Saturday, July 21, 2018


If Unfriended: Dark Web isn't as entertaining as its predecessor, it's only because this is a horror movie with nihilism running deeper, and sadism more real. The horror this time sinks in not from cute teens murdered by an unseen paranormal force, but only from the recognition of the trade off we've made for our modern life: easier modes of connections and communication on the surface, with a deep river of darkness flowing and burbling beneath. The original managed both as one of the cleverest, most compelling, and allegorically forceful scary movies of the last several years. Told entirely from the perspective of a girl's laptop screen, with layers of windows for exposition and a chorus of Skype windows filling out the ensemble, it was a movie about a vengeful cyber-ghost haunting a group chat. Through its form and function, it was cleanly and nerve-janglingly about the vulnerability of our social media lives, about the ability to behave in increasingly dehumanizing ways toward one another. Technology, as we have seen, empowers mobs and bullies to goad each other on, and the internet never forgets. This sequel, written and directed by longtime horror screenwriter Stephen Susco, keeps the central visual conceit -- right down to using fuzzy pixelation and frozen video connections as suspense, although it's used sparingly here -- but strips away the supernatural. Here tension is maintained entirely from our throughly hackable lives. Very little, practically speaking, is impossible here. Sure, by the end it is preposterous amped up horror hyperbole, but the fact an undetectable hacker can be in your webcam as you read these words is plenty scary on its own. The most chilling sequence is a swatting that plays out exactly as it could, and has. It's not as enjoyable -- the film is thinner and more obvious in its mechanizations -- but it has the jumps you'd expect.

This sequel finds a group of international twenty-somethings on their regular game night Skype session. Cards Against Humanity is the thematically apropos choice for the evening. Unfortunately, our viewpoint computer has recently been lifted from a cyber cafe's lost and found box by Matias (Colin Woodell). This means that while he's chatting with his pals, and desperately trying to Facebook message his girlfriend in order to make up after their opening scene argument (fine use is made of the appearing and disappearing ellipses that are effectively her only response for some time), they're being watched. He doesn't know that at first, but as he pokes around his newly acquired used laptop, he discovers a treasure trove of snuff films and a portal to the Dark Web. Soon enough, the criminals whose lost computer he found start insinuating themselves into the chat. Stay connected. Don't call the cops. Return the computer and no one gets hurt. Of course, the cast tries desperately to wriggle their way out of the predicament, but the cold, unblinking logic of technologically abetted evil and the unwavering perspective of a desktop slowly crowded with windows of various nefarious intent does not bode well. It's gripping and scary, if not as cleverly crescendoed, visually dense, or fully engaged in character building and allegorical expression as the great original. But what it lacks in fun and novelty, it gains in similar bone-deep recognition. Here's a movie about the inherent instability, exposure, and danger from which we're all one wrong click away. Are we likely to be targeted by a powerful hacker collective willing to blackmail and kill to protect their contraband videos? Probably not, but the image of stumbling into the Dark Web is as plausible as the dark forests and dim alleyways that have long been the slasher genre's stock in trade. It's no fun to be reminded how dangerous the internet can be, but as an exercise in modern resonance and horror style it's certainly effective right up until it grows too obvious and peters out. 

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