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SXSW Review: Unfriended: Dark Web

The “shared universe” model of franchise-building has taken on new life in recent years, in large part thanks to Paramount and Bad Robot’s reconstruction of the Cloverfield universe as an anthology of narrowly focused genre pics. 10 Cloverfield Lane was the first to realize this concept, branching off from the first film’s found-footage disaster thriller to execute a gripping, claustrophobic psychological thriller; the more recent entry, The Cloverfield Paradox, was less successful in cinematic terms but nonetheless added another wrinkle to this studio microcosm, weaving parallel dimensions into a space-set horror-drama.

To a degree, the quality of these films is less significant than what they represent to studios eager to release low-budget, potentially high-gain genre fare: a still-developing proof-of-concept signaling that audiences will flock to weird little genre experiments, especially when they’re marketed under a recognizable brand.

It’s into this newly highlighted corner of mainstream cinema that Blumhouse is ushering Unfriended: Dark Web, screened at SXSW this past week under the eye-rolling title Untitled Blumhouse-Bazelevs Film.

Like the Cloverfield films, this Unfriended follow-up is essentially a sequel in presentation alone; it maintains the original’s unique format in which events are recounted solely through a computer screen but eschews the first film’s supernatural bent in favor of something much different – and, surprisingly, darker.

In Dark Web (once subtitled Game Night and altered once that became the title of a big-studio action-comedy), a young guy by the name of Matias (Colin Woodell) boots up a new laptop in order to connect to his geographically spread-out group of friends, as well as his girlfriend. As they all participate in their regularly scheduled game night, Matias begins to receive messages intended for the laptop’s previous owner, and it becomes clear that he did not come into possession of said laptop through any morally sound means.

Barraged with communications, he eventually engages with a number of individuals via Facebook, only to be led down a progressively dark rabbit hole by the name of Dark Web access point “The River,” an eerie computer simulation that appears to take over his monitor and deliver him to a virtual meeting room of “Charons.”

That’s “the ferryman of the dead,” his computer-whiz friend Damon (Andrew Lees) remarks helpfully, via webchat from London. Just-engaged Nari and Serena (Get Out’s Betty Gabriel and Rebecca Rittenhouse) want out; geeky AJ (Connor Del Rio) is intrigued if unconvinced that Matias is actually telling the truth. And Lexx (Savira Windyani), a DJ, expresses a little interest while fidgeting with her controls in one corner of the Skype chat.

It turns out these shadowy web presences are up to much more than simply transporting the deceased to the afterlife; they’re commissioning all number of horrifying snuff films and watching lecherously as a mysterious emissary (the owner of said laptop) carries them out. Matias and his friends, with curiosity that soon creeps into horror, watch the videos, housed on his stolen laptop; in them, girls are brutally murdered in a variety of unsettling ways that recall the Sinister series’ home videos: with corrosive acid, by a blunt object, of thirst, and so on.

Embodying the kind of hare-brained gallantry specific to white guys in horror movies (unsurprisingly, given that his email is, sigh, mattyfastwheelz@gmail.com), Matias decides to get involved in stopping the crimes of this unknown adversary. In an impressive stroke of idiocy, he nicks a massive amount of Bitcoin from their account and pressures them to return a young girl kidnapped to be featured in the next video. Because these are the people you want to threaten, clearly. Such tactics don’t go all that well for him and his friends, dragged into this mess through little fault of their own.

Unlike the first Unfriended, in which a vengeful spirit haunted the hell out of the high school peers in part responsible for her death, Dark Web draws its central grotesquerie from the back-channel evils lurking on Internet message boards and in virtual black markets similar to the infamous Silk Road. Segueing away from digital ghosts in favor of something more rooted (if a tad ridiculously) in the real world gives Dark Web the feeling of existing tangentially to Unfriended rather than alongside it. It’s a clever tactic, giving Blumhouse a promising little horror-anthology sandbox of its own (honestly, given the studio’s reputation for putting out micro-budgeted mega-grossers, it’s surprising is that Bad Robot beat them to the punch with this approach) without requiring each films’ directors to be beholden to the rules set in place by their predecessors.

Taking the reins this time, Stephen Susco (helming his first feature after writing flicks like The Grudge) mostly commits to the restrictions of digital platforms and draws some suspense from the characters’ ability to look up anything in real time – then quickly be sorry they did (Ever heard of “trephination”? If not, consider yourself lucky). There’s a sick kick to watching these characters, all well-meaning but ultimately clueless teens who feel a little too empowered by their millennial-trademark web savvy, realize much too late how in over their heads they really are. A warning: Dark Web is a much more sinister and dispiriting affair than the first Unfriended, and the terror in its narrative is of the tremendously disturbing, just-real-enough-you-can’t-shake-it variety. Susco consistently surprises in just how cruelly and violently he treats these characters, who’ve done little to deserve the retina-searingly horrific fates that befall them; his main objective seems to be to make you to not just put that sticky-note in front of your MacBook camera but smash the damn thing on the sidewalk and retreat into the wilderness.

Selling it are a cadre of solid performances from the actors, largely unknowns who take clichéd characters and give them some semblance of inner life. While Matias is a bit of a wastoid, especially when it comes to developments involving his deaf girlfriend (Stephanie Nogueras) later in the film, Woodell lets his bulging bright eyes do most of the work and successfully constructs a scared-out-of-his mind proxy for the audience. Gabriel and Rittenhouse, meanwhile, have the most sympathetic, though underwritten, characters in the film and find depth in them both. It’s worth noting that Dark Web, in a nonchalant manner that many viewers won’t even catch (which is, in this writer’s opinion, a great thing), offers up a fairly diverse cast, organically introducing a friend group that includes people of color, a queer couple, and a disabled character without ever drawing attention to their assorted identities.

As Dark Web barrels along toward its deeply, deeply nasty conclusion, racking up a few creative kills along the way, it does let out a little bit of steam, and a few of the tech-based obstacles the characters encounter (that the screen distorts whenever the twisted original owner of the laptop shows up, for example) are so overplayed as to lose their initial appeal. Once it becomes clear where the movie is headed, the film also likely lose a fair number of viewers who can’t buy into some of the admittedly ludicrous ideas underpinning its premise.

One hopes that future entries will steer the franchise elsewhere and not feel obligated to check back in with the specific virtual villains of Dark Web; their presentation is a tad too similar to the evil lurking in a great, underrated horror pic called The Den that came out a few years ago, only to end up buried on Netflix. Like that film, paced more frantically but more conventionally, speaking in terms of found-footage, Dark Web doesn’t favor the chances of those who fail to watch carefully where they tread – or, ahem, click.

Overall, though, it’s exciting to see Unfriended emerge with Dark Web and introduce itself as a new horror-verse devoted to exposing every twisted corner of our relationships with modern tech, and highlighting the ways in which we’ve rendered ourselves not just vulnerable on digital platforms but prey to those using them as hunting grounds. Think of it as Black Mirror by way of an ‘80s slasher flick, a combination that – two solid entries in – holds tangible, terrifying potential for something truly cutting-edge down the line.

6/10

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