Review: 'Unfriended: Dark Web' Builds a Sadistic Digital Underworld of Our Collective Paranoia

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From the poster for "Unfriended: Dark Web." Universal Pictures / BH Tilt

The "screen movie," which constrains cinema to the contents of a computer screen, is a micro-budget solution masquerading as a horror subgenre (similar to the nauseous decade of found footage we're only now escaping). The entire concept feels like a cynical experiment, asking viewers to find satisfaction in blurry video chat windows, text messages and the fake life of the desktop environment, instead of the real and hyperreal possibilities of the medium. But despite conceptual objections, first to Unfriended, and now its sequel Unfriended: Dark Web, there's just no getting around how much fun I've had with both movies. Dark Web may be gimmicky, but the peculiar restraints of the screen movie, plus the real-time narrative, create strange new ways to experience a story.

In the first Unfriended, the ghost of a high school girl dead of suicide uses her spectral computer powers to kill her classmates via Skype chat. Computer stuff happened because, well, because billie227 could do whatever she wanted.

Unfriended: Dark Web attempts a more realistic approach, excising the supernatural and replacing it with a super hacker able to listen in on any conversation, expunge chat records and manipulate reality as he sees fit. Dark Web opens with Matias, or MattyFastWheelz (Matias O'Brien), trying to guess the password on the new laptop he filched from a coffee shop Lost & Found (he tells his friends he got it from Craigslist). His attempts—"hanshotfirst," "covfefe," "feelthebern"—are of the moment, yet already dated, which is probably inevitable with a movie as relentlessly topical as Unfriended: Dark Web. Combining cryptocurrencies, Minecraft, ARGs and Cards Against Humanity (boy, you thought it was annoying playing it with your friends…), Dark Web is already one hell of a strange time capsule.

After too much character work—MattyFastWheelz is really screwing up his relationship with Amaya (Stephanie Nogueras), inventing stupid tech shortcuts instead of just learning American Sign Language to communicate with her—Dark Web finally revs up when Matias and his friends discover the secret folder of videos clogging his terabyte hard drive. The contents, organized by the victim's home address, are genuinely unnerving, either depicting the lead-up to an abduction, with a hooded figure stalking around a sleeping home, or various forms of suffering: women chained, squeezed into barrels, surgically assaulted. They've stumbled upon a dark web marketplace for kidnap, torture and murder.

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The most disturbing parts of "Unfriended: Dark Web" involves videos shared on a network for sadists. Universal Pictures / BH Tilt

Even worse than the laptop's real owner, who threatens Amaya and Matias' friends on Skype chat, are the clients, who soon reach out to Matias with specialized, sicko requests. Hint: the word 'trepanation' gets a fair amount of play. In search of a way out, Matias plunges deeper, opening an encrypted, dark web chat program called "The River." This is where Unfriended: Dark Web goes beyond the high concept of its predecessor and explodes outward into the kind of fractal inventiveness we expect from the internet.

"The River" consumes Matias' desktop, replacing his wallpaper with an 8-bit dungeon canal, lit by torchlight, a cross between Minecraft and the Greek underworld. It is the perfect encapsulation of Dark Web at its very best, where technological plausibility (it doesn't feel realistic, exactly, but the script cannily deploys exactly the right dosage of technobabble) meets occult immensity—the sensation that Matias and his friends have crossed over into a realm outside of normal reality.

The subsequent mayhem finds a variety of web-savvy ways to kill off this year's crop of young people, but never quite lives up to the chilling dimensions of the conspiracy's initial unveiling. The elaborate deaths involve Rube Goldberg-esque contrivances, which often had me laughing aloud at their scale and audacity, but never manage to scare. Despite a distinctly horror build, Unfriended: Dark Web reveals itself to be more of a pulpy techno-thriller, which becomes particularly deflating when characters start dying bloodless or offscreen deaths. While the first Unfriended wasn't exactly aimed at horror gorehounds, Dark Web looks disappointingly chaste by comparison.

Despite the way it shrinks away from horror, and despite characters whose individual plights would be just as boring to describe as they are to watch, Dark Web is just weird and ingenious enough to recommend. So keep that desktop cluttered and that keyboard bloody, the screen movie has proven itself worth the computation time once again.

Review: 'Unfriended: Dark Web' Builds a Sadistic Digital Underworld of Our Collective Paranoia | Gaming