Film critic Scott Wilson reviews Unfriended: Dark Web, which continues the trend of horror reacting to society’s mood at the time
Unfriended: Dark Web – ★★★☆☆
Arguably, horror is one of the most adept genres at tapping into the mood of society at any given time. Whether it was home invasions by poltergeists and masked baddies at the end of the 20th century or torture porn in the 2000s, the prevalence of a certain style is acting in response to something else. This decade has been a golden era of horror thanks to the likes of The Babadook, It Follows, and The Witch for their ideological commentary, and they share the horror label with the critically acclaimed Get Out which resonated throughout post-Black Lives Matter America.
Unfriended: Dark Web acts as a stand-alone sequel to 2015’s Unfriended, both of which are told through a screencast of the central character’s desktop. They play out in real time as the protagonist clicks on Spotify, Facebook, and Skype while chatting to their friends. Unlike most representations of technology in cinema, programmes that are now part of everyday life actually act how they do in reality, apart from a few aesthetic differences and behaviours necessary to propel the plot along.
What both films get right is mining horror from our extremely online status. Despite websites like Twitter acting as breeding grounds for Nazis and flat-earthers – a different kind of horror – the internet is often used as a safe space. It is also an invasive space, a means of communication right on our laps and in our pockets. Director Levan Gabriadze was attracted to Unfriended because of how bullying no longer stops at the school gates, it can follow you home.
Without the supernatural elements, there are far fewer jumpscares, to the extent Unfriended: Dark Web is an ideal entry-point for those curious about horror.
Somewhat miraculously for a film utilising just a desktop screen, Unfriended was a legitimately spooky watch, with gruesome imagery, effective use of horrifying sounds, and a dreadful sense of inevitability.
Where before the young group were terrorised by something supernatural, Unfriended: Dark Web turns to the shady corners of the internet, where cryptocurrency is used to pay for illegal services. We follow the actions of Matias who initially brags of the power his new computer has, using it to Skype his friends for a game night while video calling Amaya, his girlfriend. Amaya is deaf and Matias has created an app called Papaya, a translator in which an English input is translated into American sign language, for him to communicate with her. She gets annoyed that it is a one-way service since it does not help her communicate with him.
While logged into Facebook, a number of people start messaging the saved profile from the laptop’s previous owner, someone with the name Norah C. IV. These messages demand products that have been paid for and have questions about unfulfilled promises. Matias is interested in who the laptop’s previous owner was, and by exploring its hidden files, he and his friends uncover some disturbing videos of kidnapped women either being held captive or tortured.
After discovering where Amaya lives, the laptop’s owner threatens to kill her unless Matias gives it back, and none of his friends are allowed to know this is happening. From there it becomes a balancing act of bargaining and avoiding the previous owner’s anger, as well as the owner’s online contacts.
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Without the supernatural elements, there are far fewer jumpscares, to the extent Unfriended: Dark Web is an ideal entry-point for those curious about horror. It is a grisly and cruel experience, but not one that will revisit that evening in bed, wondering if that shadow just crawled up the wall.
In its cruelty is where it earns the horror label. A web of observers, affiliates of the laptop’s owner, make their presence known when things are not going as planned with brutal consequences. Unlike many horror films with a young-adult group at its core, these individuals are not unlikable. Often, characters in horror act in unrealistic ways or behave in such terrible ways their deaths almost feel deserved. Here, terrible actions really feel terrible.
Indeed, maybe it is unrealistic Matias does not just log off sooner, but in that is the modernity which the film is about. People are addicted to their devices and the internet, and even if it feels the characters become complicit in what happens to them, that is the point. They, and therefore we, lack the skills to switch off.
Given the internet’s expansive underbelly, it is ripe for these kinds of stories, though Unfriended: Dark Web never quite commits to any one point, instead revelling more in a similar dread to its predecessor. It hints at a monster no longer under our beds or in our cupboards, but behind the unfamiliar username. It also hints at the atrocities being committed without detection, easily bought for and sold on an undetected marketplace. Its allusions to complex themes draw attention to its disinterest in them, instead taking all it needs from them to provide some scares.
While it didn’t keep me up at night, it did make me put a post-it note over my webcam. Maybe it did do its job after all.