Supernatural horror and cyber-bullying collided in Unfriended, which centered on a batch of teens trapped in a group video chat by a vengeful spirit. Sure, the premise sounded silly. But the 2015 horror flick was a big hit with critics and audiences, pulling in rave reviews and box office totals 64 times its budget. So, it was little wonder that its makers, Blumhouse Productions and Bazelevs Company, would seek to make a sequel. But that proposition posed some unique challenges.
During the SXSW Conference, Fangrrls was there when Unfriended: Dark Web made its rousing world premiere in the Midnighters slate. The following day, we sat down with the film's writer-director Stephen Susco, producer Timur Bekmambetov, and star Colin Woodell. Together, we dug in on what connects this standalone sequel to the first film, and what sets it apart.
Major spoilers ahead for Unfriended; slight spoilers for Unfriended: Dark Web.
While the financial success of Unfriended could be reason enough to make a sequel, Bekmambetov said the imperative really came from the fans. He recounted how fans had made Facebook pages inspired by each character in the first film, and they interact as a sort of social media fan fiction. But how do you make a sequel to a movie where all of the characters are dead by the end? To figure that out, Bekmambetov and producer Jason Blum reached out to Susco, who'd previously penned The Grudge and The Grudge 2.
"I was like, 'Oh God, I can't do a sequel to (Unfriended). This movie was great! It was so singular, how do you sequelize that?" Susco said, adding, "Besides the fact that everybody was dead!"
He briefly considered a sequel where Laura Barnes hadn't died, as the first film showed, but was instead in a psychiatric institution. But Susco quickly decided that wouldn't do justice to Unfriended. "It was such a unique film," he said, "It was so outside of the box. No one had ever done anything like it. So the last thing I wanted to do—especially with my first film (as a director)—was something that someone else already did. So, I pitched the idea of doing something completely different, but using the exact same narrative form and saying, 'What if the franchise was the form?'"
They decided Unfriended: Dark Web would follow its predecessor's lead, presenting its story in real-time, playing out as if on the protagonist's laptop. Once more, the story would focus on a group of friends who are tormented through a sick game that keeps them bound to their group video chat. But beyond that, Susco set out to shake things up.
"I had two principles starting off," he explained, "The first was I wanted to try to do everything the first movie didn't. I wanted to be as different as possible. So I said, okay, PG-13 instead of R, all the gore off camera instead of on, [the characters are] people in their mid-twenties towards thirties and not teenagers." This time, the cast of characters includes musicians on the verge of success, a recently engaged couple, a conspiracy theorist/podcaster, and Matias (Woodell), who is at a pivotal point in his career as a programmer and his relationship with girlfriend Amaya (Stephanie Nogueras). "They're at a different place in their lives," Susco explained, "Their relationships are absolutely authentic and will hold together. They're not people that you want to see get killed. I just tried to take a completely diametrically opposed approach."
The most major shift is one of subgenre. The evil force out to get Matias and his friends isn't a supernatural one. "I wanted to try and do something that existed entirely within our reality," Susco explained of Unfriended: Dark Web's villain, "I wanted to try something different. I love thrillers and love Hitchcockian thrillers. So, I liked the idea of trying to do something that was more of a thriller and that held more on suspense than on really punctuated beats."
For his realistic foe, Susco looked to real-life hackers for a dark inspiration. "A couple years ago I had written a script that took a lot of research, a lot of talking to people in the intelligence department of the United States," he said, "And I had learned a great deal of alarming things about surveillance and these devices that we're surrounded by." Essentially, devices we use every day—from baby monitors to your webcam and cell phone—could be hacked to allow strangers and intrusive insight into your life. Susco said one intelligence official told him these hackers "are people who do this a lot better than we do, and they're 19 years old and they're living in their parents' basement, and they're really bored. Those are the people you need to be afraid of."
"That sent me down the rabbit hole of looking at the stuff that happens at the bottom of the ocean of the internet," Susco said, "Those were the kernels that came together for [Unfriended: Dark Web]." To avoid spoilers, we won't give further details of what Susco dug up. But take a hint from the title: we're talking really dark stuff here, pure nightmare fuel.
Considering all the unnerving information making the movie uncovered, I asked the guys if Unfriended: Dark Web changed how they interact with technology. After shooting wrapped, Susco got a blocker that covers his laptop's camera. Woodell did too, and said he's taken other precaution, "Like my speakers aren't Wi-Fi. I have not hooked up an Alexa in my apartment. I have an underlying fear of just everything [the movie addresses]."
But Bekmambetov shrugged, "For me, no, because I know that we're totally transparent and we can't protect ourselves. We just need to accept and change our thinking. This movie helps us to parade this question and just think about it and learn."
"It sounds like it's inevitable," Woodell agreed, "If someone really wants to get into my life, they can do that easily. But as a millennial, this film is a really interesting thing to be a part of because I'm proud to portray a world that could be real, but it's also hard to swallow at the same time and be like, 'This could be a reality.'" Basically, the makers of Unfriended: Dark Web don't just want to scare you—they want to warn you.
"I'm just glad that people are having a higher level conversation about it," Susco said, "Because I think to a certain extent Timur is right—it's upon us. But I think we're learning to pay more attention to these things and think about what we're giving away for free."
"I mean you look at Facebook," Susco continued, "the fact that everybody just flocks to social media and puts everything on there without paying anything? We're sort of having to reframe that and say, 'There's a reason you don't pay anything. You're just giving this away. Someone can use all of this. You're giving all this access to your life.'"
"So yes, maybe it is inevitable that we have this ultimately transparent society," he concluded, "And obviously an incredible amount of good things have come [from that]. But every time society shifts and especially in a technological direction like that, it opens up a lot more opportunities for a lot more nefarious things to happen too, whether it's creepy people in their basement or whether it's government..or something in the middle."
Unfriended: Dark Web made its world premiere at the SXSW Conference. Its theatrical release date has not yet been announced.