Three years ago Blumhouse released Unfriended to raised eyebrows and chuckles. After all, how could a horror film told entirely on one teenage girl’s laptop be any good, much less scary? As it turned out, it could. Unfriended turned a tidy profit for Blumhouse (a worldwide gross of $64 million on a $1 million budget) while also managing to be a critical success, so a sequel was inevitable. Filmed over the course of one week in late 2016, Unfriended: Dark Web comes to us courtesy of first-time director Stephen Susco (screenwriter of The Grudge and The Grudge 2) and producer Timur Bekmambetov (Wanted, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter).
It is every bit as fun and even more terrifying than its predecessor.
After bringing home a used laptop, Matias (Colin Woodell, from the upcoming Unsane) settles in for a Skype game of Cards Against Humanity with his friends: conspiracy theorist AJ (Connor Del Rio), computer whiz Damon (Andrew Lees, The Originals), DJ Lexx (Savira Windyani) and newly engaged couple Nari (Betty Gabriel, Get Out) & Serena (Rebecca Rittenhouse, The Mindy Project). Missing from the Skype chat is Matias’ deaf girlfriend Amaya (Stephanie Nogueras, Switched at Birth), who we learn is in a bit of a lover’s quarrel with Matias over his unwillingness to learn sign language. As the game night goes on the previous owner of the laptop, a man who calls himself Charon IV, begins sending messages to Matias, instructing him to return the laptop and keep his friends online. If he is unable to do those two things then he will kill Amaya.
Rather than go the conventional sequel route, Stephen Susco (who also wrote the screenplay) opts to tell a new story completely unrelated to the first film, so those expecting a surprise cameo from the ghost of Laura Barnes should check their expectations at the door (in fact, the film has much more in common with Zachary Donohue’s 2014 film The Den than Unfriended). The first film tackled the sensitive issue of bullying among teenagers, but Dark Web opts to focus on a group of twenty-somethings who actually like each other and what they will do for each other in a time of crisis. While the film may lack the topicality of Unfriended, that doesn’t prevent Dark Web from being just as fun. It also manages to address many of the complaints people had about that film (Why don’t these kids just get offline? Why are these kids so terrible?) and remedy them, making for a successful sequel.
The performances are all solid, though not much is asked of the actors other than to act confused for the first half and scared for the second half. Woodell does most of the heavy lifting, as his friends are often literally pushed to the background while he tries to save Amaya. Nevertheless, everyone does what is asked of them and they turn in believable performances. As a side note: it refreshing to see a horror film A) feature a lesbian couple where their sexual orientation isn’t mentioned at all, and B) cast an actual deaf actress as a deaf character.
In an interesting creative choice, Susco opts to leave out the graphic violence that was present in the first film. Other than two or three F-bombs, there is no reason to suggest that Unfriended: Dark Web will be rated anything other than PG-13, though I may be proven wrong once the MPAA issues the official rating. This may be disconcerting to fans of the R-rated first film, especially considering that watching its horrid teenage protagonists get butchered in increasingly demented ways was part of its appeal. But rest assured that Unfriended: Dark Web is out to prove that you don’t need blood and gore to make a successful horror film. It is a surprisingly bloodless affair but tension is not dissipated because of it.
Lest you think the lack of violence in Unfriended: Dark Web is a mark against it, rest assured that it is not. Even without graphic violence, the film is brutal and downright cruel sometimes. And it actually is scary, something the first film, as fun as it was, didn’t always succeed at. Susco manages to weave a considerable amount of suspense from the confines of Matias’ laptop and the set pieces surrounding the murder sequences are equally creative. One particular set piece inspired audible realizations from the audience and Susco drags it out for as long as you possibly can. There are many scenes involving a person suddenly appearing one of the protagonists, but this isn’t a film that relies solely on jump scares. They are present, but Susco excels at building tension as well.
Where Dark Web stumbles a bit is in the power of its villain. It is ill-defined to the point where the person(s) terrorizing our protagonists have an infinite amount of power. This wouldn’t be a problem if there was a supernatural element to the film, but Dark Web is based in reality so it becomes a little ridiculous after a while.
Unfriended: Dark Web manages to simultaneously address and fix a lot of the problems that Unfriended had while still managing to have some problems of its own. Flaws aside, this is a sequel that is better than anyone could have hoped for and practically demands to be seen with a crowd. This isn’t high art, but it is a clever little sequel that aims to do more than just duplicate the original.
Unfriended: Dark Web will be released by Blumhouse. No release date has been set.