Quite a few movies now are cooked up on a computer, but only a handful actually make you feel like you’re using one. If you have a fondness for this particular high-concept storytelling gimmick, which turns Google searches, Skype chats and pop-up videos into the stuff of high (or at least high-speed) drama, you have a small but growing number of options.
Some fascinating examples of this emerging genre of desktop noir include the little-seen, deliriously over-cranked 2014 Elijah Wood thriller, “Open Windows,” and the forthcoming John Cho mystery “Searching,” an audience hit at the recent Sundance Film Festival. For baser, more bloodthirsty appetites, there is the “Unfriended” series, if “series” is the word for two low-budget horror movies joined by a formal conceit and nothing more.
The creepily amusing “Unfriended” (2015), directed by Levan Gabriadze and starring a cast of young unknowns, began with an extended group-chat session that quickly devolved into a bloody game of elimination. At its heart was a supernatural cautionary tale about high-school bullying; you could at least reassure yourself that those thoughtless kids deserved their ingenious deaths by blender and curling iron.
“Unfriended: Dark Web,” written and directed by Stephen Susco, offers the viewer no such consolation. Whatever happens in this gruesome, impressively sadistic squirmfest has little to do with revenge and everything to do with sheer rotten luck. Unfolding entirely on a young man’s MacBook screen, the movie seeks to exploit a universal strain of online paranoia, the implication being that anyone foolish enough to open a browser window or maintain a Facebook account runs the risk of inviting an e-stalker’s lethal attention.
You may leave “Unfriended: Dark Web” feeling spooked, if not necessarily convinced. We all may be vulnerable to secret surveillance and data theft, but most of us probably have more smarts and better luck than Matias (Colin Woodell), who, as the movie begins, is turning on his new MacBook for the first time. He chats with his girlfriend, Amaya (Stephanie Nogueras), and plays Cards Against Humanity with some other pals on Skype. (They’re played by Betty Gabriel, Rebecca Rittenhouse, Andrew Lees, Connor Del Rio and Savira Windyani.)
Matias just bought this laptop on Craigslist, he tells them, but random messages and weird glitches bring out the truth: It’s stolen goods. Which wouldn’t be such a bad thing, if the original owner weren’t a diabolical tech genius who can track Matias and anyone else on his contact list, and who is desperate to recover the laptop for very good — which is to say, very bad — reasons.
The story’s queasy power takes hold most effectively in the deceptively calm early stages. What keeps you watching in a movie like this is the visual technique, the director’s ability to maintain a seamless flow of narrative information while investing even the most mundane online activity with a sense of menace. Susco, like Gabriadze before him, does it pretty effectively. He knows how to mine dread from something as simple as a WiFi lag or a cluster of unexpected message alerts, letting our imaginations do the rest: Who could that be? What do they want?
Before long Matias has foolishly steered everyone into an especially nasty corner of the internet, one of those off-the-grid zones where rich creeps use cryptocurrency to trade videos of unsimulated human torture and disembowelment. Matias sifts through the videos discreetly (thank God for pause buttons), but we see enough of them to feel revolted, even tainted. These fuzzy, low-tech clips of women being maimed, killed and corroded may be the stuff of a skillfully contrived fiction, but that’s no comfort: You have little trouble believing that this brand of snuff cinema is absolutely out there, being manufactured and monetized.
Whether or not “Unfriended: Dark Web” earns the right to venture into such squalid territory, in some ways it never recovers from it. There’s some nimble, nerve-shredding plotting in the frenzied second half: Matias must strategically fool his friends, and at one point get them to fool their stalker(s), if they hope to survive. (You’ll root for Gabriel’s smart, gutsy Nari; the know-it-all conspiracy theorist, not so much.) But the tension quickly dissipates as the complications and dead bodies pile up, in ways that test the premise’s conceptual limits and leave credibility by the wayside. An initially clever exercise winds up feeling like the wrong kind of hackwork.
‘Unfriended: Dark Web’
Rating: R, for some disturbing violence, language and sexual references
Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes
Playing: In general release