Can lightning strike the same spot twice?
When Unfriended was released in 2015, its announcement was met with, let’s say, apathy at best. A low budget horror film with a pretty silly gimmick released in April wouldn’t seem to move the excitement needle all that much. But it made decent money for its size and, perhaps more surprisingly, was a pretty effective movie. The conceit was the sort of hook that seemed inevitable in the digital age; the entire film takes place on the desktop of a high school student as she chats with her friends on Skype. Soon, though, a mysterious fifth person joins the call, and seems to have supernatural powers and claims to be their deceased friend here to torment them for contributing to her suicide via cyber bullying. Despite a relatively silly concept, director Leo Gabriadze managed to do some novel things with it. Utilizing Facebook and Skype chats, Unfriended became a surprisingly fun and engaging look at how people interact in groups and how that may betray their actual feelings. Sure, things eventually get spooky and there’s diminishing returns after the blood starts spilling, but if you told me that this movie was going to be more than watchable after watching a trailer, I wouldn’t have believed you.
And yet, here we are.
Unfriended did well enough that three years later, preeminent low budget horror house Blumhouse Productions helped mount a sequel, Unfriended: Dark Web. Gabriadze did not return, however, and was replaced by Stephen Susco in his directorial debut. The gimmick remains intact, with the movie taking place entirely within the computer screen of Matias (Colin Woodell). He’s planning to attend a game night with his friends, but first he seeks to show his deaf girlfriend, Amaya (Stephanie Nogueras), his attempts to better communicate with her by building a program that changes his speech into a series of short videos of American Sign Language. She’s not as thrilled with the invention as he is, and abruptly breaks off their conversation. The game night crew (Betty Gabriel, Rebecca Rittenhouse, Savira Windyani, Connor Del Rio and Andrew Lees) decide to Skype the game night instead of meeting at one location. As Matias attempts to enjoy his game night and make up with his girlfriend, he begins to receive messages from the person who supposedly owns the laptop he’s using. We soon learn that his story that he bought the laptop from Craigslist may not be the most true story, and the fateful decision to lift a Macbook from a coffee shop’s lost and found turns out to be a fateful decision indeed.
Unfriended: Dark Web continues the series’ rather shrewd understanding of internet culture and the way we use technology to interact with one another. It also does a surprisingly good job of heading off some of the sillier aspects of the story at the pass (but going into detail would provide a bit too much of a spoiler), and it generally hums along pretty well in the early establishment of the characters and the central mystery. The characters themselves, all twenty-somethings instead of high schoolers, aren’t as interesting as they were the first time around (and Unfriended didn’t exactly have an Oscar-worthy script), so the interactions are fine, if a tad unmemorable. The one standout is Connor Del Rio’s AJ, that specific sort of internet blowhard who spends all his time ranting about how people who spend all their time on the internet and buried in their phones are sheep, but spends even more time on the internet trying to make that claim. He’s enjoyably aggravating, making his assumed eventual demise something to look forward to.
There are diminishing returns on the concept the second time around, though. The biggest problem Unfriended: Dark Web has to contend with is the completely underwhelming antagonist. The ghost in Unfriended was a little on the silly side, but the supernatural aspect of it fit well with the computer screen gimmick. Here, Susco turns the threat to flesh, having a shadowy cabal of hackers terrorize Matias and his friends. They do some terrible things, don’t misconstrue, but the feeling is different, muted, toothless. Putting the terror to a face and a body (especially one obscured by some super silly buffering glitch effect) completely undercuts any potential menace. That blase feeling ends up infecting the entire second half of the film. Unfriended: Dark Web is arguably never a bad film, but it is often a punishingly dull one, mostly due to how uninteresting the villain is. Unfriended had the benefit of low expectations to allow it to be one of the better surprises of 2015. Unfriended: Dark Web, as a second bite at the cherry, has a lot more relying on it to justify its own existence. It’s perhaps telling that this second entry made less money in its entire box office run than Unfriended made in its first weekend. It just doesn’t have that same cache.