Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Unfriended: Dark Web / ***1/2 (2018)

No single idea in the found footage horror subgenre has been as inconclusive as that of the one first observed in “Unfriended.” Consider the concept: for 83 minutes, characters remain static in a world of pixelated webcam images and cluttered desktop screens while a malevolent force somewhere in their chat boxes taunts them. Gradually, they are ambushed by something outside the periphery of the Skype window, until a lone person is left to answer for crimes that all present may have once participated in. Is this an idea full of potential, or one where the gimmick is destined to fade from novelty after the initial experience has worn off? Our fascination was certainly enough to inspire a single sit-through of the first attempt, although that movie sees little in the way of ongoing value; once the ploy is understood, the antics play like a wind-up toy instead of a plausible tool to modulate tension, especially in repeat viewings. Yet here we are again for a sequel, titled “Dark Web,” which utilizes the exact same format and implores the spontaneous hysteria of the same sorts of young actors, who balance their running commentary with all the perfunctory inquiries – like, “what’s that noise?” or “please don’t hurt me!” The irony of most new approaches in horror is how thoroughly familiar all the tricks seem, even as they are repackaged to avoid more obvious giveaways.

This time, something about the affair works rather well. If “Unfriended” showed this idea in a state of awkward infancy, then “Unfriended: Dark Web” allows it to mature into a proverbial, meticulous beast, ripe with inspiration and unrelenting in the way it stacks one impossibility onto another with skill and enthusiasm. The plot is also more intricate: instead of dealing with a gathering of friends who are haunted by a deceased spirit lurking in cyberspace, this ensemble finds itself facing the very real horrors of a vengeful shadow from the very real “Dark Web,” who turns out to be the rightful owner of a stolen laptop in the party and wants it returned as its horrific hidden secrets become unearthed during a single evening of remote gameplay and dialogue. Of course, none of the others initially know the computer in question was swiped, having been told it was an acquisition from Craigslist. Their association, as is usually in the case in horror movies, becomes a fatal error that carries them along the ensuing current of chaos, and right into the skillful embrace of a filmmaker who plays the material like the pilot of a jet heading into a literal insanity.

The details are set into motion by Matias (Colin Woodell), a 20-something kid with boyish charm and good looks, who has come into the possession of a new laptop after it was seemingly abandoned at the coffee shop he works at. His audacious impulse is played off as an attempt to “upgrade” his hardware for his girlfriend, who is deaf and wants him to communicate better (his thinking: a newer computer will provide the software that will allow him to use sign language more effectively). Unfortunately, the machine in question is also rather tight on space, suggesting a hidden folder saved somewhere on the hard drive. When it is suggested by a friend in the party chat to look into the secret partition, he uncovers a series of videos that are ominous: some look as if they are surveillance of random homes, others revealing potential victims of kidnapping or torture. Then one of the girls, Amaya (Stephanie Nogueras), does her own research regarding the name on one of the files, and it turns out to be the same identity of a local girl who recently went missing. Is the man who owns these videos the same one who abducted her? Where is she now?

The “Dark Web” of the title is not an elusive concept. In the margins of cyberspace, lingering beyond the filters of trackable media and protected search parameters, a grotesque underbelly of human trafficking lurks with little interference, evading the awareness of seasoned authorities who would otherwise recoil in horror at what they partake in. A taste of this culture is revealed early on, after Matias shares a private chat between he and one of the laptop’s “employers,” who has just deposited a large sum of money into an Internet bank account in exchange for a dubious request: he must inflict terrible mutilation to a proposed female victim. This, we quickly realize, is the precursor to much more potential terror nearby, when the laptop’s original owner messages him with an ultimatum: if he does not turn the stolen device over without tipping off his chat buddies, his deaf girlfriend will be murdered on camera for him to witness. An added visual touch: the girlfriend’s apartment serves as one of the chat windows on his screen, where the villain is seen lurking silently behind her while he hopelessly pleads with her to notice. As pure visual, the moment is a visceral thud against our anxious hearts. But the movie also does not back away from it, either. It follows it up with successive tension, each moment more severe than the last, like some kind of elaborate macabre symphony where crescendos become an abundant staple.

You can sense the enthusiasm of the director, Stephen Susco, for nearly every moment of the wall-to-wall chaos he packs into 92 minutes of screen time. A newbie to filmmaking with only a handful of writing credits to his name (including the first “Grudge” picture), he exhibits a promising aptitude for the frenetic energy that comes with this method, right down to the shrewd way he balances the actions of characters atop evasive motives and half-revealed intentions. Consider a brilliant sequence, for instance, where Matias attempts to tell everyone in the chat about the murderous Dark Web maniac without him finding out, even though it is clear he is watching remotely. The lead deduces, wisely, that his view is being supplied by the girlfriend’s compromised cellphone, which she uses to indicate her movement towards his place aboard a subway terminal. How can he reveal the secret while still playing it casual? Simple: he waits for the online button on her chat window to go off as she passes into tunnels with no reception. Whether this works or is simply a fatal mistake is irrelevant, of course; it is the fact that it is happening at all, surrounded by so much uncertainty, that gives the scene its more visceral value. Here is yet another example of how universal the teachings of Alfred Hitchcock remain, even in the likes of more modern horror movies – to a smart audience, the real horror occurs by knowing a bomb only might go off underneath a nearby table.

The climax, meanwhile, is an even stranger phenomenon: it has that rare distinction of being almost entirely unpredictable, no matter how hard we may try to decipher all the elaborate clues and insinuations. That means, therefore, that “Unfriended: Dark Web” carries an elusive distinction that so few others do in this age of convention and formula. The movie carves out its own, novel destiny. Reportedly, three endings were filmed for various mediums. The one I saw, involving a final shot containing an ensemble of hooded figures, seemed as complete and fitting as any cut of the movie needed. Of course there will be frequent talk about the impossibility of this premise, and certainly Susco, who also wrote his script, was not thinking in terms of pure logic when he concocted some of these elaborate scenarios for the screen. But the movie plays them plausibly, with focus and integrity, so that we do not mind that we are dealing with something that is rather far-fetched. By the final minutes, we realize we have spent yet another 90 minutes doing little more than staring at someone’s computer screen, and somehow have remained engaged the entire time. This is where the idea transcends its absurdist novelty and becomes a plausible path to terror.

Written by DAVID KEYES

Horror (US); 2018; Rated R; Running Time: 92 Minutes

Colin Woodell: Matias
Stephanie Nogueras: Amaya
Betty Gabriel: Nari
Rebecca Rittenhouse: Serena
Andrew Lees: Damon
Connor Del Rio: AJ
Savira Windyani: Lexx

Produced by
Timur Bekmambetov, Jason Blum, Pavel P. Bozhkov, Todd Breau, Phil Daw, Nelson Greaves, Couper Samuelson, Adam Sidman and Ryan TurekDirected and written by Stephen Susco

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