Cinematic universes are all the rage these days, despite the fact that Marvel is the only studio that has truly cracked how to successfully translate the daunting challenges of such long-term pop storytelling into box-office billions (and modest critical acclaim). The impulse has even filtered down into sub-blockbuster genres like horror, as exemplified by New Line Cinema’s dubious Conjuring series, which now comprises four feature films and counting. It’s easy to see how the built-in audience of a sprawling franchise – more expansive and carefully integrated than the iterative Fridays and Nightmares of the past – might appeal to a horror studio. The genre tends to be a low-risk, high-return endeavor, where even a critical dud can turn a profit in its first weekend thanks to compulsive genre enthusiasts and adolescent multiplex patrons.
All due credit to Blumhouse Productions, then: Given the ripe opportunity to launch yet another unwanted series alongside its Insidious, The Purge, and Paranormal Activity franchises, the horror studio opted for something much more intriguing than a mere “shared universe” with its sequel to 2014’s surprisingly effective Unfriended. The new film, rather vacantly titled Unfriended: Dark Web, isn’t a narrative sequel at all, but rather a repurposing of the first feature’s irresistible formal conceit. A standalone story that – like its predecessor – unfolds almost entirely on a single MacBook laptop screen, Dark Web isn’t even in the same subgenre as the 2014 film. Where Unfriended was a vengeful ghost story with a digital angle, the sequel is a paranoid techno-thriller with gaudy horror highlights.
The film’s literal point-of-view character is Matias (Colin Woodell), an aspiring twentysomething programmer who has just “acquired” a new laptop. (It’s shortly revealed that he didn’t purchase the computer on Craigslist, as he initially claims, but stole it from the lost-and-found at a local coffee shop; that plot point becomes, shall we say, significant.) Matias has a standing date to play Cards Against Humanity via Skype with his pals Serena (Rebecca Rittenhouse), Nari (Betty Gabriel), Damon (Andrew Lees), Lexx (Savira Windyani), and AJ (Connor Del Rio), and tonight, as it happens, is game night. However, Matias is distracted from the group’s usual filthy-minded tomfoolery by his recently rocky relationship with girlfriend Amaya (Stephanie Nogueras). She is deaf and Matias is not, and that difference is beginning to create friction. Matias is writing an app to facilitate video chats between the two of them, but the problems are deeper, manifested in his unwillingness to put more than a cursory effort into learning American Sign Language (ASL).
This skin-deep relationship angst is the most substantial characterization afforded to the film’s cast by Stephen Susco – best known for penning the American remakes of The Grudge (2004) and its sequel (2006), and here making his directorial debut in place of Unfriended helmer Levan Gabriadze. Like most horror-film victims, Matias’ buddies are only afforded one or two characteristics apiece. AJ is an exhausting conspiracy-monger; Damon is a tech guru of some sort; Lexx is an electronic-music DJ; and Serena and Nari are a lesbian couple, the former worried about her cancer-afflicted mother and the latter struggling with how to come out to her homophobic family. These are not what one would call well-rounded characters, but since – surprise! – they’re all going to die over the course of the film’s blessedly lean 88-minute running time, complexity isn’t really a necessity.
Besides his relationship troubles, Matias is also preoccupied by his new laptop, which exhibits numerous strange features. The computer’s enigmatic owner (identified only as “Norah C. IV”) is still logged into their various accounts. These include a Facebook profile that is bombarded with messages from strange women, all of whom the mystery owner seems to have been enticing or manipulating. As his friends natter on via Skype and his messages with Amaya become more and more fraught, Matias soon discovers that the laptop’s hard drive is filled with hidden video files and some sort of dark web application. The videos appear to be random security and web-camera footage, most of it banal in nature. However, a conspicuous subfolder labeled “Contributions” contains disturbing clips of young women being confined, tortured, and murdered. It’s roughly at this point that the laptop’s owner begins sending Matias threatening messages, demanding the computer’s return in exchange for Amaya’s continuing physical safety. The catch is that Matias and his still-oblivious friends are forbidden to disconnect from the Skype call or contact the police; to make the consequences clear, a digitally scrambled figure kills Amaya’s roommate (Chelsea Alden) while Matias watches.
The minute-to-minute details of the film’s increasingly ludicrous, Saw-indebted plot are significantly more complex than the above summary conveys, but the underlying premise is fairly straightforward. Namely: Matias has stumbled onto a dark web network for the purchase and exchange of made-to-order snuff films, and the members of this perverse file-sharing group are murderously determined to quash his discovery. As in the original Unfriended, this story plays out in real time on a MacBook screen, with the attendant flurry of instant messages, video chats, Spotify playlists, Web searches, incoming emails, and other desktop bric-a-brac.
Like Gabriadze before him, director Susco exhibits a flair for this high-concept formal framework, imbuing his story with plenty of momentum, dread, and unexpectedly intense nervous energy. The shift from status-obsessed high-school students to more relaxed and self-assured – though no less dim-witted – young adults instills Dark Web with greater mortal urgency compared to its predecessor. This is the case even though the new film’s tale of omnipotent, bloodthirsty hackers-cum-killers is about as realistic as the first feature’s vindictive digital ghost. Like the all-powerful Consumer Recreation Services in David Fincher’s The Game (1997), the anonymous malefactors who are tormenting Matias and his friends seem to be capable of limitless acts of digital and real-world terrorism, co-opting any electronic device in moments and sending throngs of hoodie-clad minions out to do their bidding. (Conveniently, Matias and most of his friends live in the same West Coast city, although it turns out that even the London-based Damon isn’t beyond the villains’ reach.)
Admittedly, some of the original film’s thematic potency, which was almost Biblical in flavor, has been lost in this outing. Dark Web exchanges raw anxieties about intimate, personal privacy – the terror that “every secret thing” will come to light, our shames live-streamed to the world – for a more generalized digital-era paranoia. Susco mines the suspicion that all online activity, whether momentous or drearily mundane, is available for inspection by sufficiently skilled and determined evildoers. Of course, the Internet of Things ensures that that there are no truly offline activities anymore, a troubling paradigm shift that Dark Web exploits by suggesting that nothing is beyond the reach of its shadowy, murder-addicted techo-criminals. Real life has almost caught up with the absurdities featured in The Net (1995), such that when Matias disbelievingly asks whether the hackers could remotely monkeywrench the city’s subway system, the question hangs in the air, gravid with dread plausibility.
Ultimately, Dark Web doesn’t offer much beyond its recycled yet still-compelling formal hook and the nimble execution thereof. The characters are predictably thin and the dialogue often flat-footed, draining the film’s most elaborate set pieces – such as a strangely lopsided Sophie’s choice that is forced on Serena – of any real pathos. Still, one doesn’t settle into a Blumhouse feature expecting profound emotional resonance, or much of anything beyond a reliable fright-delivery system. Like its predecessor, however, Dark Web sets itself apart from most of the studio’s features by emphasizing a pall of encroaching doom rather than jump-scares. Much of the anguish in Susco’s feature is about waiting helplessly as a lethal vice ratchets closed. For all their technical ingenuity and relative innocence, it’s painfully clear that Matias and his friends will be devoured by their tormentors’ malicious resolve. And all because Matias stole a laptop. (In this, the film echoes some of the blackly comic nihilism of Sam Raimi’s horror features.)
Moreover, unlike the aforementioned Saw films and other franchises that highlight the sadistic puppetmaster’s glee – making the viewer unpleasantly complicit in that bloodthirsty delight – Dark Web identifies foremost with the terror of its pitiable victims. Their feelings of impotence against a depraved, technologically savvy horde are keenly felt. This is most apparent in the film’s climax, where the network’s nameless snuff-film enthusiasts take an insta-poll to determine whether Dark Web’s final victim lives or dies. It’s not the result that elicits horror but the number of votes, which steadily roll upward into the hundreds, and then the thousands. In an era when the most nakedly cruel and bigoted Tweets reap tens of thousands of Likes, that sense of being woefully outnumbered by an ascendent community of moral monsters is unfortunately on point.