Review – Unfriended: Dark Web

The original Unfriended was released over three years ago, in April of 2015, and instantly stood out as one of the more thoughtful – and thought-provoking – horror films in recent years.  A cautionary tale against cyber-bullying, the movie worked on multiple levels and had the added novelty of being presented exclusively through the perspective of various computer screens – another metaphor for recent times.  Though not the first film to use it, that aesthetic approach, along with a cast full of young unknowns, worked well.  With a budget of only $1,000,000, that original film ended up earning more than 65 times that amount at the worldwide box office.  A sequel was inevitable.

That sequel is here, in the form of Unfriended: Dark Web.  The movie made a few minor box office headlines over the weekend, being labeled as an underperformer.  That’s really not true, though, as this film also carries a $1,000,000 budget and, as of this writing, has grossed over $4,000,000 – plenty to both earn a profit and to be considered a success, even if its final financial tally doesn’t approach the box office returns of its predecessor.

Dark Web invokes the same gimmick as the original film, using nothing outside of the laptop screen of Colin Woodell’s Matias, who has just come into possession of said laptop, as the conduit for communicating this story to the audience. During an online game night with his friends, Matias begins to receive mysterious messages from someone claiming to be the laptop’s previous owner. As the sender of the messages becomes increasingly antagonistic in their demands for the computer to be returned to them, Matias finds himself in a situation that is quickly spiraling out of control – and, to make matters worse, he has dragged his friends into the middle of it all.

The creative choice to use a laptop display as the lone source of information for the viewer was a great idea in the original film and it’s a great idea, here, as well. It’s a unique device that no other mainstream films are using, thereby granting the Unfriended series its own identity. Viewers who aren’t especially computer-savvy might have a hard time following certain sequences – and even those who are will need to pay close attention and not allow their focus to wander, as the (literal) on-screen action often moves quickly – but it’s a fresh way to tell a tale and the potential for this aesthetic as a storytelling device is unlimited. Additionally, it provides an extra layer of realism, which is always appreciated in a horror film.

Speaking of realism, there’s plenty of it to be found in Dark Web. Once again, the film is populated by another young cast of mostly unknown actors (though you’ll likely recognize Betty Gabriel from her memorable and scene-stealing turn in Get Out). The majority of viewers won’t acknowledge them for it, but the entire cast turns in authentic and believable performances, even when they’re required to be more casual or complex. There’s potential for each of them if they stick with it and find the right roles as their visibility widens.

That isn’t the only way in which Dark Web embraces a more realistic approach, as this follow-up eschews the supernatural elements of the first film and takes the slasher approach to scares. But, even more than that, this movie is primarily scary because it genuinely feels as if it could happen. We’ve all heard of the (lazily-christened) dark web and that it isn’t exactly full of the most reputable sorts of folks. Falling on the wrong side of the wrong person from the dark web could conceivably lead to a scenario similar to the one presented in this film. Sure, it wouldn’t play out as quickly but the threat and the innate fear of such a thing is there inside each of us and the film plays nicely off of that.

The script is mostly excellent, with natural, organic dialogue and a brisk pace that hits the ground running and never slows down. Director-writer Stephen Susco gives the audience a five- or ten-minute grace period to get adjusted to the format of the film’s presentation as well as the speed of the events. After that, you’re either with them until the end or you aren’t. I was. In fact, I found Dark Web to be as irresistibly gripping as any film I’ve seen this year. The characters all miraculously manage to attain some level of history and development so that the viewer is invested in each of them, and Susco never panders by making any of them unlikable so that the viewer wants them to die. I was firmly Team Protagonists, here, and I was rooting for every single one of them to make it through the night alive and relatively unscathed. That’s really how horror movies are supposed to work, so Susco should get a lot of credit for pulling that off so effortlessly.

There is also an engaging element of mystery to the film as our group of heroes (or victims? I’m not saying.) works together to get to the bottom of what’s going on with this laptop and the messages that Matias is receiving. The mystery is the muscle behind the first half of the movie until the horror takes over for the last half. Both components are excellently executed – and Susco has the confidence to avoid using graphic gore as a crutch, as well.

Right up until the end, I had nothing but great thing to say about the film. Unfortunately, there’s a last-minute reveal that is not only unnecessary but also rather difficult to buy into. I can’t elaborate on the latter without spoilers, so I’ll leave that alone, but even without the reveal, the movie was clicking along beautifully. In fact, it was a step away from brilliance. The reveal keeps the film from quite reaching that level, as the narrative then becomes too much of a reach to accept without question. It’s not impossible to believe; but it’s immensely prohibitive. It’s a twist for the sake of having a twist and the film would have been much better off without it.

But even with that blunder, Unfriended: Dark Web is a fast-paced, riveting, immersive horror mystery that takes hold of the modern dangers of Internet culture and brings them to the forefront of our attention. Whereas the first film warned us of cyberbullying, this one cautions us about the more overt and malicious dangers lurking in the corners of our very own personal devices. Throw in a batch of solid performances, a sharp and unpredictable script, and the kind of scares that stay with you as you go about your normal daily business, and Unfriended: Dark Web is an easy winner.

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