Anyone who regularly reads this blog should know by now that I’m a huge sucker for genre films about the evils of the internet. Two of my last few Movie of the Month selections, Unfriended & Suicide Club, were unconsciously guided by this genre fixation, and I’ve also been prone to positively reviewing even less respected technophobic horrors of their ilk: Sickhouse, FearDotCom, Friend Request, Truth or Dare, #horror, etc. It should be no surprise, then, that I got a kick out of Unfriended 2: Dark Web, as it’s a continuation of the exact genre territory I’ve been evangelizing for to deaf ears for years. Not only are these technophobic internet thrillers illustrative of public mystique around what, exactly, is possible online (so that they all age about as hilariously as films like The Net & Hackers have), but they’re also valuable as records of what modern online usage looks & feels like, especially on social media platforms. Even if just by happenstance, they document modern, mundane user interface experiences for cultural prosperity in a way classier productions wouldn’t dare. I may be running into a wall with these internet-fearing technothrillers, though, now that I’ve been intentionally watching them en masse. It’s highly likely that I would have been even more ecstatic about the online culture documentation & exploitation captured in Unfriended 2: Dark Web had I not already seen the same territory better covered in other recent productions. I enjoyed the film as a participation in the Evil Internet canon, but felt it lacking in any expansion of that genre’s bounds, which is something anyone who’s seen fewer of these damned things would not likely care about.
The first Unfriended bests its sequel (as might be expected in any horror franchise) in its audacity to reach beyond the real-life limitations of the internet by melding the technological with the supernatural. Dark Web brings the Unfriended series back to Plant Earth to follow a (slightly) less implausible plot. To put it plainly, there are no vengeful computer ghosts in this follow-up. That willingness to deviate from its predecessor would seem like a good impulse for a sequel to a high-concept horror cheapie, but by ridding itself of its predecessor’s paranormal terror, the movie instead aligns itself with territory already covered by the underrated technothriller gem Nerve. Dark Web essentially filters Nerve’s conspiracy theorist plot about internet cretins “on the dark web” terrorizing teens online for entertainment & profit through the first Unfriended’s laptop interface gimmick. The comparisons to both superior predecessors are unflattering. Dark Web does little to alter or advance the original Unfriended’s real-time Skype session gimmick and Nerve’s own version of its story is much more unique, delivering one of the most aggressively fun, girly action thrillers of the decade. Of course, not that many people saw Nerve and/or Unfriended and even fewer hold them both in as high of a regard as I do (at the very least, I believe Unfriended deserves to be lauded as one of the best horror films of the 2010s), so these side-by-side comparisons are not likely to be a widespread hang-up. In a way, because it doesn’t go for broke in either stylistic deviations or supernatural phenomena, Dark Web might even be a better cyber-horror gateway film than the two I personally see as superior examples of its ilk.
Like in the first Unfriended film, a group of online teens in a shared Skype chat are terrorized by forces beyond their control, held hostage before their monitors at the threat of death. Instead of an all-powerful computer ghost threatening their lives, however, these kids are tormented by a vast network of powerful lurkers on the dark net — real-life, evil reprobates who can seemingly hack into anything electrical to dispose of their enemies/victims. In its references to the dark net’s ties to ancient mythology and in its villains’ exploitation of impossible identity-obscuring glitch software, the movie teases notes of supernatural forces at work in this online hostage crisis, but those aspects of the conflict mostly amount to go-nowhere intimidation tactics. Likewise, the first film’s persecution of teens for being selfish liars & bullies is dropped to instead torment victims who don’t deserve it – kids whose greatest crimes are minor theft and, worse, a love for Cards Against Humanity. With the supernatural & moralistic aspects of Unfriended dropped for expediency, Dark Web mostly functions as a slightly more grounded, streamlined version of its predecessor. It’s a choice that helps the series develop as a new horror anthology institution, especially considering this groups of teens’ disconnection with the previous batch. It’s also one that trades in its own potential eccentricities for something more widely palatable, but less distinct.
Any nitpicking complaints I may have about Unfriended: Dark Web are likely are a result of my too-high personal esteem for the genre territory it echoes without expansion or evolution. I’m like a joyless Star Wars nerd complaining about that franchises’ recent batch of sequels because of what they didn’t do instead of celebrating them for what they are. Ultimately, this is a solid Evil Internet technohorror, one that might even be a boon for the genre in its potential to reel in new fans who would have been turned off by indulgences like the first Unfriended’s computer ghost antics or Nerve’s unusually girly action-thriller beats. The toning down of those indulgences is precisely what’s tempering my own enthusiasm for this particular entry in the Evil Internet canon, but it’s still a welcome specimen of a little loved genre I have a dark web-sized soft spot for.