When it opened in 2015, Unfriended seemed guaranteed to earn critics’ ire. It was a horror movie about obnoxious teenagers haunted by a tech-savvy ghost, and the whole thing plays out in real-time as if the movie theater screen is one giant laptop display. I absolutely expected to loathe its video-chat gimmick and eye-roll over the peril of its likely paper-thin archetypes. But instead, within minutes, Levan Gabriadze’s surprisingly smart thriller had me hooked. And better yet, as the why of its nasty ghoul was revealed, it offered up a timely message that dared audiences to rethink what they think they know about cyberbullying.
Because of all of this, it was with great anticipation that I attended the world premiere of Unfriended: Dark Web at the SXSW Conference. Now, I wasn’t sure how you make a horror sequel when every character from the first film is dead by its end. But giddy to be scared out of my head, I was dying to find out. Unfortunately, the answer was not just disappointing, but downright infuriating.
The Grudge 1 & 2 screenwriter Stephen Susco makes his directorial debut with this standalone sequel, which contains only the most superficial connections to Unfriended. Once more, the story focuses on a group of friends who are menaced while video chatting. Once more, the action plays out in real-time as if on the protagonist’s computer screen. This time, our hero is a programmer named Matias (a handsome and affecting Colin Woodell) who’s testing out a new laptop, video-chatting with his deaf girlfriend Amaya (Stephanie Nogueras). But strange things are happening with this sketchy computer. In the blink of an eye, the gang’s fun online game night spins into an absolute nightmare, where all of their lives are in the crosshairs of a mysterious hooded killer.
So, let’s cut to the chase. Why did I absolutely hate this movie? It’s nihilistic horror. No hope. No attempt at a redeeming social message. Just senseless carnage. Not my jam.
Susco’s script completely abandons the supernatural element of the first film, and instead introduces a slasher/hacker who uses threats of offline violence to terrorize Matias and his friends. As soon as you’re introduced to the super nice lesbian couple (which includes Get Out’s Betty Gabriel in a frustratingly small role), you know that only misery will befall them. It’s not fun to wait for it. But worse yet, Unfriended: Dark Web decides to take a detour into rape culture and torture porn to get a rise out of its audience.
Spoilers for Unfriended 2 ahead.
Matias soon figures out that the hooded figure harassing him is a serial killer who plucks unsuspecting women out of their lives, tortures and murders them, and records video of it all for an unknown audience. What this means for viewers is that Susco stuffs in grisly clips of women being starved, kept in oil barrels, and mutilated. Admittedly, most of the violence happens offscreen or is paused right before the acid is dumped on a sleeping woman. But that seems less a creative choice and more a financial one that allows this sequel to potentially outpace its R-rated predecessor with the more accessible PG-13 rating. (Less gore! Yet also WAY less appropriate for children!) Besides, even without overt onscreen violence, there’s a non-violent scene that is sure to haunt every woman who sees it.
A camera perched high in a teen girl’s bedroom shows her asleep in her bed. Then a man enters through an open window. He hovers over her, clearly relishing the power he has by invading the space of an unconscious woman. He doesn’t hurt her, but kisses her cheek, proof that her body is his for the taking. Then, he looks to the camera in the corner, and he smiles. He knows he’s being watched. He’s not scared because nothing can stop him. And we, the audience, are powerless, stuck watching him play out scenarios that feel too real to be entertaining.
That night, this scene followed me back to my bedroom, where I made damn sure the windows were locked. But I don’t give Unfriended: Dark Web credit for this terror. I give that to rape culture, which reminds women every day that our bodies are subject to the gaze and desires of any random man we might cross. It devalues us and makes us cheap thrills for strangers, and in this case for horror audiences. My stomach sank in the theater as I watched this sequel try to turn our understandable fears of rape, assault, and murder into a scare spectacle.
I’m not saying that Unfriended: Dark Web is directly promoting rape culture. For one, its heroes are appalled by the videos they uncover, and valiantly try to do something about it. But the filmmakers don’t seem to understand that this kind of imagery isn’t something most women would consider fun. This doesn’t offer us the escapism of a vengeful poltergeist. It offers us a reminder that there are bad men out there who feel entitled to our bodies. And WE FUCKING KNOW THAT THANK YOU VERY MUCH.
There is no literal rape in the film, but there is plenty of violation, most often of female bodies. Making matters worse, the story is not couched in the perspective of a woman who might more deeply understand the terror of all of this, but instead Matias. Sure, he is shocked and scared, but mostly because the hooded figure is threatening Amaya to get him to cooperate. Yeah. The closest thing this movie has to a female lead is a woman who is obliviously being stalked, who has no voice, and who is treated as a thing Matias doesn’t want to be ruined. Essentially, the abduction and torture of women is treated as a PG-13 version of Game of Thrones rape scenes. It’s a shock tactic to make men feel, but ignores how women feel.
End of spoilers
While the storytelling device and premise of the first Unfriended were definitely part of what makes it unique, it wasn’t what made that movie great. Instead, it was that there were kids who seemed warm and familiar, but were revealed to be monsters. As we learned the story of poor tormented Laura Barns, our emotions shifted from rooting for the teens who’d deceived us, to betrayal and maybe rooting for their gruesome comeuppance. But Unfriended: Dark Web attempts nothing so challenging. It gives you nice, pretty people who are trying to do the right thing. And it punishes them brutally for it just because. The result is grim, disturbing, and it may be more “real,” but it’s by no means my idea of fun.
Unfriended: Dark Web made its world premiere at the SXSW Conference. A release date has not yet been announced.