For all the acclaim hounded on the arty, independently produced horror films of recent years, they are strangely lacking in scares, perhaps due to the distance between the films’ settings and reality. The Witch is a period piece; It Follows takes place in some indeterminate, homage-laden moment where people call each other on home phones even while reading The Idiot on seashell-shaped e-readers; the recent Hereditary has teens discussing others’ frequent Facebook status updates as if it were the late ‘00s but is conspicuously devoid of cell phones; and Ti West’s string of nostalgia-tinged slasher films borrow the settings of their influences. The list could go on, but what is clear is that the predominant impulses of such films are a shift from the sociological to the psychological and the earnest to the nostalgic and ironic. Reviews cite, often with an implicitly self-congratulatory astuteness, the “references” and “homages” to The Shining or Carrie or John Carpenter, and when the films make their way from the festival to theaters, audiences never find them as scary as festival-hopping critics (as a look at the CinemaScores of It Comes At Night, Hereditary, The Witch demonstrates). Of course, horror films do not need to be contemporary to be either scary or good, and one could hardly cite Hollywood’s parade of franchises and remakes that prioritize gore and jump scares as the pinnacle of the art. Indeed, contemporary horror across different budgets have figured out work-arounds to avoid saying anything substantial about contemporary life, whether it is with period and apocalyptic settings (from The Witch to A Quiet Place), mythology building (The Conjuring), a more solipsistic psychological focus, or something else, and they particularly loathe to engage with contemporary life’s most preeminent element—technology.
Perhaps the biggest exception is the independently produced, Hollywood-distributed Unfriended films, both of which take place entirely (or in the case of the new Unfriended: Dark Web, almost entirely) on a computer screen. Unfriended has its roots in yet another kind of horror film—the tech-enabled found-footage of The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity—but Unfriended further separates itself by taking technology as its very subject where its predecessors merely use a technological gimmick to tell their story.
That Unfriended, which takes the form of a screencast of a laptop in which high schoolers chat on various applications (Skype, Facebook, Chatroullette), was so good despite being made by a man over 40 is remarkable, especially because its pleasures derive from how deftly it captures the way young people communicate. Anybody who has ever had even a couple of lengthy conversations online will chuckle in recognition when, in the film, the three bubbles that signify typing last for suspiciously long, only to disappear and briefly restart before an “ok” comes through. Similarly, the quirks and inconsistencies of messaging are clear, with characters sometimes correcting typos and sometimes not as they balance group and one-on-one chats by both voice and text. Inherent in these quirks of communication are betrayals and secrets, however small, so it’s not surprising when this portrait of an unremarkable but recognizable group becomes a horror film about the power of the secrets, back-stabbings, and bullying that comprise high school life.
It’s the “micro”-ness of Unfriended that makes it work. The recognition that the photos and videos we share might have unpleasant, even harmful backstories, or that the small web of communication that structures our life could just as easily collapse and cause damage we would never expect, is instant and lasting. If the film has a flaw, it is that it is precisely this ordinariness that must fracture to drive home the point. Each kid is revealed to have done something awful to a degree that is hard to defend, even for a teen, and the horror of harboring such unkind secrets manifests itself in an undoubtedly supernatural form. Both revelations break the spell, threatening to turn the film into a mere exercise in new media storytelling rather than a potent examination of the intricacies and uses of contemporary communication. It should also be noted that Unfriended, for all its virtues, is fundamentally about the group rather than society: it would be impossible to mistake for The Texas Chain Saw Massacre or Night of the Living Dead, two films with incisive, powerful, and lasting social commentary, the likes of which surfaced in last year’s horror-comedy Get Out.
But one could not make these criticisms of Unfriended: Dark Web, which follows the same conceit and delivers with equal lucidity. While it echoes many of the memorable occurrences of the first—the unannounced entrants into the chatroom, the countdown messages, the tech-savvy kid we all know as easy expository device—its characters are ordinary, nice people (with one potential exception, depending on one’s point-of-view) trying to do their best in a demanding situation. The scares of Dark Web are not supernatural, and it is the “macro” nature of the narrative that makes it so terrifying. The “monster” is a community of deep web hackers who pay one another in cryptocurrency to kidnap, torture, and murder women they locate by hacking into cameras on phones and laptops. What begins as an encounter with one nefarious figure spirals into a vast conspiracy where devices are controlled remotely, subways experience curiously inconvenient delays, cameras on platforms and hospitals are accessed to blackmail the protagonists with real-time footage of their friends, and hospital systems are breached.
It is hardly surprising that such a vision has already drawn accusations of nihilism, as if spotlighting a problem is somehow synonymous with ignoring it—the latter of which America has done with a great deal of its crises (only recently, with Paul Schrader’s First Reformed, has a film addressed catastrophic climate change with any degree of seriousness). On the contrary, Dark Web’s nagging feeling of powerlessness and frustration are distinctly modern phenomena. It is a desperate examination for a desperate time that horror in all its contemporary forms has all but ignored, preferring instead to relocate problems to the realm of the individual or retreat into the past, as if to tell us that it is okay to be “just a movie.” Dark Web is just a movie too, but you wouldn’t know just by watching it.