Hold on... You stole someone's computer?
I've yet to see 2014's horror-thriller Unfriended, so I came to this follow-up with no possible risk of 'same old, same old'. Unfriended: Dark Web uses an identical conceit to its predecessor - a scary story playing out entirely on the screen of one character's laptop. (A very now kind of storytelling.) The first film was a tale of literal computer haunting, where a ghostly victim of online bullying wreaked cyber-revenge on a smug group of friends. With no clear supernatural element Dark Web taps into something more terrifying - the sinister illegalities we all know are lurking somewhere beneath the web's comforting surface.
Colin Woodell plays Matias, a 20-something guy embarking on an online game night with his old college friends. This he's doing on a second-hand laptop supposedly bought on Craig's List. But when Matias goes exploring, he discovers a mysterious cache of files that seem to be taking up most of the space on the hard-drive. His choice to click and investigate uncovers something deeply sinister, putting himself and those closest to him at grave risk.
Adjusting to this radical storytelling format might take a while for an Unfriended newbie. There's a lot of on-screen information to absorb - Matias' group Skype chat with his in-jokey fellow Millennials, his Facebooking with an angry girlfriend and his detective work. You become oriented quickly, however, most of the online activity being disarmingly familiar. Which is why it's disturbing when Matias' experience takes a turn for the darker: cryptic communications via an account he should never have accessed, unnerving revelations, a gnawing sense that he's tangled with something very wrong indeed. The film's industrial soundscape heightens the sense of dread, as do some creepy visuals, before the horror become scarily explicit. By the time this laptop-user's nightmare gets real, we're hooked - horribly so.
The movie's young actors sell this mounting paranoia and are sketched out sufficiently through the group-babble for us to care about their fates. Matias' relationship with his deaf girlfriend is dealt with sympathetically, as are the issues between two characters in a same-sex relationship. All of which ultimately makes for a tougher watch. When horror protagonists are halfway likeable, their misfortunes hit home - especially when their plans are as innocuous and everyday as a gaming session.
Inevitably there are some dubious horror-movie choices to facilitate the story. Also the movie overplays its hand in the final act, each outrageous plot twist outdoing the previous one, until it all gets too preposterous for words. (I mean this really stretches credibility to snapping point.) But by that stage the sense of fear is so tangible that it doesn't awfully matter. The story delves into subject matter so dark, and from such a mundane starting point, that its later excesses do little to undermine the cumulative sense of dread.
Unfriended: Dark Web is technically smart and constantly inventive. It may be reliant on well-worn horror tropes, but the ingenious narrative form recycles them to gripping effect. The film also serves as a macabre cautionary tale. Jaws kept people out of the water, while The Exorcist put them off messing with ouija boards. Well next time I stumble on a second-hand laptop of unspecified origin, I'll probably take a hammer to it or simply run. Now that's how you know a scary movie has done its job.
Gut Reaction: Vaguely unsettled, followed by finger-gnawingly tense, leading to pretty damn harrowed. Horror-cinema fear levels are subjective of course. But this is the first scary movie in a while that's genuinely creeped me out.
Where Are the Women?: You can say what you like about horror as a film genre, but it's quite the equal opportunities employer. Betty Gabriel (the weirdo housemaid in Get Out) and Rebecca Rittenhouse are particularly good.
Ed's Verdict: 7/10. Its plot logic mightn't bear much scrutiny, but Unfriended: Dark Web is intense, efficient and ruthless. Some horror you shake off on leaving the cinema. This is the kind that lingers...