UNFRIENDED: DARK WEB (15)
Director: Stephen Susco
Screenplay: Stephen Susco
Review: David Stephens
Blumhouse has by now established itself as being in an enviable position within the Hollywood movie studio set. From films which have (rightly) received accolades from critics and award ceremonies like “Get Out”, to franchise-spawning horrors like “Insidious”. They’ve arguably built their empire on very-low-budget-but-high-imagination offerings like “Paranormal Activity”. One of their most recent productions which built on its risk-taking premise was 2015’s “Unfriended”. The film spun the story of a vengeful ghost despatching her tormentors, whilst the whole incident is viewed from the perspective of one character’s laptop. It might sound like Hell-on-Earth to technophobes or older horror fans, but it worked surprisingly well. From a budget of just $1m, it managed to scare up over $64m worldwide for a healthy profit margin. Rumours of a sequel that had been secretly filmed started to circulate during the latter half of 2017 and it was subsequently unveiled at SXSW with the current title. It’s the directorial debut of Stephen Susco, who is best known for writing “The Grudge”, “The Grudge 2”, and “Texas Chainsaw 3D”. The story however is not a sequel to the first film, and is altogether more grounded in a grim reality. A month after opening in the States (*sigh*), this variation on Found Footage horror is now in UK cinemas. YGROY password locks our head-space and takes a look at this latest BH Tilt production…
As expected, the proceedings start with the login screen on a laptop. After several suspicious failed attempts to guess the password, the user gains access to the desktop and opens up various apps. This gradually introduces us to Matias O'Brien (very effectively played by Colin Woodell, who can soon be seen in “The Purge” TV series). The laptop is new and supposedly procured from Craigslist, and he’s obviously impressed by its processing ability as he plays with it. His first action is to Facetime his girlfriend Amaya (Stephanie Nogueras), who is hearing-impaired and reacts nonchalantly to a signing app that he’s written. Blown off by her, he Skypes several friends instead as they partake in a Games Night (NB: Consists of a polite-but-puerile card game, and not frenetic online bouts of “Call of Duty” or “Fortnite” where 11 year-old boys easily beat you and have apparent carnal knowledge of YOUR MOM). During the chat, Matias becomes irritated by constant crashes on the new PC and finds a hard-disk full of hidden files. As he checks them out, it draws himself and his friends into a confrontation with an apparently merciless individual with some serious tech abilities. And it all takes place in front of the watchful cam of the laptop…
Whereas the first film basically relied on the supernatural, the main POV gimmick, and a plethora of jump-scares (along with a shovel of topical cyber-bullying hate), the “sequel” has a notable change in narrative and tone. There’s no Laura Barns spooking around in the background and possessing teenagers to off themselves at unexpected moments. This is all about “Norah C. IV” and the nastiness that surrounds him. As such where “Unfriended” sort of felt like a series of vignettes, that culminated in revelations and subsequent jump-kills, this sequel-in-name-only actually uses the format to tell a surprisingly coherent and compelling story. However, in comparison with the original film, it equally transcends the visuals to make you forget that you’re basically watching a guy open umpteen Windows and search Wikipedia for obscure references.
In fact, the movie makes imaginative use of the set-up for various narrative tricks. The antagonist constantly messages Matias at one point as he is forced to deceive his friends, evil little suggestions to the right of his Skype screen, like a twisted version of Devil-on-my-shoulder or an evil Jiminy Cricket. Whilst the story makes unsurprisingly extensive use of Facetime and Skype for much of the proceedings, there are some nice nods to technology with the retro graphics and font for “The River” and some clever uses of YouTube. It never becomes smart-ass about the tech jibber-jabber either, which is a welcome relief for us older genre fans.
Despite a slightly slow start and a noticeable attempt to flesh out the characters, most of them still feel a little flat and stereotypical. Most of the millennial stalwarts are there (conspiracy theorist… that misses the one right in front of his face, etc) and you cynically know that one of the characters is obviously deaf for important later plot-points. However, the whole cast of online friends give really good performances, particularly as their contributions never take up the whole screen. This is especially true for Woodell, who becomes increasing distressed, red-eyed and manic over the (real-time) course of 90 minutes. It’s a wonderfully good turn by the actor that adds a believable layer of desperation and vindication to the mix, with his character making both questionable and laudable decisions during the plot.
Whilst there is no real gore or overt blood-letting (apart from one startling sequence that we found immensely unsettling), there is an admirably dark and nasty tone, which cynically circles the existence of “snuff” movies and online sadists. It’s all mostly due to suggestion, with some kill scenes even cutting off just before the final blow. (NB: At our screening some guys were genuinely getting freaked out by the build-ups rather than the actions). One interesting fact for the US screenings is that two different endings were in use for its distribution over there, with the one that you would witness being the result of randomness. We’re not sure if that practise is being used in the UK (although we suspect not), but the one we saw was effective enough with a couple of final twists that provide the desired objective. For anybody that’s annoyed at missing an official alternative ending, it’ll no doubt appear on the DVD/Blu-Ray release.
“Dark Web” has already made its money back (given the $1m budget pricing), but it doesn’t seem to have gone down quite as well as its predecessor. It might be the repeat “Found Footage” format, the idea of different endings, or the marketing not quite hitting the target audience. Which is a shame, as it’s at least as effective as the first film, and tells a better story in fact. The Laptop POV is always going to be a sticking point for those that can’t adapt to the set-up, or accept it as a worthwhile narrative element. The story isn’t terribly original either, but it is well told and well-acted, and some moments might stay with you longer than you’d think. Dark and inventive, it is cut-price horror to be sure, but it could still get under your skin and might make you take a hammer to your laptop and cell phone…