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Thursday, July 19, 2018 12:04 am

Unnerving Dark Web is a terrifying cautionary tale

Earlier this year critics were falling all over themselves in praising Ari Aster’s Hereditary as a horror classic, a game changer in the genre that defied expectations and left viewers a quivering mess. I was ambivalent about the whole thing, seeing that film as overwrought, directionless, and hardly worth the time invested once its’ premise was revealed.

Likely to be dismissed as exploitive but far more effective, timely and innovative is Stephen Susco’s Unfriended: Dark Web, a superior sequel to the 2014 Blumhouse Productions feature that finds six friends gathering together for an online game night, only to uncover a dark subculture that leads to their undoing. While the previous feature’s threat was supernatural in nature, the enemy here is all too real – a network of anonymous mercenaries who do unspeakable acts for hire. While Susco’s script ultimately goes a bit too far in imagining the reach and scope of this international group, the way in which he uses this as a metaphor to underscore the insidious way social media has infiltrated our lives couldn’t be more timely or pointed.

What begins as an ordinary game night takes a dark turn when Matias (Colin Woodell) gets online with his friends Damon (Andrew Lees), Kelly (Chelsea Alden), Nari (Betty Gabriel), Lexx (Savira Windyani) and AJ (Connor Del Rio). They all think this will be the usual weekly get-together, not knowing that their host is using a stolen computer to communicate with them. Unbeknownst to the five friends, Matias starts getting instant messages, video calls and chat requests from people assuming he’s the rightful owner of the purloined laptop. These missives become more and more ominous until Matias realizes he’s stolen from someone who conducts transactions on the dark web, a supposedly untraceable, subweb in which drugs are sold, kiddie porn is traded, and murders are requested and paid for.

To give away more of the plot would ruin many of the surprises Susco has in store, but suffice it to say that eventually all of Matias’ friends find themselves in danger from a group called Charon, their very lives threatened if they report anything they’ve stumbled upon from merely being associated with their sticky-fingered friend.

The film’s aesthetic is visually simple but narratively complex. The entire movie screen consists of Matias’ laptop screen, so what he sees, we see. Not only are we privy to his conversations with his friends but the instant messages he receives as well, as live video feeds from members of Charon who are taunting him as well as those from his estranged girlfriend, Amaya (Stephanie Nogueras). Presenting the story from this perspective makes for a completely immersive experience, as we are firmly in Matias’ shoes throughout while also being required to watch various video streams simultaneously, which demands that the viewer pay attention to multiple stories at once. Far from distracting, this proves to be an invigorating exercise as Susco effectively paces each narrative strand so that it impacts the main story in such a way that it builds tension to an almost unbearable level.

The acting in films like this is often overlooked, but the efforts of this young cast must be lauded as many are often acting alone, reacting to threats they cannot see and must imagine. All do a fine job buying into this premise and their characters’ plights, which helps bring a vital realism to the film. More than anything, they provide characters we can relate to, making it easy for Susco to capitalize on our paranoia. Dark Web states in no uncertain terms that while we may think the internet and social media are tools we use to navigate our daily life, they have in fact become a controlling agent that slipped from our grasp sometime ago. We’ve allowed this technology to control our lives and have willingly allowed it to infiltrate our homes. The genie is out of the bottle and Susco’s work brutally and effectively shows what happens if we dare to think otherwise.

Contact Chuck Koplinski at koplinski@usd116.org.

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