Unfriended: Dark WebReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 07/19/18 14:07:07
With its combination of astonishingly unlikable characters, a plot that was dopey and incoherent even by the usual standards of the Blumhouse horror factory and a gimmick—the entire story was presented in the form of an extended online Skype chat gone hideously wrong—that seemed to be going out of its way to be obnoxiously off-putting, the techno-thriller/mad slasher hybrid “Unfriended” was one of the least effective horror films in recent memory when it came out in 2015. And yet, the story, in which a group of high schoolers whose online chat session is violently interrupted by what appears to be the vengeful spirit of a classmate who was driven to suicide exactly one year earlier as the result of the online posting of an embarrassing video and who begins picking them off one by one, proved to be inexplicably popular at the box office (especially since it evidently only cost about $67.50 to make). For most observers, though, the only positive aspect of the whole ghastly experience was that since it ended with the entire cast dead (oh, Spoiler Alert), the possibility that a sequel would be forthcoming seemed unlikely at best.And yet, such concerns tend to get shoved to the side when there is a buck to be made and lo and behold, now we have been blessed with “Unfriended: Dark Web,” a quasi-continuation that has no overt links to its predecessor to speak of—the story is unrelated, the characters are entirely new and the supernatural element that drove it has been completely eliminated this time around. Unfortunately, all the things that made the original so irritating to watch—the dim-witted storytelling, the resoundingly annoying characters and the gimmick of having everything unfold via a computer screen (No One Will Be Seated During The Opening Downloading Sequence)—have been not only retained but amplified and the filmmakers have thoughtfully included plenty of grotesque images, ranging from grisly images of torture to a swatting incident, to juice things up even further. Although ultimately too stupid to become genuinely offensive, the film sure gives it the old college try and the result is an unnecessary horror sequel that is so awful and devoid of any reason to possibly justify its existence that it makes such recent duds as “The Strangers: Prey at Night” and “The First Purge” seem downright creative and thought-provoking by comparison.
Our hero—to use the term promiscuously—is Matias (Colin Woodell), a callow young shmuck who is in the doghouse with deaf girlfriend Amaya (Stephanie Nogueras), essentially because he is too lazy and self-absorbed to make an effort to learn sign language in order to communicate with her. Instead, he intends to create a computer program to help so that he doesn’t have to inconvenience himself by reaching out to her but alas, his aging computer has not be up to the task. However, he has just acquired a new one via Craigslist and after arguing online with Amaya, who seems fed up with his essentially douchiness, he then logs on to spend the evening playing Cards Against Humanity online with some friends—lesbian couple Nari (Betty Gabriel) and Serena (Rebecca Rittenhouse), London-based tech expert Damon (Andrew Lees), obnoxious conspiracy buff DJ (Connor Del Rio) and hip Asian DJ Lex (Savira Windyani). While all of this gripping action is going on, Matias’s new computer is acting glitchy and although there do not appear to be any files or programs on it to speak of, the hard drive is apparently completely full and a little poking around uncovers a cache of hidden videos. While he is doing all this, he is still trying to get Amaya to return his calls while at the same time fending off a barrage of increasingly weird messages.
As it turns out, Matias was too cheap to actually buy a computer to help him communicate with his girlfriend—our hero, ladies and gentlemen—and has instead purloined one that has been sitting in the lost-and-found of the local cybercafe for a couple of weeks. One could argue that this is a minor sin that occurs all the time (especially if Jeff Wells lives in your neck of the woods) but it becomes a big problem when the computer’s previous owner appears to be connected to the Internet’s fabled Dark Web—where all manner of shady deals go down safe from prying eyes—and that the videos appear to be custom-made films of real women being tortured and murdered for a price. It becomes an even bigger problem when the original owner demands the computer’s return and threatens to kill Amaya if it isn’t and to kill Matias’s friends if he indicates to them what is going on. Needless to say, our hero blows both requests and before too long, the mystery psycho proves they will go to any lengths to get the computer back.
Because of my loathing of the original “Unfriended” and my ever-increasing apathy towards the whole subgenre of films whose stories are told entirely on computer screens, I will fully confess that I did not approach the screening of “Unfriended: Dark Web” with the happiest of hearts. That said, even I was still a little surprised afterwards at the sheer crumminess of what I had just seen. For starters, our central character starts off as an annoying, self-absorbed, whiny, cheapskate jerk and only grows more unlikable as the story progresses and he endangers the lives of his friends as the result of his own clueless behavior. In a normal horror movie, we would be rooting for him to get killed first and in an especially goopy manner but this film asks us to follow him in his quest for survival instead. To be fair, his friends turn out to be pretty irritating as well for the most part—the only remotely likable ones are the deaf girlfriend and the lesbian couple but the screenplay by writer-director Stephen Susco sees them only as plot devices to be cruelly jerked around instead of as characters worth rooting for. As for the script, the machinations that it goes through in order to tell and explain its story are so ludicrously over-the-top that even the previous film, the overtly supernatural story about the vengeful spirit getting onto the web and killing those who wronged her, comes across as more plausible by comparison. The climax, where all is explained, if not resolved, is one of those failed attempts at creating a WTF? moment that will simultaneously enrage and underwhelm any reasonably intelligent viewers who somehow managed to stick it out to the bitter end. As it turns out, even Susco and company seem to have little interest in the intrinsic logic and plausibility of the story since the film, I have just learned, is going out into theaters with two different endings—meaning, of course, that even they couldn’t bother to wrap things up in a vaguely satisfactory matter. (As of this writing, I have only seen one of the endings—evidently the one it played with when it premiered earlier this year at SXSW. Wild horses or European supermodels could not possibly drag into the theater to see it again for the other ending so I cannot judge it except to say that I cannot imagine it being worse than the one on the version I saw.)
What really bugged me about the film is the ugly and unsavory tone that it wallows in throughout. Throughout the film, we are treated to grisly images of torture and mutilation (that have been nevertheless edited with enough skill so as not to jeopardize the R rating) that run the gamut from the nasty to the downright depraved. Now those who have read my reviews in the past should know that I am not necessarily on the squeamish side nor do I believe that there should be limits on the kind of dark and violent imagery used by filmmakers. What I do ask, however, is that if filmmakers are going to traffic in such imagery (including—Spoiler Alert—a girl about to have a barrel of acid dumped on her and another discovering that she has had a hole drilled into her head), they should make a movie that is good enough and non-exploitative enough to earn the right to use such imagery. This film merely uses them for shock effect—to goose kids looking for the next big barf-bag movie—and the end result is just icky beyond measure. Beyond that, the film eventually becomes even more tiresome than it might have been as it becomes readily apparent that it is not interested in doing anything but finding new ways for the characters to die—there is not even the glimmer that it might actually allow someone to escape the fate that has been unfairly consigned to them.Completely bereft of the minimum standards of entertainment one might expect from the not-exactly-anticipated sequel to a not-exactly-beloved horror film, “Unfriended: Dark Web” feels like an unrelated direct-to-video ripoff of the original film that was bought by Blumhouse, transformed into an ersatz sequel with a simple name change and tossed out into the marketplace to make a few bucks from moviegoers with little interest in the sequels to “Mamma Mia” or “The Equalizer” on its first weekend before settling into an eternity of airings on basic cable and streaming services that you didn’t quite know existed. More power to them, though I suspect that with their upcoming releases, they probably will not be bragging about this one nearly as much as they have been doing with “Get Out.” However, when all is said and done, the only thing “Unfriended: Dark Web” really accomplishes for the studio is to ensure that “Truth or Dare” is actually not the worst thing that they will have their name attached to in 2018—good news if you are a charter member of the Lucy Hale Fan Club but not so much if you aren’t.
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