Unfriended was an interesting cinematic experiment: a horror movie told in real time using nothing but what we can see from a laptop screen to provide the viewer with information.
Now, the story itself wasn't quite nailed down—a group of friends is haunted by the ghost of a classmate who killed herself after being bullied online when one of the crew posted an embarrassing video of her on YouTube—but the concept was well done. I strongly encourage watching it while you have your email open and your TweetDeck running and your Slack sending you alerts; it feels as immersive as watching a blockbuster on IMAX.
Still, as I suggested, something wasn't quite right about Unfriended. The supernatural element, a literal ghost in the machine, undercut the realism of the film, which played out on apps we're familiar with like Skype and websites we obsess over like Facebook. Mashing up the real-world horror of cyberbullying with a rather generic ghostly threat who forces her former friends to stick their hands in blenders and shove red-hot flat irons down their throats as part of her spooky revenge was too unintentionally funny to be terrifying.
Unfriended: Dark Web takes the same basic concept—friends around the globe gather online before Things Go Wrong, in real time—and vastly improves upon it by grounding it in the real world and populating it with real threats. We are made to feel as though the events could actually be happening by eschewing the paranormal and sticking with flesh-and-blood horrors.
The film opens with a locked laptop screen. A user is trying to guess the password—password, Password, password123, covfefe, etc.—until he stumbles onto the right one. After logging the previous user out of the website and entering his own info, Matias (Colin Woodell) loads up an app he was working on, a program translating speech to American Sign Language that he hopes will help him better communicate with his girlfriend, Amaya (Stephanie Nogueras).
Matias's efforts to win over the frustrated Amaya form the emotional core of the film, while his interactions with leftwing vlogger AJ (Connor Del Rio), lesbian couple Nari (Betty Gabriel) and Serena (Rebecca Rittenhouse), British computer wiz Damon (Andrew Lees), and Asian-American DJ Lexx (Savira Windyani) propel the plot. As the evening progresses, their game of Cards Against Humanity morphs into a crime against humanity: the sextet discovers that the laptop—which Matias claimed to have purchased on Craigslist but was actually nicked from a lost and found at the cybercafé he frequents—belongs to an inhabitant of The Dark Web™, who uses an un-Googleable interface called The River to sell videos of young women he has kidnapped and murdered for sport.
The rest of the film follows this delightfully diverse crew unraveling their evil plans and I'll leave it at that. I will instead highlight the fact that Unfriended: Dark Web is far less reliant on the jump scares of its predecessor, far less enamored with easy gore and cheap gross outs, and far more interested in slowly ratcheting up the tension until, in the last 20 minutes, the various threads all come together in a madcap, breathless sort of manner.
It would be a mistake to call this movie "realistic," exactly. I imagine some of the trappings (The Dark Web™! Bitcoin! Blockchain!) seem ludicrous and out of date to those with knowledge of the specific subculture whence the villains sprang. Dwelling upon the inaccuracies would miss the broader point, however: people are scared not of the specifics of the seamier corners of the internet but what anonymity and un-traceability allow trolls to do whilst trawling those darker edges. More to the point, we're terrified of the internet's ability to empower and enable cruelty in ever-more-efficient ways.
What Unfriended and its sequel, Dark Web, grok is our innate and growing fear of human malice unleashed by the internet. As someone who spends altogether too much of his day online, I have to say: that fear isn't unwarranted. As a result, Unfriended: Dark Web is the best horror movie so far this year: the scariest, most resonant picture of 2018.