Heads up, people: “screenlife” movies* ain't no gimmick anymore. The burgeoning found-footage subgenre, in which all the action takes place on a computer screen, is represented by three films at this year’s Fantasia Festival alone, and all of them operate with wildly different tones. The one you’re most likely to see, Unfriended: Dark Web, represents some of the best aspects of screenlife films - and some of its biggest limitations.
The setup is perfect: we boot into a MacBook that protagonist Matias (Colin Woodell) “bought on Craigslist” (later revealed to be stolen).** We watch him set up his new computer, engage in a Skype game night with friends, and attempt to salvage a disintegrating relationship with his hearing-impaired girlfriend. As both plotlines develop, however, Matias discovers a hidden folder on his computer - whose contents include disturbing videos and an app that opens a chatline to a shadowy cabal of criminals on the much-feared, little-understood dark web.
Events escalate from there, in real time, becoming variously thrilling, frightening, and unbelievable. The “dark web” here is, understandably, overdramatised into a 3D virtual world - watching people post on messageboards wouldn’t be that cinematic, after all - and the conspiracy Matias uncovers gets remarkably intense. When people start dying, some of the kills reflect real-world internet crime - one of Matias’ friends gets swatted, for example - while others are cartoonish, and still others genuinely unsettling. None of the deaths are particularly bloody; all, however, are cruel.
For a horror movie, Dark Web's best moments come surprisingly before the scares even begin. Much of that comes down to the screenlife format: we’re so familiar with using computers that the way Matias types, moves the cursor, and uses apps really puts us into his head. There are great laughs and surprisingly affecting dramatic beats, driven equally by the UI action and the actors’ performances. At times, the well-cast ensemble feels like they’re engaging in a role play, but the film actually ends up playing into the strangeness of its setup. There’s a really good story about communication underneath the escalatingly ridiculous thriller plot, and to the film’s credit, we actually end up caring about its most important characters.
Dark Web's biggest weakness also stems from the screenlife format: it's difficult to engineer scares without telegraphing them artificially. Every time one of the shadowy villains appears onscreen (via video chat or text), they’re shrouded in video compression glitches and deafening audio static, as if wearing Black Mirror-style cloaking devices. This makes them a more threatening presence than a simple video of a person in a hoodie, but it disrupts the reality of the scenario, reminding you that what you're seeing isn't real. Interestingly, the subjective sound design, in which Matias mentally tunes out or focuses on certain elements amongst a soundscape filled with subtle horror drones, is remarkably effective by comparison.
By the time the credits roll, Unfriended: Dark Web has explored every nook and cranny of its concept, delivering twist after twist that cleverly hook into the various apps and technologies at play. Ordinarily, I’d rave about such a comprehensive delivery upon a premise, but in this case, the sheer volume of meta twists gets exhausting by the end. Regardless of which ending you get in the theatre, you’ll probably come away more confused than frightened.
* "Screenlife" is a term coined by Timur Bekmambetov, whose film Profile also screens at Fantasia this year. It's as good a term as any!
** My laptop got stolen literally half an hour after I saw this film, which is some eerie shit.