'Unfriended: Dark Web' Is A Cruel And Clever Evolution Of The First Film [SXSW]

What is a franchise? Is it a series of movies that form a grand, ongoing, and connected narrative like the Marvel Cinematic Universe? Or is it a series of movies made with similar stylistic intentions, connected by a familiar aesthetic like the Cloverfield films? That second definition feels like the wave of the future for small genre movies: sell audiences on a movie by slapping a familiar name on it, sort of a "If you liked that, you may also like this" label.

It's hard to not think about Cloverfield, and that second definition of franchise, while watching writer/director Stephen Susco's Unfriended: Dark Web. Here's a horror sequel that looks an awful lot like the first film, but shares nothing with it beyond the fact that it's told entirely though a computer screen. The threats couldn't be more different and the tone is a hard left turn from the teen-friendly, popcorn-flavored jolts of Unfriended: Original Recipe. Instead, Dark Web is darker, meaner, and far more clever. It's more polished, more in control of how to tell a story in this format. It's a sequel in name only and it's an improvement in every single way.

The initial set-up will be familiar to anyone who saw Unfriended and the basic plot points will announce themselves to anyone who has ever indulged in a found footage horror movie (of which this is the next evolution). Young man acquires new laptop. Young man opens laptop. Young man gets on Skype with his friends and explores his new laptop. Young man discovers that his laptop's previous owner was up to some dark shit. Said dark shit suddenly starts hitting close to home.

Unfriended: Dark Web's title should clue you into what's going on here. While the first film was about a supernatural threat, an online chat literally haunted by a vengeful ghost, Dark Web finds its inspiration in real life threats. People who use the dark underbelly of the internet to traffic in heinous products and services that earn life sentences in prison or worse. That doesn't mean this is a realistic film. Oh, no. Dark Web's villainous hacker might as well be a ghost for all of the insane, wacky, and bonkers stuff he can accomplish. If the film wasn't paced like a roller coaster, if it wasn't such an impressive technical feat that forces your eye to search the computer desktop that is the movie screen for the next freakish clue, it could derail the whole thing. It's a minor miracle of balance that it does not.

(It should be noted that Unfriended: Dark Web feels very much like the spiritual sequel to The Den, a 2013 found footage horror movie with very similar intentions. The films are just different enough to avoid feeling like copies of one another, but consider this a public service announcement: The Den is very good and will never be put into as many theaters as Dark Web will at some point. So seek it out.)

The outlandish actions of the film's villain also helps balance out the fact that this is a harsh movie. It's mean and cruel in ways that the first film was not, doubling and even tripling down on the darkness behind other Blumhouse-produced hits like Paranormal Activity, Insidious, and Sinister. Dark Web takes no prisoners and forces its characters through a meat grinder that can be unpleasant to endure. But that's all part of the intention. This is a real-time ride straight into digital hell and either you're on board for the abuse or you're not. It's a bitter-flavored tea, one that could win over seasoned horror fans and unsettle casual moviegoers. You don't laugh and cheer as much as you gasp and squirm.

Perhaps the film's inherent meanness hits harder because the cast is a step above your typical low-budget horror movie (it's certainly an improvement on the first Unfriended). I can't tell you the names of the characters they played, but I can tell you that Betty Gabriel, Rebecca Rittenhouse, Stephanie Nogueras, Colin Woodell, Andrew Lees, Savira Windyani, and Connor Del Rio are all charming and likable enough, investing you in this group of friends long before things turn deadly. The casting is especially disarming because this is one of the most diverse casts in recent horror memory: people of color, queer folks, and disabled people, all hanging out, all being fun to be around, all being positive representations. And then Unfriended: Dark Web smashes them over the head with horror they did nothing to earn.

In a bizarre way, it feels like a bold step forward. Diverse horror movie casts scream and yell and die just as well as casts of bland white people!

Unfriended: Dark Web isn't going to surprise you with its plotting or even its format. It looks like the first Unfriended. It goes in directions you've seen a dozen times before. But it's nervy and vicious and built to send chills down your spine for a brisk 90 minutes. It certainly makes you want to put tape over your laptop camera./Film Rating: 7 out of 10