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On Blu-ray/DVD: UNFRIENDED: DARK WEB (2018) and DOWN A DARK HALL (2018)

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UNFRIENDED: DARK WEB 
(US - 2018)


2015's UNFRIENDED had some problems (like teenagers who looked to be in their mid-20s, and a late-film collapse into cheap jump scares and tilted BLAIR WITCH camera angles), but the real-time, Skype-set fright flick was more compelling than it had any business being. Unfolding entirely on a computer screen, the inevitable sequel UNFRIENDED: DARK WEB tells a different story with a similar set-up, jettisoning the supernatural angle of its predecessor to focus on an online game night that goes horrifically off the rails. Acquiring a laptop through the dubious means of grabbing it after it was left behind at a coffee shop, Matias (John Mayer lookalike Colin Woodell) plans on joining some college friends on Skype for Cards Against Humanity. At the same time, he's trying to smooth things over with his deaf girlfriend Amaya (Stephanie Nogueras), who's tired of his lax efforts in learning to sign. The laptop, which he tells everyone he got on Craigslist, repeatedly glitches out and messages keep coming through for its rightful owner. Things escalate in a gradual fashion, with Matias finding some truly disturbing videos on the laptop as he's getting some increasingly hostile instant messages from the laptop's owner, the apparent culprit behind an abduction seen in one of the videos of a missing girl who's currently all over the local news.





UNFRIENDED: DARK WEB is grounded in relative reality, even if it glosses over the more intricate aspects of its technological capabilities and doesn't really have anything to do with social media. Without divulging spoilers, Matias and his friends--paranoid conspiracy theorist AJ (Connor Del Rio), aspiring DJ Lexx (Savira Windyani), just-engaged couple Serena (Rebecca Rittenhouse) and Nari (Blumhouse regular Betty Gabriel), and London-based Damon (Andrew Lees)--soon get in way over their heads with a cabal of superhackers intent on making them--and Amaya--pay for Matias' bad judgment. There's some forced humor and a little of Del Rio's grating AJ goes a long way, but some sly jokes land, like writer and debuting director Stephen Susco (whose past scripts include THE GRUDGE, TEXAS CHAINSAW 3D, and BEYOND THE REACH) opening with a static shot of what we soon realize are Matias' failed login attempts to his ill-gotten gain, starting with passwords like "password" and "login," and ending with desperation Hail Marys like "FeelTheBern" and "Covfefe." Like a lot of films of this sort, UNFRIENDED: DARK WEB probably only works once, but it succeeds on a base, visceral level, especially once the stakes get serious and almost inconceivably cruel, leading to a late reveal reminiscent of a great late '90s paranoia thriller that's never really gotten the respect it deserves. Four endings were shot, and some different ones apparently played in various theaters around the country. Three are presented on the Blu-ray as alternate endings, and only one is even remotely uplifting. By no means is this some modern horror classic, but co-producer Timur Bekmambetov has a knack for shepherding these kinds of things where others (like Nacho Vigalondo's OPEN WINDOWS, which couldn't wait to ditch its core premise) have fallen short. Bekmambetov would finally perfect this online scare formula with the late summer sleeper hit SEARCHING, but like UNFRIENDED, this mean and uncompromising sequel surpasses expectations. (R, 92 mins)



DOWN A DARK HALL
(Spain/US - 2018)


Based on a 1974 YA novel by Lois Duncan (I Know What You Did Last Summer, Hotel for Dogs), DOWN A DARK HALL has some intriguing ideas but the story never comes together, getting bogged down in sentimentality and shot in such a murky, dimly-lit way that it's often impossible to tell what's going on. Updated to the present day with era-appropriate can't-even and "#whatever"'tude, troubled teen Katherine "Kit" Gordy (AnnaSophia Robb) has been suspended from school, had a misdemeanor arrest, is facing an arson charge, and, as the school psychologist points out, is so disengaged from school that she got an F in gym. Kit's never gotten over the death of her beloved father when she was nine, and her mom (Kirsty Mitchell) and stepdad (Jim Sturgeon) are at a loss as to what to do with her. Dr. Sinclair (Jodhi May) recommends she be sent to the remote, isolated, and ominously gothic-looking Blackwood Boarding School, run by Madame Duret (Uma Thurman, apparently entering the "sinister boarding school headmistress" phase of her career). There's only four other students--Izzy (ORPHAN's Isabelle Fuhrman), Sierra (Rosie Day), Ashley (Taylor Russell), and pyromaniac mean girl Veronica (Victoria Moroles)--all with behavioral and psychological issues, though Madame Duret is certain she can find the artistic, creative young women within. It isn't long before aspiring painter Sierra is crafting brilliant, ambitious canvases, brainy Izzy is solving impossible mathematical equations, and Kit, who long ago abandoned her interest in music, is playing emotionally-draining and difficult pieces on the piano, almost as if a spirit has possessed each of them them and is bleeding the art out of them. And of course, they start seeing ghosts in the hallways along with other supernatural happenings, all of which are written off by the clearly up-to-something Madame Duret.





Directed by Rodrigo Cortes (BURIED, RED LIGHTS) and co-written by Chris Sparling (BURIED, ATM, THE SEA OF TREES), DOWN A DARK HALL benefits from some well-crafted, Guillermo del Toro-esque production design in the long corridors of Blackwood, but once the horror kicks in, too much of the film is spent trying to watch Kit wander around in almost total darkness until an occasional spectral jump scare appears in the frame. Robb (SOUL SURFER) is convincingly angry without coming across as too obnoxiously bratty, and Thurman has some fun with a freewheeling, all-purpose Euro accent as Madame Duret, but DOWN A DARK HALL has too many tedious stretches, and once its ghostly goings-on are explained, it doesn't really hold up to much scrutiny even by horror genre standards, especially considering that the recruitment of these "gifted" girls has been going on undetected for quite some time. It looks great when you can see what's going on, and the setting, the characters, and the climax definitely have some enjoyable shout-outs to SUSPIRIA, but even with the easy box office of YA-based horror, it's not really a mystery why Summit and Lionsgate relegated this misfire to VOD this past summer with its 2016 copyright still displayed in the credits. (PG-13, 96 mins)


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