As the age of the found footage films seems to be taking its final few breaths, the era of movies composed of nothing but windows popping up on a computer screen are on the rise.
Following in the footsteps of such works as Open Windows, Friend Request, and Unfriended, (and preceding the upcoming thriller Searching), Unfriended: Dark Web begins with the idea that a random 20-something (Colin Woodell) comes into possession of an abandoned laptop, and as he goes digging around on its hard drive, he discovers some fairly disturbing files and evidence that the previous owner was into some deeply horrible things. Before long, he and the friends he’s hanging out with online to play games are drowning in this hidden, anonymous world and are in severe danger of being swallowed by it.
Despite its title, Dark Web has nothing to do with the previous Unfriended film, which had some occasionally supernatural elements to its horror. This nasty piece of work is firmly rooted in the real world, to a fault. First-time feature writer/director Stephen Susco (who also wrote screenplays for works like the two Grudge movies and the spy comedy Red) uses our fear of the unknown (let’s face it, most of us have never toured the so-called dark web) and paranoia about everything from lack of cyber privacy to secret societies to drive the action in his work, and he does a credible job of ramping up the anxiety, if not actual feelings of fear.
I was actually more impressed by the way the film uses the internet to communicate, do quick research, and even escape harm (they think). There are smaller dramas going on around the perimeter of the story that, not surprisingly, play into the drama at hand. The lead character is trying to keep his deaf girlfriend (Stephanie Nogueras) from breaking up with him by learning sign language and creating an app that can communicate with her while he learns—something that comes in handy later on when he doesn’t want harmful forces to hear what he’s saying to her. Films like this don’t often have extraneous moments, so if something happens that seems random, it will likely come back later in the story.
Things go substantially off the rails in the final act when it becomes clear that perhaps this group of millennials didn’t accidentally or randomly get embroiled in this deadly game. I’m not even sure why Susco felt the need to go down that path—the randomness of it all makes it so much scarier. I will admit, I liked this group of young people far more than the annoying whelps from the first film, and I’m still on board with the potential of this laptop-centric sub-genre of horror and storytelling in general (Searching is not a horror film and expands the potential of the format in interesting ways).
I’m surprised how many potential obvious roads to nerve-wracking terror are passed up in favor of generic, knife-wielding stalkers. I was much more freaked out by someone Direct Messaging someone threatening notes and then being able to erase them so there is no proof that he did it. And the idea that that little camera at the top of your screen could be on at all times is maybe the scariest thing of all.
Individual moments in Unfriended: Dark Web succeed at crossing a tense line into inappropriate but highly effective, reality-based horror, but by the end, the whole piece feels like an over-explained, over-simplified exercise in minimalistic genre filmmaking. What is lacking here is inspiration and creativity. And I dare you not to roll your eyes so far back in your head that you feel like you’re drowning in brains at the final shot of the film. It’s a better effort than a lot of what I’ve seen lately, but it doesn’t quite get there.
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