A classic horror trope: Secure, private spaces can be infiltrated by dreadful forces and when danger lurks in showers, bedrooms, and suburban neighborhoods, nothing’s really safe. Filmmakers inevitably came for the computer screen and that was 2014’s “Unfriended,” a new-age found-footage horror movie unfolding exclusively on a desktop screen. The unexpected commercial hit found a group of friends dealing with a ghostly threat over frantic Skype conversations and Facebook chats, reinventing old chills for the social media age. Made on the cheap and plugged into a millennial vernacular, it was only a matter of time before there was a sequel.
With the Blumhouse-branded “Unfriended: Dark Web” (previously titled “Unfriended: Game Night,” until that became the title of a studio comedy), the new screen-based chiller trades the earlier entry’s supernatural component for a more credible threat of deranged hackers using hidden pathways of the internet. Demented hackers don’t carry quite the same terrifying edge as a vengeful ghost, “Unfriended: Dark Web” manages to turn the same gimmick into another jittery ride.
This sort of survival premise demands a clueless naif in over his head, and here it’s Matias (Colin Woodell. We see him in a group video chat, shifting between chatting with his amiable pals and with his deaf girlfriend, Amaya (Stephanie Nogueras). Just as the gang starts another round of Cards Against Humanity, strange messages flow into Matias’ screen; it turns out he’s in possession of a stolen laptop tied to some pretty incriminating behavior. A hidden folder contains videos of murdered women, and chat messages suggest that someone’s paying for the deeds to go down. Matias at first tries to stay mum about it, but eventually shares his screen to get input from the gang, dragging them into his lethal conundrum.
Meanwhile, Matias engages in urgent chats with Amaya, her deafness providing a tidy narrative solution to keep her on the outskirts of each new development. As menacing forces take control, demanding Matias urge his friends to stay put or else they’ll all die, he makes a series of desperate attempts to take control of the situation. Browser windows open and close, videos and animation flit across the screen, all making “Unfriended: Dark Web” an unnerving look at the ephemeral nature of digital behavior and how easily it can devolve into a power game between unseen foes.
This format provides plenty of room for in-frame trickery, including the jump scares of sudden figures materializing behind unsuspecting people as they gaze into their screens. (These movies are even more frightening when viewed on a computer screen.) A preponderance of clues point to some bigger picture — there’s a missing girl, and a mysterious Facebook profile for “Norah C.,” a name that stands for something more devious — but Matias and his friends only get so far in figuring out one aspect of their situation before another complication arises.
Written and directed by Stephen Susco (whose screenwriting credits include “The Grudge” and “The Grudge 2”) from a treatment by original “Unfriended” director Nelson Greaves, “Unfriended: Dark Web” contains the usual set of charismatic friends ready-made to meet their doom. There’s the dopey loudmouth (Connor Del Rio), a chic music lover (Savira Windyani), an empathetic lesbian couple (Rebecca Rittenhouse and “Get Out” housemaid Betty Gabriel), and an acerbic tech-savvy Brit (Andrew Lees) who may be the only one with the skills to get them out of this dangerous jam.
Or, maybe not. The actors have fun with the narrative challenge of gazing into webcams from unflattering angles, bringing a degree of naturalism that this genre usually doesn’t permit. Still, the whole lambs-to-the-slaughter process of “Unfriended: Dark Web” gets weary after an hour, the characters’ paper-thin personalities keep the stakes rather low, and the eventual massacre of the closing act lacks the inspired uncertainty of earlier scenes.
The script lacks bite, save some wry meta-commentary on the movie’s existence (including a passing reference to “horror transmedia”). Nevertheless, Susco follows the well-worn path of using the horror/thriller genre to explore the eerie ambiguities of modern times. Anyone familiar with Silkroad, the clandestine internet marketplace for all manner of black-market contraband, will recognize it as a clever backdrop here. (For those not in the know, watch the documentary “Deep Web.”)
Susco also resurrects some effective scare tactics from the previous entry, including a menacing countdown in which numbers fill a chat box one by one, building to a terrible finale, and the sudden arrival of faceless Skype accounts in the midst of a seemingly private conversation. Like the “Paranormal Activity” franchise, Blumhouse successfully cuts-and-pastes a rollercoaster.
Expect more of these desktop thrillers. “Unfriended: Dark Web” is a co-production between Blumouse and Bazelevs, a production company founded by Timur Bekmambetov to produce such projects (his ISIS spy thriller, “Profile,” is scheduled to play SXSW 2018 a few days after “Unfriended”). It looks less like innovation than laziness, but at least “Unfriended: Dark Web” has a potent theme: The internet always has the upper hand, and it’s not interested in happy endings.
“Unfriended: Dark Web” premiered in the 2018 SXSW Film Festival’s Midnight section. Universal will release the film later this year.