Webcam Confessional

Unfriended: Dark Web

by George Wolf

The good news: this Dark Web isn’t searching for your credit card info.

That would be playing nice compared to what the sequel to the surprisingly effective Unfriended has in store. More good news: it’s mean is pretty damn lean, clever and creepy.

Like its predecessor, Dark Web does a great job upholding the integrity of the “real time computer screen” gimmick. But from the opening setup, this one carries more eerie authenticity.

First-time director Stephen Susco, a veteran writer with plenty of horror titles in his resume, knows the genre has always reflected the anxieties of the day, and his screenplay here feels as in-the-moment as a brand new laptop with all the latest add-ons.

And that’s just what Matias (Colin Woodell) needs for his new programming project, but funds are tight. He finds a used one on Craigslist that might do, but when he hooks it up for a Skype game night with his friends, the previous owner “slides into his DMs.”

That’s what the kids, say, right?

There’s some bad, bad, stuff on that hard drive, and Matias has to strike bargains with the bad guy if he wants his friends to survive the night.

Sure there are some preposterous turns, but as the upper hand shifts (and shifts again), Susco and his winning cast (including Blumhouse favorite Betty Gabriel) make it a suspenseful ride. We’re making these discoveries right along with them, and while true scares might be in short supply, there’s is no shortage of nasty and unpleasant.

As online cautionary films go, Dark Web gets it better than most. The original Unfriended debuted four years ago, or in tech/social media terms, the Stone Age. Susco finds a wry, self-aware groove to drive home just where we’re at today: manufactured reality, “swatting,” and even, yes, internet currency.

Word is, there will be two theatrical prints, each with different endings. I can think of one that would pretty well spoil all that Dark Web executes so well.

I didn’t see an ending like that.

I hope you don’t either.

 

 

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Nerve

by Hope Madden

Unfriended meets Pokemon Go in the online thrill ride Nerve.

Directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman like to reflect the evolution of society’s culture of technology. Their breakout 2010 “documentary” Catfish questioned the safety in online anonymity. Over their next few films these themes grew and merged with statements on privacy vs voyeurism, exhibitionism and thrill seeking in a digitally saturated world.

With Nerve, the filmmakers have wrapped these ideas around the universal truth that kids are stupid and framed it with your standard fare high school drama, achieving surprisingly entertaining results.

Within the film’s universe, Nerve is an online game of truth or dare, “minus the truth.” Participants choose to be players or watchers. Watchers choose dares, players complete them, gaining cash rewards and collecting watchers. The player with the most of both wins – or do they?

Emma Roberts is Vee, a high school senior who observes more than she participates. Definitely not a player. But when brash bestie and Nerve celebrity-wannabe Syd’s (Emily Meads) miscalculation leads to Vee’s public humiliation, she leaps outside her comfort zone and joins the game.

Kiss a boy (Dave Franco). Ride into Manhattan with him. Try on a swanky dress. Everything seems innocent – even dreamy – until it doesn’t.

Jessica Sharzer’s script, based on Jeanne Ryan’s 2012 novel, is sharp enough to keep you interested regardless of the holes in the plot, which devolves into utter ridiculousness by Act 3. Still, in a forgettable B-movie kind of way, it’s a fun ride.

It also boasts a savviness that’s too of-the-moment to remain relevant by the end of the summer, but right this second it’s both cheeky and insightful. The finger-wagging and lessons learned fit perfectly with the familiar teen angst of the genre in this glitzy cautionary tale.

Verdict-3-0-Stars

Curse of the Digital Native

Unfriended

by Hope Madden

Director Levon Gabriadze, with serious help from screenwriter Nelson Greaves, has managed the unmanageable. His entire film Unfriended is seen from a laptop screen, yet never gets visually dull and never feels limited by the gimmick.

More than that, his film is immersed in the digital-native culture without seeming forced or hokey. Without ever feeling like a stunt – a story in service of a device rather than vice versa – Unfriended tells a cautionary tale that’s topical, current and smart.

Five high school friends mindlessly Skype on the anniversary of their friend Laura’s suicide. Laura had been the victim of cyberbullying, and not only is her humiliation still available online, so is her suicide. Such is the horrifyingly public world of today’s teen.

The gang can’t seem to get rid of an anonymous 6th in their hangout, and little by little the presence evolves from annoying to aggravating to terrifying.

Greaves’s script is smart. There are flashes of other films – The Den, Paranormal Activity 4 and others – but Unfriended never feels stale. Greaves’s language is so unsettlingly familiar, and he makes some important points without even approaching a preachy tone.

It’s a set of familiar ideas – vengeance, guilt, betrayal, cowardice – wrapped in a very shiny new package, and it’s the wrapping that could have really gone wrong, but Gabriadze succeeds in filling the screen with enough to look at, enough virtual action to keep your attention.

He builds tensions through a truth or dare style game that provokes the friends to turn on each other, but the film has more empathy for the characters than the run of the mill slasher. The five actors manage to flesh out dimensional characters with the slightest material to work with, and each feels realistically flawed yet sympathetic.

It’s a fascinating choice because the whole film flirts with the ugly “they aren’t bad kids” excuse you hear every time a 7th grader is filmed being gang raped or an autistic child’s bullying goes viral.

These five don’t think they’re bad people. They certain seem like nice enough, likeable enough teens – to everyone except that creepy lurker on their screen.

Verdict-3-5-Stars