SXSW Film Review: ‘Unfriended: Dark Web’

Don't know the definition of trephination? Fear not — or fear a lot — when this goofy browser-based horror sequel Googles it.

Director:
Stephen Susco
With:
Colin Woodell, Betty Gabriel, Rebecca Rittenhouse, Andrew Lees, Connor del Rio, Stephanie Nogueras, Savira Windyani.

1 hour 28 minutes

In “Unfriended: Dark Web,” the horror begins with a MacBook’s startup bonggg. Without leaving the computer screen — and Stephen Susco’s film will never leave the computer screen — the audience quickly learns several key things: A boy named Matias (Colin Woodell) has a stolen laptop, a deaf girlfriend named Amaya (Stephanie Nogueras), and a gang of friends with nothing better to do than play Cards Against Humanity on Skype. There’s a lot you can learn from snooping someone’s keystrokes. A Spotify playlist named after Amaya speaks to Matias’ devotion, his email address mattyfastwheelz@gmail.com implies an ego that needs defragging.

Pity for Matias, no one wields spyware with more tyranny than the laptop’s original owner, a hacker in an underground cyber cabal who delights in snuff films and ancient Greek mythology. Their app looks like an 8-bit River Styx and if you don’t recognize their shared code name, Charon, you can watch Matias Google it. (Plus, Charon IV’s requested kill method, “trephination.” I’ll go ahead and tell you: It’s drilling holes in the victim’s head.)

Susco’s sequel to Levan Gabriadze’s unexpectedly clever 2015 haunted chat group hit ditches teen ghosts to traffic in hoodie-shrouded humans who are conceivably, if ludicrously, real. “Unfriended: Dark Web” toggles between those extremes, making audiences snicker knowingly at the agony of waiting for someone to reply to an urgent text, and groan when these wicked web wraiths crank up voice-disguising apps that make them sound like cheap horror movie devils. Which they are. The first “Unfriended” grossed $64 million on a million-dollar budget, and “Dark Web” shrewdly keeps costs so low that when Matias’ web-savvier friend Damon (Andrew Lees) helps uncover the laptop owner’s bank account, there’s enough Bitcoin in there to keep the sequels coming.

Matias’ buddies aren’t much smarter than the typical slasher chum, though the ability to look up literally anything in real time keeps the chills coming at a clip. Paranoiac AJ (Connor Del Rio) considers himself the tech genius of the group, thanks to his YouTube channel tutoring sheeple why they should smash their hard drives. That this loudmouth is clearly outmatched is one of the films wry jokes on progressives who fancy themselves dangerous rebels. (One of the words Matias guesses breaking into Charon’s laptop is “feelthebern.”)

Betty Gabriel, the brain-numbed maid in “Get Out,” here gets to show a range of furious emotions as the film’s conscience. Her fictional fiancée Serena (Rebecca Rittenhouse) fares worse thanks to a tacked-on subplot about her sick mom and a too-perfect makeup job that clashes with the film’s lo-fi aesthetic. She looks like she wandered in from a soft-focus soap opera. Otherwise, except for a few layered-on sound cues, Susco mostly commits to the premise, creating tension with just the flickering green “online” of someone connecting to Facebook Messenger on weak wifi, and a goofily accurate moment when a screaming Matias, his pale eyes luminous in the screen light, bleats about whether a code word should be typed in lower- or uppercase.

“Dark Web” skates by on saturated nastiness, one terrific kill, and the audience’s engagement in seeing if the filmmakers can pull off the stunt. Barely, but it’s fun to watch them try. After all, most of us might never sleep over in a haunted mansion or stumble across a Texas slaughterhouse. But we’ve all heard that bonggg. And we all should have our doubts about the personal weaknesses we’ve exposed through our social media accounts. As AJ notes, “Why do you think Facebook and Twitter are free?”

SXSW Film Review: 'Unfriended: Dark Web'

Reviewed at SXSW Film Festival (Midnighters), March 9, 2018. 88 MIN.

Production: A Universal Pictures release and presentation of a Bazelevs Prods., Blumhouse Prods. production. Producers: Jason Blum, Timur Bekmambetov. Co-producers: Ryan Turek, Todd Breau. Executive producers: Adam Sidman, Couper Samuelson, Nelson Greaves.

Crew: Director, writer: Stephen Susco. Camera (color): Kevin Stewart. Editor: Andrew Wesman.

With: Colin Woodell, Betty Gabriel, Rebecca Rittenhouse, Andrew Lees, Connor del Rio, Stephanie Nogueras, Savira Windyani.

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