A Google search or an iMessage may seem an unlikely source of dramatic tension for a movie. But the new horror thriller “Unfriended” takes these routine actions in our daily digital lives and turns them into moments of fear and dread. It’s one in a recent spate of horror movies playing out on computer screens that might be likened to the found-footage horror genre that “The Blair Witch Project” started in 1999. But now the frights rely on an active Skype account and a strong Wi-Fi signal.
While dramas like “Disconnect” (2013) and “Men, Women & Children” (2014) have grappled with how technology is changing our lives (and how those changes can be portrayed on a big screen), it may be the horror genre that best examines the intimate and unsettling nature of technology and how we construct our online selves.
“We don’t think about it that much, but our computers and our digital lives are full of secrets,” Nelson Greaves, the writer of “Unfriended,” said by phone from Los Angeles. “You type in a password to get onto the computer. You type in another password to get onto your email. Because of those passwords, we feel like these are safe spaces. And so we behave in these spaces ways that we don’t anywhere else.”
‘The internet doesn’t forget’
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“Unfriended” takes place in real time on the desktop of a teenage girl, Blaire (Shelley Hennig). Her screen becomes the audience’s movie screen. We see her searches, her iMessage chats with her boyfriend, her group Skype session with friends and the mysterious Facebook messages she begins to receive from the account of a girl who had committed suicide a year earlier, after a humiliating video of her was anonymously posted and circulated online. It’s a story of cyberbullying and cyberstalking in which cruel online actions of the past can come back to haunt the characters.
“I’m a very shy person and try to live my own little life,” the film’s director, Levan Gabriadze, said in a phone interview. “But with the Internet, suddenly everybody becomes public and everybody is under the spotlight. Every mistake you make is documented and stays there. It really is a tough space to be, because the Internet doesn’t forget.”
One of the producers, Timur Bekmambetov (“Night Watch,” “Wanted”), harbored the idea of making a movie on a computer screen for more than a decade. He said he thought a movie set on a desktop was a fresh way of getting at a character’s internal thoughts.
“If I see your screen, I see your soul,” Bekmambetov said. via Skype from Rome, where he is filming a new version of “Ben-Hur.” He added, “It’s like a stream of consciousness, and it’s so captivating.” The film shows Blaire saying one thing to a friend on Skype and contradicting herself in messages she is typing to another friend.
Making a ‘screenmovie’
Bekmambetov is producing other works under the umbrella of what he calls a “screenmovie” - that is, a film that uses a character’s desktop computer to tell stories in several genres. “Unfriended” was staged in such a way that it could be shot in one take, with each actor in a room along with a computer, reacting to the beats in the script.
A handful of films have preceded “Unfriended” with the horror-on-screens approach. Michael Goi’s “Megan Is Missing” from 2011 was a transitional entry that combined found footage with webcam scenes. The 2012 short “The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger,” Joe Swanberg’s contribution to the anthology film “V/H/S,” is made up solely of a couple’s Skype conversations, each discussion getting creepier as the two realize that the apartment that one is Skyping from is haunted.
Swanberg, already known for a low-budget approach to his films, decided to shoot the movie without the use of cameras at all, using only screen captures and nondigital effects. He set up production in two apartments in a small complex so that both actors could be on the same Wi-Fi signal, which would be easier to monitor.
“It became like a weird IT problem,” Swanberg said by phone of the technological challenges. “It was less like a movie problem to solve and more like we were managing Wi-Fi signals and computer frame rates.”
While the film is definitely frightening, at its core it is about the couple’s relationship and their intimate interactions, which is what drew him to the project, Swanberg said.
An expanding genre
The 2014 film “Open Windows” brought some better-known names to the genre, with Elijah Wood playing an entertainment blogger who gets caught up in a twisted net of webcams. The elaborate action plays out on several screens and involves blackmail, hackers, torture, live feeds and links that the protagonist must click through.
And “The Den,” a 2014 feature debut from Zachary Donahue, follows a woman who meets and chats with people through a Chatroulette-type of video forum for a graduate thesis. Things turn out bleaker than planned.
Donahue said that he and his writing partner, Lauren Thompson, were inspired by an app they worked with when they first moved to Los Angeles.
“We were hired to chat with random people and write down what our interactions were like,” he said by phone from California. “It started out using the Internet as an instrument for investigation and research, but we found that it always got perverted or manipulated into the darker side of things.”
Each of these films explores the minefield that the Web continues to be, but also its rich narrative potential.
“There’s one big story, but there’s a thousand little stories we’ve taken care to capture,” Greaves said.