Welcome to Cheat Sheet, our brief breakdown-style reviews of festival films, VR previews, and other special event releases. This review was originally posted after the film’s premiere at the 2018 SXSW Film Festival. It has been updated to reflect the film’s HBO release.
The midnight premiere of an Unfriended: Dark Web at SXSW was somewhat of a botched surprise reveal. At the time, it was still an untitled feature being promoted by Jason Blum, founder of the Blumhouse studio, and producer of the Oscar winner Get Out and essentially every lauded horror movie of the last five years. But many horror fans had already guessed on Twitter that the film, written and directed by newcomer Stephen Susco, was a sequel to 2014’s Unfriended. The eventual title reveal came later, possibly after a necessary tweak — a film called Unfriended: Game Night was listed on Susco’s Wikipedia page for weeks, but eventually changed, perhaps to prevent confusion with the 2018 Jason Bateman comedy Game Night.
In any case, Dark Web is a sequel to Unfriended, the first American feature by Russian director Levan Gabriadze. That movie takes place entirely on a MacBook screen, flitting in and out of FaceTime, iMessage, Facebook, and Skype, and following a group of teenagers as they get picked off one by one by a mysterious killer. As they die, their friends watch via webcam, with much crying, snot, and disbelief. Unfriended was one of Blumhouse’s standard low-budget horror box-office coups, with a $1 million budget and a $64 million global take. Unfriended: Dark Web looks almost exactly as low-budget, though a 20-second stretch of Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” suggests a little more monetary investment. The novelty of the MacBook-screen conceit has worn off, but Unfriended has also picked up a lot of positive world of mouth in the interim. So it’s anyone’s guess whether the sequel will perform at the same level.
What’s the genre?
What’s it about?
Unfriended: Dark Web again takes place on a MacBook screen. The ensemble cast here is slightly older than the crew in the first film. They’re a bunch of 20-somethings who don’t feel like venturing out of their comfortable homes to socialize. Instead, they gather on Skype for their weekly board-game night. The film stars unfamiliar face Colin Woodell, who’s showed up in two other 2018 horror-thrillers already — Steven Soderbergh’s Unsane and Aaron Harvey’s The Neighbor — supported by a charming, diverse cast that includes Get Out’s Betty Gabriel, The Mindy Project’s Rebecca Rittenhouse, Switched at Birth’s Stephanie Nogueras, and the mostly unknown Andrew Lees, Connor del Rio, and Savira Windyani.
Woodell plays Matias, a programmer who just swiped the film’s primary computer from a lost and found — he wanted a faster machine to help him build real-time ASL translation software to help him communicate with his deaf girlfriend (Nogueras). All the film says about their relationship is that he didn’t bother to actually learn sign language, but he did make a montage of them hiking (file name: “The Hike That Changed Everything”), set to Fun.’s Instagram-caption-saccharine hit “Carry On.”
The horror kicks off there (kidding! I went to a Fun. concert in 2012 just like everyone else), but it escalates when the owner of the stolen laptop starts threatening Matias in Facebook Messenger. Matias subsequently stumbles upon a mysterious Dark Web portal (?) called “The River,” as well as a folder full of made-to-order snuff films. He and his friends watch girls die of thirst, of sitting in a bucket of corrosive acid, of trains and rooftops and blunt force trauma. Naturally, they respond by transferring $10 million worth of Bitcoin from the laptop owner’s account to Matias’, hoping this will protect them from harm. Oh boy!
What’s it really about?
Unfriended: Dark Web has some fantastic twists (one is ripped directly from the end of the first season of FX’s Fargo; the rest are all fair and all genuinely surprising), but it’s about as bleak-without-explanation as you can get. Where the original Unfriended had a villain who was driven to murder by the slightly doofy motivation of “teen humiliation,” the villains in Unfriended: Dark Web aren’t motivated by anything at all.
If it is, as the SXSW event description promises, “a warning for the digital age,” it’s a confusing one. Most of us typically avoid stealing a $1,500 laptop from a stranger, for reasons other than the possibility that it belongs to a serial murderer involved in a heinous global crime ring. A cautionary tale about respecting the honor code of “don’t take that temporarily unattended laptop in a café” is pretty dry. And these faceless dudes-in-hoodies — who all go by Charon, speak to each other in Latin, switch to Ethereum because it “has a better exchange rate,” and specialize in torturing and killing teen girls — are a spot-on embodiment of the most extreme version of the internet bogeyman imaginable. They’re the stuff of parental nightmares and bad Hollywood hacker storylines. They’re omnipotent, with the ability to see and hear everything their victims do, find them anywhere, pop up out of thin air, discover any secret, and ruin any life.
Is it good?
The cast has great chemistry, particularly in the warmer early scenes, when they seem to be riffing outside of the confines of the extremely melodramatic script. Rittenhouse’s character does a taffy-mouthed bit as “Kendra from Malibu,” del Rio delivers an impeccable libertarian nerd rant about how Facebook and Twitter are free because you’re the product, and Lees is charming as the buddy who’s so devoted, he’ll stay up until 3 AM London time to play a card game with his friends.
Unfriended: Dark Web depends far more on the quirks and secrets of software (both everyday and obscure) than the original film, which is to its credit, in that it allows for a far more complicated, difficult-to-predict plot. But the real thrill of Unfriended was that it looked exactly like our lives as we actually live them — waiting for typing bubbles, groaning at the spinning beach ball of death, trying to pick out micro-expressions in a blurry webcam recreation of a beloved person. The horror of seeing the interfaces we rely on for most of our daily doses of intimacy turned against us was genuinely innovative, and actually scary. In Dark Web, the audience I was with laughed out loud at lines like “Oh God, they pulled you across The River, didn’t they?” As the movie races through its egregiously brutal final 20 minutes, it gets darker and more punishing, never slowing down to explain exactly what the audience is being punished for.
Much like the briefly lived game of Cards Against Humanity that gives the ensemble cast its one chance to stop screaming and crying, Unfriended: Dark Web has enough snark, shock, and disregard for anyone’s emotional comfort to briefly confuse viewers into thinking it’s pulled off something worthwhile. But when it’s done, it’s easy to walk outside feeling like you’ve spent 90 minutes doing nothing at all.
What should it be rated?
It includes a scene where a 17-year-old discovers that a hole has been drilled into her forehead. R, please!
How can I actually watch it?
Unfriended: Dark Web will be in theaters on Friday, July 20th.