It’s no secret that the found footage genre has worn out its welcome a bit. While it happens to be one of my favorite genres of film I’ll be the first to admit it needs a fresh approach and a few years ago in 2014 we saw glimmers of hope with a little film called “Unfriended”. Four years later we have a stand-alone sequel that revisits the original format of its predecessor but ups the ante by taking things from the paranormal to the dark web. Is this the step forward the found footage genre needed to earn back some credibility or does it squander the chance to stand out as a worthy horror offering? Let’s dive deeper into the darkness. This is my review of “Unfriended: Dark Web”.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT
“Unfriended: Dark Web” once again focuses on a group of friends talking over social media via laptops and other electronic devices, however it has no connection to the previous film story wise. Matias O’Brien (Colin Woodell) is just starting to work on a new laptop he took from a lost and found in a computer café. He uses the laptop to put the finishing touches on a new program he has created to help him better communicate with his deaf girlfriend Amaya (Stephanie Nogueras). The two are experiencing a rough patch due to Matias’ lack of effort learning sign language. Matias enters a Skype call with his friends technowiz Damon (Andrew Lees), conspiracy theorist AJ (Connor Del Rio), and engaged couple Nari (Berry Gabriel) and Serena (Rebecca Rittenhouse). While exploring the computer Matias is led to The River an online Dark Web chatroom where torture videos are produced and exchanged for money. Matias is soon contacted by the former owner of the laptop who threatens to kill Amaya unless Matias is willing to return the laptop in trade and keep his friends online to avoid suspicion. When Matias’ actions also draw the ire of other members of The Circle, a group within The River, Matias and his friends become targets in a larger game of life and death out of their control.
Personally, I found the original “Unfriended” to be a pretty decent and unique genre piece. I even included it in my very first post when I was originally experimenting with this blog of the Top 15 Found Footage Films. It’s not too bold for me to say that if I did a redux of that list I would probably trade the original for this one. While the first movie’s concept of using a ghost as the antagonist and putting each person through a brutal death scene worked well to score cringeworthy scares, “Dark Web” puts the format of the film to much better use by actually making the danger a computer-based entity rather than a ghost. The horror here is generated from humanity itself and the mystery of The Circle and their willingness to kill simply for the sake of entertainment. While the first movie was fun, this film keeps things grounded in a way that a plot like this should be grounded. The concept of using social media as your source of found footage filmmaking works much better when adapted to the timely concept of awareness of what you’re doing or the consequences of those actions online. While this film takes it to a new level, “Dark Web” sticks to that script with much better results than the first movie which started with a warning about the consequences of social media but eventually devolved into borderline torture porn.
To that end I found the horror and deaths of “Dark Web” to be more satisfying because they were grounded in the real world rather than seeing each person controlled by a paranormal entity. There are no people shooting themselves or sticking their hands in blenders because they’re possessed this time around. Instead we get deaths that are more realistic and frightening because they’re done by the hands of humans not a spirit or the characters themselves. Found footage movies should inspire fear that something could actually happen or that it did actually happen and “Dark Web” accomplishes that greatly with decent pacing that initially puts the “game” in the hands of the users but eventually progresses to the point where we, and the characters, begin to realize there’s no escaping the consequences of a simple bad choice. It’s not just scary because the deaths are hard to watch, it’s also scary because we can imagine this happening in the real world. The dark web does actually exist in some form and using social media to track people and to claim victims is not an unheard of concept. I found myself feeling legitimately bad for these characters. I could invest in their well being and that makes a horror movie that much more effective.
I also have to give “Dark Web” credit for continuing the original movie’s push for authenticity in it’s use of social media and websites. While the main character’s sign language program is completely made up we do see legitimate real-world websites used like Google, Skype, and, of course, Facebook. While normally this would be unforgivable product placement, here it feels necessary because it adds a layer of legitimacy and a real-world feel to the action we’re watching. Simply put it helps bring you into the film because it makes everything that much more believable which was required considering how outrageous it gets with its dark web theme. If you’re going to use product placement this is how to do it right. Make it part of the story and it doesn’t feel like we’re being bombarded with ads while we’re watching the film.
WHAT DIDN’T WORK
While “Unfriended: Dark Web” can be credited with truly owning it’s concept I did think it went a little too far at times and eventually ended on a far too familiar note when compared to other found footage movies. The idea of the characters being a puppet in a larger game is nothing new for this genre, but admittedly it’s usually only explored in smaller movies that don’t get as much studio support as “Dark Web”. So, while to the average movie goer this film’s use of a larger power playing games with their victims might feel new and original it’s actually not. If you’ve dedicated yourself to the found footage genre this is nothing too new. Here it just feels fresher.
One particular area where “Dark Web” goes off the rails is the progressive ridiculousness in terms of its use of technological mumbo jumbo to push the story forward. Because no one really knows the limits or extent of a hacker or a dark web users abilities the filmmakers played fast and loose with the capabilities of the antagonists allowing them to send and delete messages secretly through someone else’s phone, blur there own faces and even track where someone is and be there in mere seconds to do their thing. All of this is done without any real explanation of how and while that’s part of the mystery it feels more like the filmmakers left details out knowing the viewers wouldn’t care. But someone cared…me! And while I’m no normal casual movie goer it still bothered me because while the point of a found footage movie is to leave some details in the dark here that approach felt all too intentional and never felt organic or natural. It comes off as a purposeful slight of hand rather than a natural mystery or limit of the medium.
“Unfriended: Dark Web” also gets no points for its writing. The script is bland save for one genuinely human moment between Matias and Amaya and the characters never really stand out. They are developed in such as way that we have an understanding of who they are and how this plays into their specific individual deaths, but this feels forced throughout most of the film because we’re being force fed a lot of information that everyone on screen already knows. It’s a common problem with found footage movies. Clunky dialog and exposition need to be used in order to establish someone’s backstory and perspective which is ironic because the movie backed itself into that corner due to the use of the found footage style. The genre wasn’t always this way though. We learned plenty about the characters in “The Blair Witch Project” and “Paranormal Activity” without the need for too much obvious exposition. Somewhere along the line filmmakers in this genre lost their touch for effectively subtle character building and “Dark Web” continues that error all the way through. Even though we can sympathize with these characters and we know what we need to know about them it doesn’t make their introductions any less awkward or the script any less bland and predictable.
All in all “Unfriended: Dark Web” is a simple little horror film, but it’s a fun one. It moves much faster than its predecessor in my opinion and the characters are better and much more defined plus this film is a much better use of the concept than the first movie. All that combined with more believable scares and a much more human feel make this a decent found footage horror film with a modern twist. It does still have its flaws however which were all pretty much foreshadowed from it’s concept and format alone. The script is bland and the character development is messy which would put this film in the “simply average” category if the rest of the project wasn’t so fun, engaging and scary in its own special way. “Dark Web” doesn’t solve all the problems of the found footage genre from recent years, but it’s a step in the right direction and an improvement on its predecessor that had me invested for the duration of its short 88-minute run time. It’s no “Hereditary” but any means, but it is one of the most legitimately entertaining horror movies of 2018 so far.