Filmmaker, producer, and genre iconoclast Timur Bekmambetov views “screen life” as the future of not just storytelling, but of living. As folks become more insulated in their online profiles, the way we communicate and live is being rewired, a fact that Bekmambetov used to his advantage as producer, along with Blumhouse Productions, in 2014’s schlocky fun, Unfriended, and then broadened to more dramatic horizons in the harrowing true story of ISIS recruitment in Profile. So it really does feel like the technology is on the verge of creating its own subgenre, one with more nuance than the found footage fad of the last few decades. All of which makes Unfriended: Dark Web that much more disappointingly perfunctory in its lazy use of the conceit.
When the original Unfriended dropped on audiences a few years ago, it came out of nowhere with little expectation. “They made a horror movie out of Skype?” became the skeptical refrain. Yet by and large, the horror film built its cult audience by telling the most classical of post-80s genre tales in a new context: it’s a campfire yarn about a ghost picking off teens one by one during a grisly video chat. Its simplicity was a virtue. By contrast, Unfriended: Dark Web’s ambition to break away from supernatural elements and actually dive into what makes the interwebs scary ultimately damns the sequel.
When you’re making a glorified slasher, ingenuity is to be celebrated, but when you’re trying to make a genuine thriller and then resort to crude (and often misogynistic) violence that is only two clicks removed from Eli Roth’s special corner of torture porn hell, one can feel the grease dripping off the keyboard. Such is the case in this tale of some particularly dumb friends caught in “the dark web’s” penchant for torturing and abusing young girls.
In the film, Colin Woodell has the unenviable task of playing a dim sort named Matias. Despite being the kind of nice guy who listens to top 40 pop while trying to connect with his deaf girlfriend Amaya (Stephanie Nogueras) via Skype, Matias is also the dude who steals a laptop from the lost and found table of a cyber café. Admittedly, it’d been there a while, but as soon as he boots it up, he discovers all of its old passwords are still preprogrammed in by the previous user, one “Norah C IV,” who has been collecting some seriously creepy hacked videos from other folks’ computers around town.
Soon enough, Matias is interrupting game night with his crew of disposable meat pack friends on Skype—because apparently friends play Cards Against Humanity on Skype?—who help Matias quickly deduce that the laptop has hidden files on it, including a Bitcoin account worth millions of dollars, as well as entry to the “dark web,” a place on the internet untraceable by search engines or IP addresses, and where some presumably heinous shit goes down.
That includes the rest of this film, as “Norah” also has a treasure trove of snuff videos that he wants back. Oh, and Norah knows Matias has his computer and where the girlfriend lives. Guess what happens next?
Just as how the mysteriousness of “the Net” proved to be a generous well for Hollywood producers to make ridiculous technophobic thrillers in the ‘90s, the concept of a deeper internet where actual horrible transactions can occur without a trace—complete with its own currency—is fertile ground for storytelling, particularly horror. Hence why Unfriended 2 begins so much stronger than the original film. While that first movie basked in its clichés, this sequel seemed to initially be tackling something that should give folks pause, especially those of us who can actually be convinced one enters “the dark web” via hilariously retro 16-bit recreations of the River Styx.
But what should be dopey fun is almost immediately undercut by writer-director Stephen Susco’s need to dive into an ugliness that is not borne from fear but hysteria. The basis of the horror here is derived from a junky exploitation that far too perversely savors the image of a teenage girl waking up to a literal gaping hole in her head, or the idea that a bunch of shadowy forum lurkers have an omnipotent power to stalk Matias and kill his friends, all while prolonging the suffering for the pretty blonde ones. The only terror to be found is in how repulsive the whole third act becomes.
The cast tries their best, with one Andrew Lees getting a little more to do than the rest as his character is the tech savvy Brit of the bunch (and to highlight his intelligence, he wears glasses!). He tries to connect all the dots, but any audience could save him the trouble by noting that however many ones and zeroes are building this story, there still aren’t enough of them to force it to make sense or feel like anything less than loathsomely rote.
As some small credit, Unfriend: The Dark Web does recreate the experience of sitting in front of a screen for 90 minutes… and then wondering why you wasted so much time.