I typically toss the ‘on-screen‘ or ‘desktop‘ sub-genre of horror films in alongside my Found Footage categorization. Though both employ similar tactics in their formatting, trying to evoke a ‘this is totally real and not at all fictionalized‘ experience, I always held the firm belief that ‘on screen’ movies were more constricted by their digital limitations. After horror films The Den, Friend Request, Open Windows and the first Unfriended film, I had thought this sub-genre had run its course. I was wrong.
Unfriended: Dark Web rises above the constraints of its browser tabs, and is able to weave a singular narrative that is both tense and frightening. Like a magician diverting your attention as he palms your card, writer/directer Stephen Susco effectively utilizes the multi-tasking nature of the film’s Millenial cast of characters. We are often following multiple screens at a time; looking at minimized video chats while Wikipedia-ing information in another window, to answering a second phone call and muting the first. It is chaotic but controlled, and altogether pretty accurate to how we use and abuse our desktops in real life. This film becomes less of a movie from the vantage point of a screen, and almost as if your own laptop has been granted remote-controlled access from a twisted filmmaker. It would be interesting to re-experience this film on my own laptop when it becomes available on VOD, which is not something I would typically jump to with eagerness.
“Unfriended: Dark Web rises above the constraints of its browser tabs[.]”
Unfriended: Dark Web opens (powers on?) to Matias (Colin Woodell) re-configuring the settings of what we gather is a newly acquired, but used, laptop. He is interrupted from his login-changing escapades from a video call with girlfriend Amaya (Stephanie Nogueras), who is deaf, and very kindly trying to convey that the barriers keeping them from communicating freely and openly is definitely going to lead to a break-up. Determined that Amaya is ‘the one’, Matias has been developing a sign-language program in an effort to bridge the gap from her struggling to read lips and his lack of fluent sign-language skills. Matias says a sentence, and pre-recorded footage of each word in that sentence signed out is strung together by the program and played for Amaya. But the kinks haven’t been entirely worked out, and the program crashes and burns. As does the call with Amaya.
A crestfallen Matias is then pulled into a group chat with newly engaged couple Nari (Get Out’s Betty Gabriel) and Serena (Rebecca Rittenhouse), conspiracy theorist AJ (Connor Del Rio), British techie Damon (Andrew Lees), and the ultra-cool DJ Lexx (Savira Windyani). It’s game night, and the group has digitally gathered for a few rounds of Cards Against Humanity.
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‘Game Night’ must be getting stale, however, because Matias can’t help but snoop the profiles of his laptop’s previous owner. Auto-logged into Facebook, Matias soon discovers a few zealous messages from some very pretty girls. His curiosity gets the best of him after receiving a message pertaining to an exchange of a large amount of money, and Matias accidentally ropes himself and his game night gang into a mystery surrounding missing girls, hackers, and murder-for-hire.
“The terror of Unfriended: Dark Web comes from the very real threat of internet groups smarter than the firewalls keeping them out.”
I’m not being too revealing in saying this film diverts from its paranormal predecessor. The terror of Unfriended: Dark Web comes from the very real threat of internet groups smarter than the firewalls keeping them out. The first half of the film plays out like a true crime mystery, and we are along for the ride as the gang band browsers together to try and solve who we’re up against, and what exactly their crime. Upon leaving the screening I tweeted that Unfriended: Dark Web “is a Poughkeepsie Tapes‘ of the digital era.” Instead of our murderer’s motives unraveling via VHS tapes, it’s every reload of a web browser.
Where Unfriended: Dark Web really shines is it isn’t afraid to abandon our video chatters. We don’t spend the entire film glued to a skype chat, trying to spot a pixelized ghost lurking beyond an unsuspecting teenager. Instead, we ambitiously explore other aspects of the on-screen experience; Facebook pages, Wikipedia articles, applications and folders within the laptop itself, and then finally.. a fictionalized 8-bit version of the Dark Web.
Overall, Unfriended: Dark Web roots itself firmly in the fears of a digitally advancing society. It is bleak (and, as we learned in the post-screening Q and A, the ending was entirely changed after the film’s SXSW premiere). While the film wasn’t necessarily 100% realistic, it successfully suspends my disbelief to a level of plausibility that made me question my own online privacy long after the credits rolled. Now excuse me, I need to go do a scan with my Antivirus.
We caught Unfriended: Dark Web at the 2018 Overlook Film Festival in New Orleans, Louisiana. Stick around Nightmare on Film Street for even more festival coverage, and check out our Twitter and Instagram pages for highlights from the event.
Unfriended: Dark Web hits theatres July 20th.