Death wants some facetime
Welcome back to Knockout Horror and to our review of Unfriended: Dark Web. Coming by way of Blumhouse Productions. Who you may possibly know from great movies like M3gan and Happy Death Day. Or absolute shit ones like There’s Something Wrong With the Children and Ma. This movie is a sequel to 2014’s Unfriended.
If you take a look at this week’s reviews. It is easy to see a pattern. We have been taking a look at a whole bunch of Screenlife horror movies. We kicked things off with the rather disappointing Ghost Webcam. Only to follow up with reviews of the much better Unfriended and Host. We already checked out fantastic screenlife genre progenitor The Collingswood Story last year. So that leaves only a few noteworthy Computer Screen Horror movies to check out.
Why am I doing this you may ask? Well the answer is simple. Finding new horror in the UK is bloody difficult. We don’t have access to many of the movies streaming in the US. So I like to mix things up and offer something a bit different from other, much larger, sites. I also find Screenlife horror to be a bit of a guilty pleasure of mine. Even when they are bad. The unique presentation and character interactions make them fairly easy to enjoy.
So you may be wondering what the hell Screenlife horror actually is? Well, the alternate name Computer Screen Horror is probably a little more fitting. It is exactly what it sounds like. Horror movies that take place either mostly, or entirely, on computer screens. This can be done via webchat, Zoom, Skype or any similar service. Hell, you can even create a service purely for the movie itself. Something that both The Collingswood Story and Ghost Webcam chose to do.
Screenlife horror dates back to at least 2002. The Collingswood Story appears to be the first feature length movie to take on the format. Keen to jump on the success of movies like The Blair Witch Project. Horror directors everywhere saw Found Footage as a way to make movies that were scary. But cost very little in the way of monetary investment. All you needed was a group of actors and a decent story. Screenlife serves as an extension of the Found Footage genre. Requiring even less investment and even less time to produce.
The producer of today’s movie, Timur Bekmambetov. Claims that he had the idea for a screenlife horror movie back in the late 90s. Described as the pioneer of screenlife horror. Bekmambetov may not be the originator of the style. But he definitely helped it cross over in to the mainstream. Movies like Unfriended and the screenlife thriller Searching. Are just some of the titles attributed to him.
Nowadays, you can find Timur producing a steady stream of screenlife movies. As well as a few computer screen based television series. This is a format that he has put his all into. And a format that continues to prove alluring for audiences. The simple, character interaction based, narratives are easy to follow. They demand creativity from directors and still feel like something of a novelty.
The movie we are checking out today, Unfriended: Dark Web. Is a follow up to 2014’s Unfriended. A movie we reviewed just a couple of days ago. I call it a sequel but, if I am honest, it is more of a spin off. Unfriended placed its focus on themes of the supernatural. Featuring a group of friends haunted by a deceased classmate. Unfriended: Dark Web is grounded far more in reality. The two movies do share similarities, though. Not least of which is their presentation.
Unfriended: Dark Web follows a group of friends chatting over skype. We kick things off with Matias logging in to a laptop he has just purchased off of Craigslist. Apparently choosing not to wipe the laptop. He logs out of the previous owner’s accounts and logs into his own. Matias has been having a relationship with a young woman with hearing problems. Struggling to learn sign language. Matias instead creates an app that translates his words into sign language. Enabling him to chat with his partner online. After logging on to Skype for game night with his friends. It becomes clear that there is something sinister with this laptop. An uninvited guest will soon show up. Changing Matias’ life forever.
Unfriended: Dark Web forgoes many of the plot elements found in its predecessor. Ditching themes of the supernatural entirely. Debut director and writer Stephen Susco, instead, focuses on a far more realistic threat. That of online snooping, the seedy underworld of the web. And the very real world of murder for entertainment. You won’t find undead classmates manipulating cameras and being a nuisance here. Oh no! What you will find, however. Are master hackers abusing computers in ways that are beyond ridiculous.
The Dark Web theme feels extremely timely for 2018. In fact, this is a subject that still fascinates people even now. Seen as a forbidden underworld full of hitmen for hire and untold hedonism. The fact that the majority of the dark web comprises of web site backends and admin pages. Is something that many story writers are keen to ignore. To be fair, this is understandable. A horror movie about someone hacking a Joomla admin panel. Only to change the front page to some gnarly ASCII image of a cock wouldn’t be that intriguing.
We want grittiness here. We want to see the hidden world of organised crime. People who are not only adept at hacking and stealing information. But also at cutting throats and killing people with their bare hands. That is exactly what Unfriended: Dark Web offers. It takes the widely held assumptions about the dark web and turns them up to 11. What more could you want from a horror movie? Certainly not realism. That does mean that you have to take this movie with a grain of salt. And by a grain, I mean an entire silo of salt.
The stuff that happens in Unfriended: Dark Web is beyond ridiculous. We see a group of friends tormented over the space of an hour or so. By people that are capable of doings things that are simply impossible. Of course, we can’t dismiss the importance of cyber security here. Many people who are adept at circumventing security systems are wildly talented. Capable of finding their way into a system in much the same way a burglar finds their way into a house. If they want in, they will get in. But that doesn’t mean they are super human.
We see hackers here manipulating Facebook chats to remove messages. Complete with fancy animations and unique “dark web” sound effects. We see them interfere with security cameras. Causing them to glitch like Magneto is trying to join the chat. We see them gain full access to people’s computers. Even the computer of someone who is paranoid and well protected. Spending much of the movie declaring himself to be hackproof. It’s all rather silly.
One scene, in particular, had me laughing pretty hard. A character’s voice is manipulated and clips of his strung together. Creating a recording of him making a somewhat outlandish threat. The result of which is utterly hilarious. It felt far too much like Homer Simpson’s Rock Bottom news interview in Homer Badman to take seriously. Unfriended: Dark Web is a farcical movie at the best of times. Stretching the viewer’s suspension of disbelief just a little too far.
Still, if you have ever read some of the ridiculous Reddit Dark Web stories. You can sort of understand why they did this. This is a movie for teens and these far fetched stories resonate with them. They want to believe that this is the reality of the dark web. They don’t want to think that it is just a boring collection of unlisted pages. Naturally, there is a seedy side to the part of the web that sits below the surface. Bad things do happen there. But its mainly an incredibly boring place full of pointless crap. Only occasionally offering a glimpse of the nastiness hiding behind the veil. The stuff that people talk about in hushed tones.
Jesus, these characters are stupid. I often talk about scream at your TV decision making in horror. Let’s be real, it’s one of the staples of the genre. If you were to carve horror rules on a stone like Moses. Having characters doing completely the wrong thing would be near the top. But Unfriended: Dark Web takes that to a whole new level. If you think too hard about why certain characters are doing certain things. Your head will spin like a top. They must be the dumbest group of idiots this side of Skype.
As the movie goes on, Matias seems like he is actually dropping IQ points in front of our eyes. His decision making becomes worse and worse. This, in turn, provokes the other characters to act stupid as well. Matias manages to do the complete wrong thing at every turn. It’s actually rather frustrating. As the movie goes on, this only heightens. With each character becoming dumber and dumber. It’s like a long form dark web version of the Three Stooges. Only with more people and slightly less slapstick humour.
Let’s be honest for a second here. This isn’t a major problem, really. We are horror fans, we are used to it. But it does make the movie utterly predictable. It’s easy to see what will happen next. All you have to do is think of the dumbest scenario and there you go. It plays out in front of your eyes. Is it because you are clairvoyant? Unfortunately, probably not. It is because the characters here have split one brain cell down the middle. Dividing it between them and leaving Matias with the juice that came out while cutting.
It’s true. I actually kind of enjoyed Unfriended: Dark Web. I certainly enjoyed it a lot more than Unfriended. The strange thing is, I can’t even put my finger on why. I just did! The friends are not as unlikeable as the cast in Unfriended. There is less squabbling and its nice to see more diversity. Representing LGBT characters and differently abled people is a good step for horror. The plot is paced a lot better. The movie is far less likely to resort to web searches and IM chats for story exposition. And there are some genuinely decent moments of tension.
Matias is stupid but his dumb decisions continually push the plot forward. The dark web elements, though completely farcical, play out rather well. Offering some scenes that are ridiculously fun. The dynamic between Matias and his hearing impaired girlfriend. Actually leads to some decent tension. The interactions between the group can be quite funny. And the fact that the movie is more grounded in reality offers up more scares. It’s just a better movie than Unfriended. It feels far more watchable and far easier to enjoy. I think having an older cast helps immensely, as well. These guys all have specific skills and unique things they bring to the table. Offering the movie far more opportunities to subvert expectation. It can be pretty gripping at points.
That’s the beauty of horror. Stuff that wouldn’t fly in any other genre is par for the course here. Silliness is the name of the game. Despite the ridiculousness of some of the dark web elements here. If you just switch off your brain and allow yourself to enjoy it. They can be a lot of fun. It’s fun to watch a master hacker, come psychotic killer, threaten people. It’s fun to watch them interfere with cameras while someone looks on in fear. Simply not knowing what they are dealing with. It’s silly, but it makes you smile.
It’s impossible not to roll your eyes at some of the stuff that happens here. As the movie starts to wrap up, it becomes even more ridiculous. If disbelief was a leather top. It would look like a see through sheer dress by the end. Purely through the amount of stretching the movie puts it through. Still, its all rather enjoyable and all fairly easy to forgive. There is a certain feeling of classic horror in the way Susco approaches things. Unafraid to push reality just a little to create a scare. If you are looking for realism, you are in the wrong place. If you are looking for fun, there is plenty to enjoy.
Acting is fine, for the most part. Again, this is basic stuff, the actors aren’t asked to do much. They do okay with the source material, though. This is a diverse cast of characters, as well. Differently abled, different races, LGBT. It’s good to see. Stephanie Nogueras, who plays Matias’ girlfriend Amaya. Has described herself as being born profoundly deaf. Growing up in a fully hearing family. She has never let her disability hold her back. Achieving a Bachelor of Liberal Arts and Sciences from Rochester Institute of Technology. Acting in numerous movies. As well as tutoring people in American Sign Language and deaf culture. She does fantastic here. I am glad the role was given to someone differently abled.
Colin Woodell, as Matias, does a nice job. He manages to make the character’s decisions seem genuine. Never really hinting at anything other than Matias being a bit of a dumb ass. I thought he did a very nice job in scenes where he was dealing with the hacker. Perfectly fitting the part of “man whose life is about to be fucked up majorly”. You may recognise Nari’s actor, Betty Gabriel, here. She plays Georgina in the horror mega hit Get Out. She is equally as great here in an understated role. Australian actor Andrew Lees offers a nice break from the rowdiness of the rest of the cast. Preferring, instead, to interject with quiet, considered, statements and information. It’s a decent performance, he clearly had a good grasp on his role.
Nari’s girlfriend, Serena, is not quite so good. Played by Rebecca Rittenhouse. Some of the scenes that feature her character horribly upset. Dealing with trauma that only few of us could imagine. Unfortunately, felt rather plastic. The emotion felt forced. Her performance was more tears and snot than actual effective acting. At times she is absolutely fine. At other times, I couldn’t see the character’s motivation. She left me wondering whether certain touching comments were meant as jokes. It was a bit strange. She is doing well for herself, though, so doesn’t need my approval.
Connor Del Rio, as AJ, bites huge chunks out of the scenery on numerous occasions. I really feel like his performance needed reining in a little. I understand that his character is supposed to be noisy. He is supposed to be an over the top online personality. But he replaces nuance and character building with volume. Making the movie seem like the AJ show at certain points. Again, maybe this is how he was instructed to play the character. If not, however, the director should have dialled him back a little. These retro-scripted movies, where actors are told to react, can easily fall foul of this. Domineering personalities will take centre stage, even if they shouldn’t.
Cinematography is exactly what you would expect. Webcams placed in front of people. Nothing at all special. Each scenes is well lit and very clear. The camera glitching that was overused in Unfriended makes a return here. It is nowhere near as prominent, though. Instead appearing only when certain characters are on screen. It’s a much easier movie to watch due to this. Unfriended was dark and rather frustrating at times. Everything in Unfriended: Dark Web takes place in bright light.
Hmm, I think Unfriended: Dark Web is more of a 12 round majority decision. It’s not going to bowl you over. It doesn’t do anything astonishingly well and it has its fair share of issues. The plot is farcical, there are tons of plot holes. The dark web elements are pure silliness and make little sense. The characters here are dumb as hell. And the movie can be utterly predictable.
Still, it is a genuinely fun movie. Definitely better than its predecessor Unfriended. This is a much easier watch, improving on many of the original’s issues. The dark web elements are a lot of fun. The stupid character decisions push the story along nicely. The movie is fairly well paced and generally well acted. There isn’t a ton here to recommend. But if you are looking for something that is easy to watch. Why not switch off your brain and check Unfriended: Dark Web out? You might have a great time. If nothing else. It is an above average movie in a under-populated sub-genre of horror.