“Unfriended: Dark Web”, that is equal parts silly, terrifying and revolting

Pity the soul who decides to illegally torrent a copy of Unfriended: Dark Web. This hypothetical horror-movie fan may think they’re engaging in a thrifty act of corporate subterfuge. “To hell with the Hollywood studios making me pay for my entertainment!”. I imagine they cackle while clicking “download” − but soon they’ll be in for a cruel surprise. Nasty in its narrative and nifty in its aesthetic. Stephen Susco’s new film is a solid argument against doing anything remotely illicit online.

Unfriended: Dark Web attempts a more realistic approach, excising the supernatural and replacing it with a super hacker. That able to listen in on any conversation, expunge chat records and manipulate reality as he sees fit. Dark Web opens with Matias, or MattyFastWheelz (Matias O’Brien), trying to guess the password on the new laptop he filched from a coffee shop Lost & Found (he tells his friends he got it from Craigslist).

His attempts—”hanshotfirst,” “covfefe,” “feelthebern”—are of the moment, yet already dated. Which is probably inevitable with a movie as relentlessly topical as Unfriended: Dark Web. Combining cryptocurrencies, Minecraft, ARGs and Cards Against Humanity (boy, you thought it was annoying playing it with your friends…). Dark Web is already one hell of a strange time capsule.

After too much character work—MattyFastWheelz is really screwing up his relationship with Amaya (Stephanie Nogueras), inventing stupid tech shortcuts instead of just learning American Sign Language to communicate with her. Dark Web finally revs up when Matias and his friends discover the secret folder of videos clogging his terabyte hard drive.

The contents, organized by the victim’s home address. They are genuinely unnerving, either depicting the lead-up to an abduction, with a hooded figure stalking around a sleeping home. Or various forms of suffering: women chained, squeezed into barrels, surgically assaulted. They’ve stumbled upon a dark web marketplace for kidnap, torture and murder.

Even worse than the laptop’s real owner, who threatens Amaya and Matias’ friends on Skype chat, are the clients. Who soon reach out to Matias with specialized, sicko requests.

Hint: the word ‘trepanation’ gets a fair amount of play. In search of a way out, Matias plunges deeper, opening an encrypted, dark web chat program called “The River.” This is where Unfriended: Dark Web goes beyond the high concept. That of its predecessor and explodes outward into the kind of fractal inventiveness we expect from the internet.

“The River” consumes Matias’ desktop, replacing his wallpaper with an 8-bit dungeon canal, lit by torchlight, a cross between Minecraft and the Greek underworld. It is the perfect encapsulation of Dark Web at its very best, where technological plausibility (It doesn’t feel realistic, exactly. But the script cannily deploys exactly the right dosage of technobabble) meets occult immensity. The sensation that Matias and his friends have crossed over into a realm outside of normal reality.

The subsequent mayhem finds a variety of web-savvy ways to kill off this year’s crop of young people. But never quite lives up to the chilling dimensions of the conspiracy’s initial unveiling. The elaborate deaths involve Rube Goldberg-esque contrivances, which often had me laughing aloud at their scale and audacity. But never manage to scare. Despite a distinctly horror build, Unfriended: Dark Web reveals itself to be more of a pulpy techno-thriller. Which becomes particularly deflating when characters start dying bloodless or offscreen deaths. While the first Unfriended wasn’t exactly aimed at horror gorehounds, Dark Web looks disappointingly chaste by comparison.

Despite the way it shrinks away from horror, and despite characters whose individual plights would be just as boring to describe as they are to watch. Dark Web is just weird and ingenious enough to recommend. So keep that desktop cluttered and that keyboard bloody, the screen movie has proven itself worth the computation time once again.

Like its predecessor, Leo Gabriadze’s 2014′s surprise hit Unfriended, the action in Dark Web takes place entirely on the computer screen of its main character. That with Skype chats, Facebook posts and YouTube clips propelling the narrative.

Unlike the first film’s ghost story, though, Susco’s movie (sorta) swaps the supernatural for the (sorta) real-life perversity of the internet itself.

Here, a group of very annoying twentysomethings gather via video chat for a harmless online game night. Until lead idiot Matias (Colin Woodell) discovers a hidden trove of literal torture porn on his ill-gained laptop. Cue terrible things happening to insufferable people at the hands of a shadowy cabal. Plus wistful memories of this past spring’s delightful Rachel McAdams comedy, Game Night.

The visual trickery of Unfriended: Dark Web (and recent action-via-screen films such as the coming John Cho drama Searching) can feel exhausting. But Susco uses the in-frame gimmick to jerk the tension just right. The pure ridiculousness of the conceit may not work perfectly when balanced against the self-seriousness of the film’s message − namely. The internet is evil, and you are, too − but Susco’s creation is equal parts silly, terrifying and revolting. Like all the best horror movies.

Just be sure to mask your IP address should you see this outside bricks-and-mortar, ideally WiFi-free theatres.

INFO:

Rating: R (for some disturbing violence, language and sexual references)
Genre: Horror
Directed By: Stephen Susco
Stars: Colin Woodell, Stephanie Nogueras, Betty Gabriel
Written By: Stephen Susco
In Theaters: Jul 20, 2018 Wide
On Disc/Streaming: Oct 16, 2018
Runtime: 88 minutes
Studio: BH Tilt

CRITIC REVIEWS FOR UNFRIENDED: DARK WEB

Kevin Maher
The novelty of the “desktop aesthetic” is wearing decidedly thin. Better writing, acting and direction. Please.

Hannah Woodhead
The truth is more interesting – and terrifying – than this fiction.

Andrew Whalen
Despite characters whose individual plights would be just as boring to describe as they are to watch, Dark Web is just weird and ingenious enough to recommend.

Richard Brody
It adds up to little, despite a fine Hitchcockian twist of a single transgression leading inevitably to doom.

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