There are always a number of secret screenings at SXSW — or, well, at least there used to before Twitter sleuths and Deadline made them show their hands for Ready Player One — but the most attractive of this year’s festival offerings was a must-attend. The Untitled Blumhouse–Bazelevs Film wasn’t actually that much of a secret: Only a cursory look at the film’s description in the program guide would have clued you in that this was going to be some sort of sequel to their 2014 smash-hit Unfriended (which I have never seen, so please don’t get too mad if I mess up on some smaller details).
Producer Jason Blum confirmed it nearly as soon as he took the stage, and revealed Unfriended: Dark Web to us, the first audience in the whole damn world, for our enjoyment. And man, it’s a blast, once again told to us entirely through a captures of screens — chiefly that of a stolen laptop — in real time.
This time out, a mysterious section of the dark web acts as a even-more-chilling substitute for the paranormal fuckery of the first. That’s not a complaint at all: Boy, is it terrifying, even if a bit more removed from the most horrific aspects of that world, and even when it ventures into the total textual unreality of the Blumhouse brand, it all still remains vaguely plausible. A group of friends from college get together for their weekly game night — Cards Against Humanity over Skype — which brings them together for a fun evening despite being spread out all over the country. One of them, a cafe-working computer programmer (Colin Woodell), gets tired of his old laptop sputtering out on him and decides to steal one left in the lost-and-found at his work.
UNFRIENDED: DARK WEB: Wonderfully dark sense of humor and an excellent atmosphere. Had a hell of a good time. #SXSW
After breaking into it, and signing in for game night, he begins to notice some weird shit: The laptop’s storage is totally full, even though there doesn’t seem to be any files on the computer. He consults with his tech-savvy friend, and uncovers a hidden folder full of what looks to be surveillance videos at first glance. It’s then that he’s contacted through the original owner’s Facebook by a person who claims to be the laptop’s owner, who demands that the laptop be returned. And he’ll do anything to get it back, before the secret society he’s a part of discovers that it’s missing, especially after the friends discover that it’s chock-full o’ snuff.
The secret to Unfriended’s initial success (or at least my friends say so) within the world of the tech savvy was how well it replicated aspects of the online experience and used that desktop-centric film to tell a compelling story. It’s the same here, and the usual frustrations with technology — forgetting a password, having programs and applications crash on you, lag, and, memorably, pixelated distortion — are captured in a relatable fashion and then twisted around for that added layer of creepiness.
It’s similar with the actors, who outside of a few big scenes where they play to the cheap seats, have a naturalism uncommon in modern horror cinema. For the most part, until shit goes haywire, they act like any other group of charming 20-something dweebs, and not in a grating way like in the first Cloverfield. Which means, of course, that they’re eminently likable (especially Betty Gabriel, now a Blumhouse staple), and this film’s mean-streak is here to ruin their lives and your evening. That’s not a content warning: All of the worst gore is kept off screen (director Steven Scuso even hopes that it’ll be a PG-13, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that was the case) and what shocks there are well-placed jumps crafted to break through the tension.
Anyways, Unfriended: Dark Web is a ton of fun from compelling start to exquisite finish, offering a sanitized but exhilarating take on one of the most intriguing and terrible aspects of our current culture. I’m hesitant to say more, given how key the unraveling of this plot is to its enjoyment, but try not to steal laptops, people. You never know who you’re gonna cross.
‘Unfriended: Dark Web’ hits theaters sometime later this year. Follow Nick Johnston on his adventures at SXSW 2018 @onlysaysficus. Featured photo credit: Kevin Stewart. All rights reserved.