victims of slasher-flick boogeymen, and the young actors have little success (if they're trying) in making them interesting despite their shallow nastiness; as the film begins knocking them off in the usual ways, we can't even take pleasure in their deaths. By the gory final moments, the picture finds ways to wrench the annoyance level higher, with goofy onscreen animation and an inexplicable plea for help to the nonplussed denizens of Chatroulette. While much of the screen-hopping that precedes this has a messy believability — with the lead bully flicking ADHD style between monitoring BitTorrent, choosing Pandora tunes, researching the paranormal on Wikipedia and using four or five different technologies to communicate with her frenemies — in the end, one would rather be back at one's own computer, tending to the tedious details of digital life, than watching this clique get pinged to death.
"Unfriended," a Universal release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for "violent content, pervasive language, some sexuality, and drug and alcohol use — all involving teens." Running time: 82 minutes.
MPAA definition for R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
Editor's Note: This review was written from a film festival screening last summer when the movie was titled "Cybernatural." The title has since been changed but the film is essentially the same.