You don’t have to try very hard to be afraid of the internet these days. From the constant stream of online harassment to history-altering foreign interference in democratic elections, it’s obvious that the internet, for all its benefits, is often used as a tool of manipulation and destruction. Hell, there’s a reason the FBI director warned people to cover their webcams. With 2014’s Unfriended, Blumhouse and director Levan Gabriadze channeled internet phobia into a silly but entertaining horror-thriller that tackled digital bullying with a paranormal slant, told entirely from the vantage point of a laptop screen.
For the new anthology style sequel Unfriended: Dark Web, which shares nothing more than a title and format with the original, director Steven Sucso abandons all pretense of juvenile silliness in favor of a brutal and bleak trip to the shady recesses of the dark web, where a group of college-aged friends finds themselves the subject of some seriously twisted streaming entertainment. The film follows the surprisingly likable gang, who keep in touch via Skype for their regular game night, a tradition that sees them paling around from across the world, though most of them still live close enough to create some third-act tension as they try to save each other’s lives.
We meet them through Matias (Colin Woodell), who boots up his shiny new (read: stolen) laptop and thus we enter the world of Dark Web with the oh-so-familiar Apple “bwom”. A few crowd-pleasing password attempts later, Matias is in, and we quickly learn a few things about him. For one, obviously, he’s a thief, so he’s not all that honest. He’s also pretty smart, having created a an ASL translation software and he’s madly in love with his girlfriend Amaya (Stephanie Nogueras), a hearing-impaired young woman who struggles with their difficulty communicating — she can understand him, but he can’t understand her. And despite his obvious affections (he immediately boots up a playlist devoted to her), he’s not willing to make the effort to learn ASL himself. He tries to do something sweet, misses the point, and they have quite a row. That’s when it’s time for Game Night to begin, and we watch as Matias anxiously switches between windows and chat boxes, trying to get Amaya to talk with him while also participating in the fun.
“Screenlife”, which is the the name for the burgeoning subgenre of films told through device screens, is getting more popular by the year and Sucso takes to the format like seasoned pro, expertly building tension through overlapping video chats and the all-too-relatable anxiety of that disappeared triple-dot texting bubble. In this day and age, we all speak the language of technology and each new Screenlife film further expands the on-screen dictionary.
It’s not long before Matias uncovers a barely hidden file on his laptop drive, and therein discovers a window into a dangerous part of the dark web, along with a folder full of chilling video files — a man stalks into a teenage girl’s window while she sleeps, a young woman with a chain around her neck lunges forward at a can of food that’s just out of her reach. Just like that, he and his friends are in the shit, caught up in an underground ring of killers who trade millions in bitcoin and teach you the meaning of “Trephination” (it means drilling a hole in someone’s head — saved you a disturbing google).
Once the real game is afoot, Sucso uses his tension-building skills to impressive effect. We only ever see the action from the perspective of Matias’ screen, but the tension never lags because Sucso knows how to make sure each keystroke, click of the mouse and chatroom ding carries emotional intent behind it. The film’s worst technical quality is the insistence on blurring out the bad guys every time they pop up on screen — a stylistic holdover from the first film that doesn’t work without the supernatural presence. Whenever the screen gets garbled, you’re immediately pulled out of the film, not just because it’s loud and distracting but because it makes no sense. On the flip side, the film’s soundscape is a real trick of editing, seamlessly drawing your attention to keep you in Matias’ head from moment-to-moment, helping the audience transition between scenes and set-pieces without the benefit of traditional camerawork.
But If Dark Web is a technical accomplishment and gripping experience, it is also far too cruel and mean-spirited to be half as fun as the original. When it comes down to it, you’re pretty much watching a 90-minute snuff film, and if you’re into that kind of horror movie, great! Unfriended will probably be a lot of fun for you. Otherwise, woof, strap in because this is a dark movie and sometimes it’s genuinely upsetting. Particularly in the third act; a meat-grinder of misery that swallows each character ands spits them out in pieces.