Unfriended: Dark Web
Directed by: Stephen Susco
Written by: Stephen Susco
Starring: Colin Woodell, Rebecca Rittenhouse, Betty Gabriel and Andrew Lees
Note: Unfriended: Dark Web has two possible endings. This is a review of ‘Ending B,’ with limited spoilers.
I consider Leo Gabriadze’s Unfriended one of the defining horror films of this decade, a ruthless slasher that unfolds entirely on the laptop screen of its protagonist, a high school-aged woman named Blair. What could so easily have been a gimmick opens up an expansive realm of digital storytelling tools, focusing on character development and psychology through what Blair types, deletes and rewrites, watches on YouTube and searches for on the internet. This is further deepened by what she reveals in real time in a video chat with five other friends (one of whom is her boyfriend) and what she says in one-on-one typed conversations with others.
While all of this is going on, a mysterious newcomer pops into their chat with just a default blue Skype silhouette instead of a video stream. The group’s attempts to kick this person out and figure out what they want yields to a series of sinister and even deadly games that weaponizes each teen’s most guarded secrets against them and lays bare their most embarrassing mistakes in an effort to make them turn on each other. The movie taps into a true horror of the digital age: the endless documentation and permanence of nearly every facet of a person’s life.
Unfriended didn’t leave much room for a traditional sequel (a nice way of saying pretty much everyone dies), and Dark Web thankfully isn’t one. Writer/director Stephen Susco takes the storytelling format and transposes it over a different, albeit still horrifying, new backdrop. As its title suggests, the movie focuses on the seedy underbelly of the internet, a hidden black market where users can buy things like drugs and stolen merchandise or, as Dark Web’s group of far-flung friends learns the hard way, more depraved things, like custom murder videos.
The owner of the laptop where Dark Web unfolds is a hired gun commissioned to make those videos for a secretive, tech-savvy group of sickos who call themselves “Charon.” (Each member of the group has a different number at the end of their name). However, when the movie starts, it’s in the possession of Matias (Colin Woodell), a young man who took it from his work’s ‘Lost & Found’ area after it supposedly sat there for several weeks unclaimed. During a virtual game of Cards Against Humanity with his friends on Skype, they notice how much clearer he looks on his webcam than he did on his old computer, and he lies and says he got this new one on Craigslist.
Dark Web doesn’t focus on unraveling the rest of the group’s secrets as in the original, but rather on the culmination of Matias’ lies and their vastly over-sized consequences for both him and everyone he comes in contact with. When the laptop’s owner messages him and starts issuing increasingly more intense threats toward his girlfriend and his friends, Matias is forced to turn their game night into a desperate bid for survival.
Using the Charon group as villains allows Dark Web to maintain the ominous, undefined reach that made the original’s vengeful ghost so horrifyingly effective while also expanding the storytelling elements on screen. The group has some amount of control not only over what we see on screen but sometimes what the on-screen characters are able to see, say or type to each other. In one particularly astounding sequence, Susco uses the different windows on the laptop as a split screen (as both movies often do) to show a murder on a subway platform; surveillance video shows one character pushed in front of the approaching train while showing another character’s confused reaction while video chatting on board.
Combining these different types of video aesthetics- group Skypes, glitchy cellphone video, grainy security camera footage- on the same screen creates a web of immediacy that lends the Unfriended films a unique power. Even when Dark Web (and the first movie, for that matter) stumble over clumsy or thin characterization, the overwhelming amount of visual information present on the screen at any given time and the real-time examination of the inner life of the person using the computer is beautifully, terrifyingly effective.
There are times when this movie, even more so than in the 2015 film, hits a sadistic streak that some may find hard to shake, especially given its brutally efficient narrative economy. However, Susco often knows when to cut away, as he does with the homemade murder videos on a hidden folder in the laptop, to make things even more disturbing. The files are, in a way, more standard found footage horror films that Unfriended seemed to spawn from. Those videos are saved on the laptop to mix in with the rest of Dark Web‘s digital collage, another piece of its real-time horror show.