The internet is dark and full of terrors. From the Nazi memes of 4Chan to Live Leaks, a website where you can literally watch people get murdered, jet-black corners of the web lurk in waiting. To imagine that there lay a second layer of the internet beyond the scum and villainy readily apparent, a sector where one can purchase illegal drugs, elicit prostitution, even hire paid assassins, is an unsettling reality but a reality none the less; and this is where Unfriended: Dark Web strikes.
2014’s Unfriended was a playful, if flawed, experiment in form. The entire experience took place within a computer screen, navigating between messaging systems and apps like Skype, Facebook Messaging, and Spotify, trying to cram a three-act structure into the confines of a desert island setting. The sometimes-clever, sometimes-numb predecessor faltered in its silly supernatural premises and lack of inventive kills, logging points for its original and isolated storytelling tactic but failing to bridge the gap into actual storytelling prowess.
Unfriended: Dark Web, by and large, fixes that system error. Gone is the supernatural tilt, replaced by a relentless real-world threat – the dark web and its army of digital trolls. Matias (Colin Woodell) is a well-meaning dude who has made a grave mistake. We see Matias courting deaf girlfriend Amaya (Stephanie Nogueras) with an app he’s programmed to make communicating easier but their relationship is strained, at a fault-line. But when he claims a spiffy lost laptop as his own, Matias sets in motion an online pincer move that threatens both his life, his girl and his friends.
This includes computer whiz Damon (Andrew Lees); conspiratorial YouTuber AJ (Connor Del Rio); cute couple Nari (Get Out‘s Betty Gabriel) and Kelly (Chelsea Alden); and, the mostly disposable, DJ Lexx (Savira Windyani); all of whom have gathered in a Skype chatroom for an innocent game night session. Dark Web benefits from the unexpected impact of its cast, with Woodell proving a particularly saucy lead and the supporting cast offering a sense of genuine dread to what would otherwise be humdrum expressions of terror and shrieks of anguish.
These kinds of movies (including the original Unfriended) often succumb to the the whiny teenager problem; backed up crummy writing and hacky acting, these characters are kill fodder whose death you await with a sense of tired ritual. In Dark Web, that is simply not the case. For the most part. As the focus zips across the screen, from one chat box to the next, with looming threats ballooning into bigger and bigger problems, we’re tethered to the outcome by virtue of the characters. It’s remarkable how much more an audience will care when they don’t wish bloody murder upon a film’s characters and when they aren’t making one stupid decision after another. Yes, Matias fucked up but his friends, for all intents and purposes, are helpless bystanders in the scenario, just trying to figure out how badly said fuck up is and what they might do to CTRL+ALT+DEL out of it.
Unfriended: Dark Web is bleak and unsurrendering and as it accelerates into its final act, it becomes jaw-droppingly dark. Like, goddamn, this movie is brutal. Though the film, like its predecessor, lacks the big gory kills that you might otherwise expect from an R-rated horror movie (characters are shot, stabbed, pushed, hung – nothing even as surprising or grotesque as a blender kill), Dark Web smartly invests its resources into A) investing us in these characters and B) setting up creative avenues for them to be satisfyingly killed. There’s a moment involving one character and the police that is whip-smart and hugely satisfying (though horrifying), like seeing a puzzle locked into place and ludicrous though it is, this kind of moment represents the heights of what this franchise can be.
First time writer-director Stephen Susco improves on the all-on-the-screen formula by keeping the action humming and the ominous sense of unease alive at any given moment. The little black arrow icon becomes a curio character, nervously wandering the screen. Clicking on sketchy folders here becomes the new-age cinematic equivalent of opening the wrong creaky door. Alternating between Skype conversations with friends, oogling dated romantic videos, playing sappy Spotify songs, having FB messenger threats repeatedly lodged, stumbling upon snuff films, red pilling into an archaic app known as “The River” and eventually becoming a witness to live-streaming murder, Dark Web navigates through these narrative tabs with a flight footing, making us an active participant in its sinister offerings in arresting fashion. From a purely objective standpoint, these may not be the best brand of movies but, if Unfriended: Dark Web charts a course for the future of this franchise, they have proven the ability to be economical tension machine willing to go to gnarly depths and take no prisoners.
CONCLUSION: ‘Unfriended: Dark Web’ is a marked improvement over its earlier model, smuggling some decent performances and an excess of bleak foreboding into this conceptual horror-thriller. Though it still lacks visceral and original kills, Susco’s sequel is an unsettling and confident step forward for this chilling trapped-in-the-computer-screen experience.