Unfriended: Dark Web (2018)
Directed by: Stephen Susco
Written by: Stephen Susco
Starring: Andrew Lees, Betty Gabriel, Chelsea Alden, Colin Woodell, Connor Del Rio, Rebecca Rittenhouse, Stephanie Nogueras
UNFRIENDED: DARK WEB
Directed by Stephen Susco
Horror’s rarely taken well to technology. From Frankenstein to The Ring, Poltergeist or even Lawnmower Man you got to be darn brave in this new world. In recent years we’ve seen the internet become the new school camp, with several movies playing off the notion that we’re vulnerable online. Friend Request, Smiley and The Den played with this idea. But the biggest movie in this subgenre was the Blumhouse produced Unfriended – which all took place on a computer screen (an angle Windows and The Collingswood Story beat it to). Now, after an unexpectedly long wait, it returns as screenwriter Stephen Susco’s stand-alone directorial debut about the perils of online security.
This time around the screen belongs to Matia (Woodall), and his stolen laptop. Of course, just because something’s free it doesn’t mean it can’t be costly. Because unlike my laptop, and I assume yours, buried on its desktop is a big file packed with disturbing videos. Needless to say the owner wants it back and they’re not someone you want to keep waiting. At first Matia’s unaware, being more concerned about working on his relationship with deaf girlfiend Amaya (Nogueras) and attending an online ‘game night’ with his friends. But when messages to and from the computer’s owner start coming in thick and fast, as they play a round of Cards Against Humanity, he goes down the rabbit hole. I’m going to avoid specifics as it’s easy to say too much. But while the first tackled bullying via a ghost, Dark Web’s twisty plot has a more everyday threat it escalates superbly. As with Get Out, and The First Purge there’s a state of the nation feel, with contemporary concerns and memes – that elevates it above the feeling of just another digital scares movie. It’s also a much, much better film than Unfriended. Admittedly my expectations weren’t high – nobody in the HorrorCultFilms office was especially looking forward to it, so my ‘I’ll take it’ was maybe said with more resignation than passion. But– wow. With the possible exception of the Mike Flanagan directed Ouija prequel (which followed up worse source material), I can’t think of a second horror film that’s improved upon its predecessor so much. Like many others, I thought the first had a neat idea, but was too gimmicky, with annoying, loud characters I couldn’t care less about. Dark Web is better in every department with more rounded roles, better pacing, a more novel premise, and a stronger integration of technology with plot. Once again, the windows narrative gives it a sense of urgency, allowing multiple strands of its story to develop in unison and leading to a sense of organised chaos as shit hits the fan.
The feeling of paranoia is palatable form the first 20 minutes or so and just gets better. As per a story breaking in real life, Matia sees his develop across a range of platforms, with tweets, videos, social media, skype and news sites all being called upon. The result is a frantic third act that just keeps cranking up the pressure. I don’t know if I’d say it gets scary per se, but it’s definitely thrilling, with the breakneck speed not giving audiences time to ask how plausible it all actually is – in the last 15 minutes there’s the common trope of hackers as superheroes. Sure, some things like the cheap audio crackles, and visual glitches, that happen every time a character is in danger are silly. As is the soundtrack, that fades in an out for dramatic bits, and the way Matia’s image takes up the whole screen when it suits the action. But while these inconsistencies are jarring, such tropey filmmaking devices are a reminder of how unconventional the rest of its presentation is.
As another plus, where Unfriended had a cast of loud, obnoxious idiots you wanted to see die at the hands of a vengeful ghost, Dark Web has a more likeable assortment. There’s still not a whole lot of psychological depth to them, though As the tone becomes increasingly mean-spirited, and stressful, I’d think it tough not to be invested in their safety. Matias is honourable enough for us to respect him, if a bit dim, and flawed enough for us to be interested in him. The interracial lesbian couple (Rittenhouse) and (Gabriel) are mostly played for sympathy, with their parental issues being their defining feature. Still, their material is handled well, with apt payoffs, and it’s positive to even see representation in a horror. AJ (Del Rio) is the comic-relief, and grows on you throughout, even if his conspiratorial dialogue borders on too spoofy. While nerdy Brit Damon (Lees) is mostly there to advance the plot with his tech know-how. Still, they’re likeable, with the cast having an easy rapport and selling the emotions when called upon. The main weak point is Amaya, who has the least to do, though Nogueras maybe puts up the best performance. It’s not exactly layered, or subtle, characterisation – but its more than able to draw you in. And besides, you could imagine playing cards with them, while knocking back a beer, and enjoying their company.
It’s an interesting time to be a horror critic. I know 2018 hasn’t been great thus far with only a few great movies (still Fright Fest and Halloween to come though). Still, I didn’t think I’d be talking about a Blumhouse movie, that wasn’t by Jordan Peele and didn’t feature Michael Myers, as a serious contender for top five of the year. I especially didn’t think I’d be saying it about a sequel to Unfriended. From what I understand, the cinema release is limited, which is fitting. Dark Web is something I think will benefit from being watched at home – preferably on a laptop to give it more impact. It may even stay with you a while after you close the lid.