The Glitch is Back: UNFRIENDED: DARK WEB and the New /er Film
Stay on the computer long enough and the contours of its design, the pixelated dreamscape you fall into becomes almost like another universe to inhabit. The tools whose interfaces we are so familiar with have, in a late capitalist economy, become necessary extensions of our identities and the primary way we exchange information, money, and even foster intimacy. The digital universe is its own setting, and that’s never truer than in the Unfriended films. Desktop films like Unfriended, its sequel Unfriended: Dark Web, the short film Noah, and the upcoming Searching… are the next logical step from found footage, which intimates that the footage exists within reality. Desktop films, conversely, acknowledge that the mediated reality is a new space, with its own way of articulating information and performance; desktop films are like if you lived in funhouse mirror maze. But Unfriended and Unfriended: Dark Web don’t operate exactly like other found footage films, like the anthology V/H/S or even the phenomenon igniting The Blair Witch Project; instead, they’re a unique nightmare that revitalizes the slasher genre because the mediation between reality and new media digital space traps the viewer in limbo. The social context of slashers have changed, and so did the way we experience them.
Unfriended, its pitch and format notwithstanding, is a fairly rare new horror film that is presented without pretensions, unlike, say its elevated art house ilk such as the intermindable Hereditary and slogging The Witch. As Forrest Cardamenis points out, Unfriended isn’t predicated on references to the other movies it may be aping; instead, the anxiety of Unfriended is contingent on the familiarity of the audience… using a computer. Everyone, broadly, uses a computer. Everyone uses a smartphone. We have to. Young people especially, occasionally designated as “digital natives”, have been sold the idea that these are tools for survival in the modern world: to accomplish labor, to sustain an identity with “presence” within the world, to sustain and foster intimacy with people. Those without these devices are considered actually outside of a class system many understand, and it’s easy to write those people off as if they do not exist. An entirely new world was created with rules to its citizenship.
How do you fix the slasher film, make it relevant for the 21st century? If slasher movies have not exactly embraced new technology, it’s frequently because they don’t know how to use it efficiently. Smart phones and computers are seen less as part of a landscape lived in with its own forms of etiquette and law and more as accessories, or worse, gadgets that are inconsequential aids in tasks. Slasher films themselves, like torture porn and found footage, have faded from the visibly mainstream market in favor of supernatural movies like The Conjuring whose world building is set firmly in the past and on another spiritual plane of existence, or aforementioned art horror, or The Purge, which are neo-Romero treatises on politics and fear. But, if Carol Clover is to be believed in her essential work Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender and the Horror Film, slasher films necessitate a certain moralism in their thematic, narrative, and even formal construction. They are fun, nasty bits of finger wagging, gender roles assigned and transgressions accounted for and punished. But the mores of the 1980s — sex, drugs, rock and roll, tube socks — are passé, perhaps now somewhat quotidian. How can you be bad in a world, especially an online one, where almost any bad is good?
For Levan Gabriadze’s Unfriended, it’s unearthing the duality, the lie of online life. “Life” is so crucial to understanding to how the Unfriended films operate: the platform we see, a Mac OS with a melange of windows (Safari, Skype, Facebook, etc), is where personal trajectory can occur: highs, lows, disappearance, presence. That Mac’s UI was chosen over, say, Windows (or, god forbid, Linux), speaks to the way that design itself is indicator of class or identity. It may be curated or performed, but it still conveys who someone is and what they do and how they do it, and Unfriended has an acute understanding of the how. The fixing of typos, the focus shifting back and forth between tasks and windows at incalculable speed, the habit to rely on the platform itself as a form of knowledge. A cursor hovering over a link is psychological insight and potential narrative momentum. They show and obscure, like depths of field, and some of the best scares are how the mise-en-scene is composed with the overlapping tabs and boxes. (The most upsetting images I’ve seen recently is in Dark Web, where one window just barely hides the death of a character, as it types out a sinister note.) The teens we see in Unfriended are each hiding something, and their former schoolmate, Laura, has committed suicide, or was driven to suicide, rather. Though its final note essentially suggests that its morality is not unlike a Nancy Jo Sales story in Vanity Fair, Unfriended’s reveal of how the platform can be both weapon and indictment is harrowing. It illuminates the way in which the online experience is gendered. That there are no Final Girls anymore. Moral transgressions have to be mutable to work in a contemporary horror film; key, though, is though the risk and the reproachfulness has been amplified, the core is basically the same. Don’t bully, don’t use your own privilege and power as a weapon, or it will come back to haunt you. Via the tool you used. The internet is written in ink and it’s blood red.
The assertion that Unfriended makes that there are no Final Girls anymore is kind of daring, and somewhat expanded upon in Unfriended: Dark Web. If morality has changed, so has a conception of innocence and purity. And nothing is pure on the internet anymore; one of Dark Web’s character is a satirically illustrated quasi-stoner who has a YouTube/radio show that, on its surface, looks like your average conspiracy theorist program by an undergrad. “Wake up sheeple,” AJ says without a trace of irony. He talks about the passive acceptance of digital lives and the sacrifices that are made in order to sustain and maintain them, especially as they’ve changed in the last few years since the previous film. AJ’s friends, which include the lead, Matias, mostly roll their eyes, silently begging him to stop ranting about the exertion of force from large corporations on our lives. But the film basically proves him right, kind of: what’s innocence if every facet of our identity, whether or not it fits within a binary of pure and impure, innocent and guilty, good and bad, is monetized, capitalized, bought, and sold. Notifications appear aggressively, gnat-like, but signifying the “digital life”. The buying and selling is not only more literally transactional (in this case, cryptocurrency), but also more abstract: liking, retweeting, reposting, quote tweeting, etc. And they’ll do it because that’s what you do these days. In contrast to the first film, these friends have not really done anything morally repugnant, other than Matias. Matias’ friends are offed one by one, their digital lives, their ephemeral memory manipulated into instruments of death. They’ve done nothing wrong, except be passive.
Unfriended: Dark Web implies that these transactions and the ways in which our experience is mediated is a new form of stakes of life or death. While the monsters of Dark Web urge Matias to convince his deaf girlfriend, Amaya, to come over to make a trade, when he tells her how much he loves her and how badly he wants to communicate with her, an uncomfortable shadow of doubt is cast over the scene. Is he being sincere about his desire to communicate with her via ASL? How much does he actually love her? How authentic is this? What can you see? While Dark Web cleverly operates as a warning about privacy, it is even more astute about the kinds of connections we make and how they are frayed, glitched, or augmented in some way in the digital realm. Those lives, sinking into the abyss of the web, are watched and sold. Digital lives are expendable.