This year brings two films who solely utilize webcams and cellphones. One is still a month away from premiering, Searching, while the other is a sequel to Unfriended called Unfriended: Dark Web. Unlike Searching, which is a missing person’s story, Dark Web is terror and suspense. Writer and director Stephen Susco‘s film is unique in its grounding of the horror genre in the real world.
The film opens as Matias (Colin Woodell) attempts to log into a laptop. He tries several passwords, mostly passing as humorous: “password,” “querty,” “bigdick69,” “letmein.” Once he logs in, he then plays a Spotify playlist. The film’s use of Spotify is a sly method of introducing diegetic sound. This then leads to a Facebook video chat with Matias’s girlfriend, Amaya (Stephanie Nogueras), who is deaf.
However, while this couple fights because Matias is too lazy to learn ASL, the larger mystery looming is who’s laptop Matias has. He had to test passwords, so it certainly isn’t his. These early scenes, for the most part, drag. There’s very little drama involved with a couple having a fight over live video, as much as we may think our own fights over live video are dramatic.
This soporific “action” continues as Matias begins a “Game Night” over Skype with, Damon (Andrew Lees), Lexx (Savira Windyani), Nari (Betty Gabriel), Serena (Rebecca Rittenhouse), and Aj (Connor Del Rio). As they pass the time with trivial catch-up, Matias is receiving Facebook messages to the original owner of the computer. The notifications for these messages to my ear sound messy, like a palm hitting a window, except with some slight delay (which it wouldn’t surprise me if that’s what they were). The friends scene is made all the more tiresome by tawdry humor, like making another 69 joke (once was enough), referencing BitCoin, and the lampooning of Aj’s last name: “Jeffcock.” Ha! They said “cock!”
Once the group learns that Matias’s laptop is stolen from someone on the black market and that person then kidnaps Amaya as ransom, the film transitions into survivalist horror. It’s in these moments that the film is at its best. As the friend group tries to save Amaya, holding out, and holding out until she can be returned, they’re pushed to an emotional breaking point. That’s ultimate appeal of Dark Web, is its grounded reality. Because unlike most horror, which is based in the supernatural, Dark Web is dependent upon technological means that already exists. That is, hacking into someone’s webcam, which has always been a shared fear. That simple fear is turned ten-fold here.
However, the appeal is not enough to hold it from itself. The reliance on found footage lends additional realism. That is, until the footage distorts. The distortion is obviously to withhold the identities of this secret black market, but when it’s accompanied by harsh sound editing and the distorted pictures are at a cliche 480p bitrate, then the novelty wears off. In fact, it deprives us from the screen. It makes us omnipresent that we’re looking at a computer screen, instead of being drawn into it.
This torrid affair leads to an ending so unlikely that it undoes much of the realism that accompanied the prior film. Dark Web needs less reliance on lewd jokes and more on its screenwriting. Because while it is inventive, it says very little. Yes, technology can be manipulated to kill, but does that say anything about our current world? Dark Web would rather use technology as a means to an end, rather than explain why those means and that ending matters. A clever concept only goes so far.