2015’s Unfriended was a nicely nasty little entry into the then-fledgling Internet horror sub-genre, a complete surprise given its marketing campaign was based off jump scares and nothing more. In spite of its dumb name and an ending that should’ve stayed on the Youtube screamer vid on which it was initially located, the flick packed a serious punch.
This was thanks, in large part, to its killer hook — the entire thing plays out entirely on laptop screens — but Unfriended also boasted a dread-laden atmosphere, a cast of believably unlikable characters, a strong anti-bullying message, and some serious scares. The ghostly presence wasn’t even that necessary, because the thing was terrifying enough as is.
This is something Stephen Susco, taking both the writing and directing reins for the sequel, seems to understand better than departing duo Nelson Greaves and Leo Gabriadze. The first-time director, who scripted the remake of The Grudge, as well as its own sequel, and the underrated Texas Chainsaw 3D (“Do your thing, cuz!”), is completely at home in the underworld of the Internet.
Even if the decision to subhead the movie Dark Web seems to suggest otherwise (the so-called “Dark Web” isn’t an established entity, after all).
Funnily enough, Susco originally intended to make a PG-13 thriller but found his film slapped with an R rating thanks to its utilization of some fairly grotty snuff movies. As with all the best horror flicks, the really horrible stuff is only glimpsed, making it more effective as we struggle to fill in the awful blanks in our heads. And, as with its predecessor, Dark Web takes place entirely on laptop screens, making it all the more difficult to turn away.
This time around, the group of kids hanging out on Skype are slightly older than the first installment’s horrid high schoolers. They’re an impressively diverse bunch too, including a mixed race lesbian couple, and even a deaf young woman whose hearing thankfully isn’t played for cheap scares. Our doomed hero is Matias, her boyfriend, who procures a brand new laptop only to discover the blasted thing has a frightening tie to some really bad stuff.
While enjoying a game night with his buddies online, he stumbles upon the aforementioned snuff movies, while a still-logged-in Facebook account embroils him in the underworld in which most of the haggling for the, er, “content” takes place. There’s no doubt this kind of stuff happens somewhere out there, and seeing it play out onscreen (even in a slightly goofy way) is incredibly unsettling — particularly considering every single victim, intended or otherwise, is female.
Harsh accusations have already been levelled against Dark Web, in relation to its treatment of women. Certain commentators felt uncomfortable watching one particular vid, which features a guy in a hoodie climbing into an unsuspecting young woman’s bedroom and then quickly slipping back out again. These moments are hugely disturbing, but Susco put them in there not to glorify this kind of behavior but to call it out for what it is: f**king disgusting.
“We have much further to go to address a lot of rough questions about ourselves. And the violence against women, that rape culture, that is an essential part of that conversation,” he told Vulture, stating emphatically that he’s not a fan of horror movies that get off on the torture or exploitation of women. In my (female, Internet-savvy) view, Dark Web doesn’t play like that at all.
Instead, it’s a condemnation of a frighteningly prevalent, and hideous, culture that doxxes Zoe Quinn, and pushes Kelly Marie Tran off social media, for sport.
To that end, the masterminds behind the nefarious scheme at the heart of the movie are nothing but sick trolls dragged into the light by Matias’s bad luck (and loving their moment in the sun). Rather than relying on paranormal thrills, as Unfriended did, Dark Web roots its scares in the real world, when the online spills out and everything starts going a bit mad. True, there are moments in which a considerable suspension of disbelief is required, but who cares when they’re this terrifying?
The villains this time around are horrifyingly human. They’ve also got some mad hacking skillz bro, the kind that will make actual Internet denizens roll their eyes, but cause the rest of us to rush home and cover up our webcams immediately. The whole film is predicated on the idea that there’s some reason for everything that’s happening but, as anyone who’s spent time online will know, most of the time these creeps only do it ’cause they can.
As Susco explained to Vulture, “the things that I wanted to explore, one of them was the cruelty in our culture that is very challenging to comprehend. Some people have said that you get to the end of the movie and their motivations don’t really seem clear, and that was sort of the point. I wanted to have the film play in an honest way, even though I didn’t set out for it to be so cruel.”
His cast are easy to root for even if it’s clear, as per Unfriended, that none of them are safe here. Matias is a likeable lead, his commitment to his girlfriend admirable if not a little pathetic at times. Get Out‘s Betty Gabriel does fine work as one half of the aforementioned gay couple, while Andrew Lees and Connor Del Rio have fun as a neurotic Brit and an Alex Jones-lite conspiracy theorist respectively.
It’s a bit of a sausage party, but that just drives Susco’s point about men being to blame home even further, something that’s clear in the confidence of both predator and prey.
Dark Web is up there with the best Internet horror has to offer, including the peerless, and still blood-curdling, The Den. The flick completely understands how obsessed we are with staring at screens, and so it forces us to do exactly that for 90 minutes straight while things get progressively worse. Susco draws us in with an effectively simple premise — this laptop belongs to a really bad person — piquing our curiosity and then punishing us for our voyeurism.
He cleverly sets up a number of nightmare-inducing scares with massive payoffs (one that I won’t spoil here made me genuinely gasp in shock — you’ll know it when it happens) without telegraphing them too much, and manages not to rely on the quiet-quiet-bang aesthetic we’ve all become so accustomed to, even without the safety blanket of a frequent score. The really horrible moments are punctuated by silence, or those computer bleeps we recognise so well.
Susco’s “you are not safe here” message belies his hatred of social media, but Dark Web isn’t necessarily mean-spirited. It’s cruel, nasty and, at times, quite violent, but its most horrible elements are implied. This is something Unfriended understood too, but in that movie the computer glitches caused by the vengeful spirit were used to paper over the cracks (that blender death — eek). Here, Susco is confident we’ll fill in the gaps ourselves.
Horror often goes too far in search of something so sickening, so frightening, that it becomes all shock with no depth (see: the dull, soulless A Serbian Film and the overrated mess that is Martyrs) but Dark Web establishes its central group, and its too-familiar setting, carefully before unleashing the goods. Susco understands that the threat has to feel credible, otherwise we’ll disregard it.
There has to be a worry that we’re being watched (something women are used to just from walking around) niggling at us, a sense that we can’t quite trust our own safety. Dark Web showcases the evil types looking to profit off that feeling purely for their own amusement. It’s a super-dark and horribly engrossing horror movie that showcases how much more genre filmmakers have got to mine as the world itself goes crazy.