The following review was originally published as part of our coverage of the 2018 SXSW Film Festival.
It was easy to roll your eyes at the premise of Blumhouse’s internet horror flick Unfriended, a gimmick flick that unfolded in real time entirely on a computer screen and found apps like YouTube, Facebook, and Spotify playing an integral role in the proceedings as a bunch of bored-looking millennials gabbed on Skype. But director Levan Gabriadze and screenwriter Nelson Greaves created something that wasn’t just scary, but relevant as hell. Public shaming and cyberbullying formed the spine of the narrative, while its tech-obsessed teens and their peripatetic navigation of apps reflected modern youth in ways that didn’t feel condescending. This approach was also adopted by Nacho Vigalondo’s Open Windows and Zachary Donohue’s The Den, but neither were quite able to sustain the motif in ways that felt organic, likely because they strayed too far from the teens who best represent this culture. Unfriended, while not a perfect film by any means (that CGI, woof), felt genuinely new.
Unfriended: Dark Web (formerly known as Unfriended 2: Game Night, which is the better title, honestly) is a sequel to Unfriended only in name and presentation. We open on a login screen, where a dude named Matias (Colin Woodell) seems to be trying to log onto a computer that’s not his. As he boots up Facebook, Skype, Spotify, and more apps, Matias encounters the login info of someone named Norah C. IV, erasing it and adding his own in. Out of curiosity, he eventually takes a peek into Norah’s Facebook account, when he’s immediately hit with a flurry of messages from beautiful women. Standing out among them, however, is someone demanding to know who’s using the computer. Though they’re writing under a different name, it doesn’t take long to realize this is Norah C. IV. Through it all, Matias is trying to patch things up via video chat with his estranged girlfriend, Amaya (Stephanie Nogueras).
Things get weirder after Matias logs onto a Skype session with his friends — tech-savvy Brit Damon (Andrew Lees); conspiracy theorist AJ (Connor Del Rio); couple Nori (Get Out‘s Betty Gabriel) and Serena (Rebecca Rittenhouse); and musician Lexx (Savira Windyani) — and ends up stumbling upon a cache of hidden files, which alternate between candid footage from people’s homes and, chillingly, snuff films of young women. Soon, the gang finds themselves swept up in questions regarding just where he got this laptop, who it really belongs to, and what subterranean sect of the dark web they’ve just pissed off.
Longtime horror screenwriter Stephen Susco takes over scripting and directing duties on Dark Web, and his ability to balance narrative and presentation in ways that never once become disorienting is astounding. Unlike its predecessor, Dark Web deals with worldly forces rather than supernatural ones and, as such, the horror takes on a greater urgency that pairs well with Susco’s breathless pace. Dark Web never stops moving, the once-blank screen slowly transforming into a never-ending assault of chat windows, notifications, and apps that reflect the ultra-modern sensation that we’re drowning in 0s and 1s. There’s an irresistible momentum to Dark Web that thrives on the terrifying knowledge that unplugging will not save you; the garbled, pixelated figures that soon start appearing on webcams are symbols of the web’s horrors made manifest.
Woodell sells his character’s spiral into darkness with aplomb, the blood vessels in his eyes seeming to burst mid-scene, though both he and his online pals never quite transcend their stock archetypes. That’s not the problem with Dark Web, though. Like Vigalondo’s Open Windows, Susco’s film is maybe a little too in awe of the unseen internet cabal, granting them an omniscience that becomes both frustrating and dispiriting as the film veers into its third act. More than its predecessor, Dark Web indulges in a bleakness that punctures the heretofore airtight narrative. The bigger the story gets, the more momentum it loses; Susco’s feature ends with the digital equivalent of a whimper.
It is impressive, though, the way the movie works to incorporate new online phenomenons, from Bitcoin to swatting. The latter bit, especially, resonates as one of the film’s most unsettling elements, if only because it feels so depressingly possible. Truly, it’s surprising just how soul-crushing Dark Web becomes after luring us in with so many intriguing mysteries, but hey. This is the internet we’re talking about.