In the interest of getting “hard” copies of my work under one roof, I plan to spend the next few weeks posting the entire archive of my film journalism here on ScullyVision. With due respect to the many publications I’ve written for, the internet remains quite temporary, and I’d hate to see any of my work disappear for digital reasons. As such, this gargantuan project must begin! I don’t want to do it. I hate doing it. But it needs to be done. Please note that my opinions, like everyone’s, have changed a LOT since I started, so many of these reviews will only represent a snapshot in time. Objectivity has absolutely no place in film criticism, at least not how I do it.
Originally posted on Cinema76.
Much like its exceptional predecessor, Unfriended: Dark Web uses the found footage format, specifically the computer desktop of a well connected young adult, to not just serve as an interface through which to gruesomely relieve millennials of their lives, but also to explore the permanence of the information we put on the internet. If you post it, it stays. If you delete it, you’re too late anyway. Where the original film spoke of the dangers of cyber bullying, this new entry confronts a broader fear that effects ALL users of the internet: the sharing of personal information.
Granted, the social commentary doesn’t extend much further than “seriously, you guys, the internet is not as private as you think,” but that’s certainly enough. Psycho’s legacy endures for a million reasons, but perhaps the most notable is because it reminded everyone that the shower, as comforting as it is, is a vulnerable place to be. That’s what effective horror does. It takes presumably safe spaces and calls bullshit on them — shows us why their seemingly inherent sanctuary is merely assumed. Dark Web reminds us of a fear we’ve all collectively chosen to forget because we’re too embedded in it to reverse course. Myself included. We are ALL on the grid, and we got there by choice.
The film begins with Matias, our surrogate, logging onto a new computer which he obtained under potentially dubious circumstances. We watch as he clicks around, signs into facebook, and has a Skype conversation with his girlfriend. He introduces her to an app he designed which allows him to translate speech into sign language. You see, she is deaf, and without a perfect stream, its hard for her to read his lips. We get the sense that their relationship is on the rocks, but don’t worry, everything is about to get much worse. Like horror movie worse. Like, “someone is stalking her but she can’t hear it” worse. Shortly after they part digital ways, Matias is brought into a group convo with his friends. It’s their weekly game night and the group will be playing Cards Against Humanity over a video call. In the call we have AJ, the conspiracy theorist, Damon, the tech geek, and the duo of Kelly and Nari, a recently engaged couple. As they shoot the shit and discuss life, Matias starts receiving messages from a person claiming to be the true owner of his new computer, and since this is a horror movie, things go south pretty quickly.
I’d hate to say much more, because this is a plot-reveal movie if there ever was one. The script deftly works its way through a deceptively large bag of tricks. Never does the framing device feel bland or boring (and it really makes you think about how much time we each spend in front of a screen these days), and never do any of the plot developments feel like filler. It all feels so natural, helped into veracity by the use of real interfaces and logos of real social networks/websites/services. I would imagine that this movie, much like the previous entry, fares better on a laptop screen than in a theater, at least in terms of immersion and spookiness (I revisited the original just a few days ago on my iPad with headphones plugged in – HIGHLY RECOMMEND).
So how does a director make staring at a single screen such a consumable format? While it could certainly be argued that the hard work is done (science has proven that our inclination to crane our attention down to a tiny screen has fundamentally altered the way we consume media), it still takes some smart filmmaking know-how to pull it off. Writer/director Stephen Susco understands this, and it’s evident how adept he is at guiding the eye. Throughout the film, small signifiers tells the audience where on the screen to look. Be it Matias’ mouse cursor pointing to a piece of pertinent information, or well-timed message notification, Dark Web uses what we are already trained to do to fuel its narrative engine. And it’s naturalistic too. It never registers as gaudy when the cursor hovers over an informational tidbit, because the script knows the we in the audience will often delay a risky click while we process its potential results.
I am reminded of a film from 2000 called Timecode in which the story is shown through four different, simultaneous viewpoints. The screen is divided into quadrants, with each viewpoint of the story intersecting at critical moments. The question when this was released was one of where to point one’s attention. Is it possible to miss something pertinent if you find yourself engaged with one storyline more so than another? The filmmakers solved this problem by modulating the volume to favor whichever narrative requires the viewer’s attention. The final product was an ambitious mixed bag, but one that boldly predated the way we consume things in 2018. Dark Web has streamlined this process. Granted, we’re only following one through-line, but with all the bells and whistles on screen, volume modulations and visual cues are essential, and Susco doesn’t miss a beat. As an added bonus, the sound design features some truly unsettling tones when things start getting freaky.
Whereas the original film was done in a marvelous single take, the way that Dark Web is designed allows for a little more breathing room for the cast. This makes for a less technically impressive film, but one which promotes more narrative density as well as more nuanced performances. The crop of potential victims is a little bit older this time around (late twenties as opposed to teens) which allows for it to get a bit darker. It also allows for Blumhouse’s finest scream queen, Betty Gabriel, to once again steal every frame she finds herself in. YES, I KNOW THAT A LOT OF ACTRESSES FIND THE TERM “SCREAM QUEEN” REDUCTIVE, AND I TOTALLY GET THAT, BUT I ASSURE YOU I MEAN IT AS THE HIGHEST COMPLIMENT. I also assure you that Gabriel is going to do great things in every genre. She is an incredible actress, and if you read up on her pre-acting life, you will be impressed by the variety of skills she possesses.
Found footage often gets a bad wrap, but like anything else, it can be employed both successfully and unsuccessfully, and films like the Unfriended franchise (yes, this will spawn at least two more entries, which I will watch) have the courtesy to try and stretch the limits of the form. What can I say? In a world where fandom can be a dirty word, I love supporting horror flicks. In my history as a cinephile, it’s the horror junkies who have always been the best fans. I’m happy to be among them.
Here’s a fun tidbit. Rumors are abound that Unfriended: Dark Web is being released with two different endings, with no indication as to which ending you’ll get. This is a fun novelty, one not attempted since Clue tried a similar thing with disastrous results (they ultimate tacked all the endings onto that one so as to not stress out the audience), but I’m all for giving it a shot. As it stands, I’ve only seen the one ending, but I think I can guess how the other one plays out. Time will tell if this experiment affects ticket sales in a meaningful way.
There’s also one distinct thing that separates this film from the first one (to which it is unconnected short of concept), but to describe it would be a bit of a spoiler. Once you see it, let me know and we’ll compare notes in a chat room or something.
Unfriended: Dark Web opens in Philly theaters today.