The first Unfriended got a bad rap. Those only familiar with the film’s uninspired marketing campaign may be surprised to hear the 2014 film is much more incisive and sinister than its reputation suggests. The story centered on a group of self-absorbed, mean-spirited teens haunted by the malevolent spirit of a classmate who committed suicide, and most notably, the film was told entirely through a Skype video chat. Sure, the computer screen visuals seemed like a gimmick at the time (although not unprecedented), but director Levan Gabriadze used it to startling effect — incorporating screen glitches, blank avatars, typing message bubbles and instilling them with menace. It was an unexpectedly avant-garde work of mainstream horror and a vicious commentary on high school bullying.
Thanks to Blumhouse’s low-budget ethos, the film was a financial success and now we’re being treated to its standalone follow-up Unfriended: Dark Web. While it’s overall an effective and concise horror-thriller, Dark Web forgoes the original’s insight and visual ingenuity in favor of a higher concept that borders on the inane.
After Matias (Colin Woodell) takes a laptop from the lost and found at his work, he quickly realizes during a video chat with his friends that the previous owner has been involved in some truly nefarious dealings: creating and distributing snuff films on the dark web. The five teens are initially incredulous, then set on calling the police and eventually terrified for their own safety. Without giving anything away, the people involved in the dark web have been keeping a close eye on their missing laptop and are willing to go great lengths to get it back. It’s in this first act where Dark Web unspools its tension most effectively, as Matias and the others discover how powerful a monster they’ve awakened.
This being a case of diminishing returns is pretty apparent from the outset, as Matias and his friends are simply lacking in any authentic character traits. Matias is in love with his girlfriend and consistently whiny, and he comes off as grating rather than endearing. Each of the other friends can be accurately described in a single phrase: techie guy, conspiracy theorist dude, musically inclined girl, etc. Granted, the first Unfriended wasn’t a masterclass in character building, but it was making an astute observation about the cruelty of its characters, and here they mostly feel generic. Thus, when they start getting picked off, it feels more in line with your standard slasher.
Props to writer and first-time director Stephen Susco for grounding this film’s terror in an entirely new threat not without real-world parallels. It’s an intriguing horror premise, and Dark Web isn’t afraid to explore many of its outright revolting aspects (even if it’s cribbed from 2013’s The Den). Further, I must admit the visual conceit of these films taking place entirely on a computer screen just works for me. Having the story unfold in real time as we watch the main character exit in and out of browsers and pull up new programs creates a voyeuristic sensation that’s oddly compelling.
It’s in the second and third acts where things start to go off the rails, although it’s never less than engaging. Ironically enough, despite the absence of anything supernatural, the dark web villains of the sequel come off as far more ludicrous than an actual computer ghost. Once these anonymous hackers strike, there is seemingly little of which they’re incapable. From taking control of a major city’s subway system to manipulating a SWAT task force, these black-market hackers are apparently the most powerful people in the world, and once the stakes grow so ridiculously high, their presence is rendered silly when it should be foreboding.
Despite the sequel’s quality drop off from stellar to solid, this is a franchise I hope sticks around, as there’s plenty of thematic potential to explore in this concept, and frankly, I’m kind of a sucker for its bleak-as-hell vibes. Like these characters who can’t help but watch those snuff films, it’s hard not to find some pleasure in a feel-bad movie like Unfriended: Dark Web even when it takes itself a tad too seriously.