Written and Directed by: Stephen Susco
Starring: Colin Woodell, Stephanie Nogueras, and Betty Gabriel
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
Death wants some FaceTime.
As this century continues to unfold, it’s become increasingly clear that the internet is one of humanity’s greatest paradoxes. What should have been a crowning achievement in democratizing the world through more efficient communication and information access has also amplified the worst impulses of our species—and that’s just referring to the sexist, racist trolls that swarm across social media platforms on the surface of the web. Apparently, there’s even more repugnant depths hidden away in secluded, secret crooks and nannies of the dark web, where the worst of the worst congregate to conduct shady, sickening business. It’s the internet’s version of the wild west: anything goes, much of it shrouded by a cloud of anonymity, and anyone can do anything, going so far as to victimize the innocent. Arriving in theaters to exploit these growing fears is Unfriended: Dark Web, a surprise—but not unwanted—follow-up to Blumhouse's 2015 sleeper hit that treads even further into the awful (and awfully real) haunts of cyberspace, revealing the grim, bone-chilling horrors lurking just a few keystrokes away.
Or, in the case of Matias O’Brien (Colin Woodell), the dark web is just one bad decision away. Frustrated with his old, clunky computer, he’s scored a new laptop with dubious origins: he tells his group of friends—all gathered together on Skype for their monthly game night—he purchased it from Craigslist, and we watch him explore its contents between conversations with his frustrated girlfriend, Amaya (Stephanie Nogueras). Its contents prove to be immediately cryptic: the hard drive is completely full, yet all the files are hidden away into locked, secret folders that can’t be accessed without running special programs and command prompts. As he pokes around, his notifications go haywire, as it turns out previous owner Norah C. IV’s credentials have remained logged in, giving Matias access to mysterious, frantic private Facebook messages.
Soon enough, one message is from Norah himself, directly accusing Matias of stealing the laptop, which he wants returned immediately. Once he views the hidden files and programs, Matias discovers the reason behind the urgency: Norah belongs to an illicit dark web ring of snuff movie fanatics that abducts vulnerable girls to kill them. What’s more, this almost preternatural cadre manages to find Matias’s home and threatens to murder all of his friends if the laptop isn’t returned to its rightful owner, kicking off a tense, high stakes battle of wits and wills, all unfolding right before his—and our—eyes on a computer screen cluttered with Skype windows chat logs.
Dark Web might recycle its predecessor’s aesthetic, but it does so in the service of an entirely different experience altogether. Where the first film was a supernaturally-tinged teen slasher update, this one—at least on its face—is more preoccupied with exploring more grounded, realistic horrors that dwell online. Even the suggestion made here of what the dark web holds is enough to send a shiver down your spine, as one of the character’s routine explanation reveals a twisted realm where hackers are capable of hijacking unsecured wifi networks and computers, exploiting them to spy on intimate moments or other, even more nefarious purposes. It’s a short sequence, but it’s enough to inspire you to immediately unplug your devices and toss them right out—or, at the very least, break out some masking tape to cover up the webcam on your computer, I guess. Just the mere suggestion of this insidious web casts a sinister pall over the film, which is among one of the more disturbing movies you could ever imagine unfolding on a giant multiplex screen right in the middle of summer blockbuster season.
What’s impressive is how Dark Web relies almost exclusively on that suggestion: this is a disturbing excursion into some of the worst shit imaginable, and writer/director Stephen Susco rightfully doesn’t dwell on the gritty details. Matias and his friends are only able to stomach a few seconds of the videos they uncover, giving audiences more than enough of a glimpse into the twisted world that’s been stumbled upon here. Because the gimmicky aesthetic obviously lends an illusion of realism, there’s an immediate snuff movie quality that makes your skin crawl as you watch victims chained to walls or stuffed into industrial waste canisters. Dark Web is a grim piece of work that weaponizes your imagination in its effort to have you conjure up implicit horrors as it weaves an unnerving tale about the perils of 21st century life.
Admittedly, that tale does spin a bit out of control: at a certain point, the dark web’s influence and access becomes a bit too unbelievable and omnipotent. As the tension mounts, so too does the growing sensation that the sinister nature of the dark web is a sort of bullshit hand-wave that allows Susco to grease the wheels of the plot more effectively. Over the course of the film, the pretense of “reality” slowly withers in the face of magically pixelated home invaders and ludicrous software exploits that allow this mysterious group to do just about anything it wants. Somewhere along the way, Dark Web becomes the sort of movie that preys on the fears everyone’s parents had in the 90s, back when we were first confronting this technology and they were convinced something awful would happen if you so much as opened an IM window with a stranger and shared your “A/S/L.”
But the good news is that it never spirals completely out of control: unlike the first film, the characters here are actually quite affable, so it’s disturbing once they’re targeted by the dark web cabal. They genuinely feel like a set of twentysomething kids trying to sort out post-collegiate life, and there’s very little drama between them until Matias unwittingly opens Pandora’s Box here. A sense of natural, lived-in camaraderie is revealed in their in-jokes and banter, not to mention the screenplay’s efforts to sketch out some crucial details for most of them. Sweet moments—such as the revelation that Nari (Betty Gabriel) and Serena (Rebecca Rittenhouse) have recently become engaged, much to the extreme delight of their friends—are stark contrasts to the darkness that slowly swells around them. Matias’s struggle to better communicate with his deaf girlfriend also generates sympathy, particularly when Amaya is snared in the mad plot. Throughout the film, it’s clear that Matias is a well-meaning fuck-up, a notion that’s solidified by his decision to risk his own skin in an effort to rescue the dark web’s latest captive. These are all nice people who don’t deserve such an awful fate, an approach that’s quite different from Unfriended, which practically invited you to watch its characters get their just desserts.
A slasher—or something like a slasher, as this is—largely defined by its approach in this respect. Most are content to gleefully dispatch their cast with elaborate kill scenes, delighting the audience with a twisted display of showmanship; more rarely, however, you come across something like Dark Web, a movie that takes no pleasure in butchering its characters. Many of their deaths do unfold in a sort of Rube Goldberg fashion, with the audience edging up in their seats to see just how the dark web group will manipulate certain elements to accomplish their twisted aims. It’s actually disturbing, though, as Susco plays up that snuff quality without lingering on the explicit carnage: it looks convincing, especially when it’s exploiting recent, real-life threats like phishing and swatting. As our reckoning with the repercussions of online interactions comes into focus, Dark Web provides a stark—if not extreme—reminder that the lines between cyberspace and real life have been effectively shattered. What was once a sanctuary away has been warped into its own house of horrors.
Granted, Dark Web isn’t really about that in any meaningful way, as it mostly exploits that fear of the net’s unknown elements to weave a lurid tale. If the first Unfriended was a film about how we willingly court our own doom by broadcasting our sins, then this one is a reminder of those bad elements lurking in the shadows, completely willing to find and torment us just for their own sick pleasure. It’s a bit of a different dynamic this time around, with the gimmick proving to be only slightly less clever, mostly because Susco doesn’t play up the mounting tension and suspense from mundane points and clicks like his predecessor did. A final reveal—at least in the version I saw, as there are actually two different endings playing in theaters—attempts to suggest some level of complicity on the part of the audience, as the POV shifts away from the victim to the voyeur, an interesting wrinkle that highlights our ghoulish tendency to rubberneck online.
Perceptive moments like that are fleeting, though: I felt the first Unfriended integrated its gimmicky form with its parable about self-destruction in the digital age. Ironically, Dark Web is more grounded in reality, yet doesn’t feel quite as vital in this respect, as its boogeymen somehow feel less unsettling avatars for the vague sense that something is out there in cyberspace, waiting to strike if our virus software isn’t updated.
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