Stephen Susco didn’t plan to make an R-rated movie that played like one of the most cruel studio horror films we’ve seen since the Saw era. A massive fan of the first Unfriended, he wanted to make a PG-13 thriller and put his own spin on the desktop-POV style he found to be so thrilling at first exposure. But that objective was at odds with Susco’s other desire: to make a horror movie that reflected the state of the world and the way people assess the humanity of strangers in 2018.
“I’m not a big social-media fan, you might have detected,” the director tells Vulture. “And one of my biggest problems with it is under the name of making us more connected and bringing us together, it seems like it’s only driven us further apart. We’re kind of more tribal than ever before. All we are doing is yelling at each other more. We’ve had this startling rise in suicide and sociopathy among teenagers, and there’s an obvious connection to social media.”
The result of Susco’s frustration with the widely broadcast atrocities of the digital age — and within it, the rampant degradation of women — is Unfriended: Dark Web, a movie about a group of friends who assemble for a game night via group chat, and who end up being hunted by internet nihilism in human form. A hooded figure demands the strangers comply with his orders, otherwise bad people will enter their homes and make them suffer in unspeakable ways. So basically, he’s the weaponized promise of a Twitter troll made good. And leveling up the terror throughout is a series of videos unearthed by the primary protagonist, Matias (Colin Woodell), when he starts nosing around the used laptop he’s just acquired. The computer’s previous owner was into some seriously bad shit, trading snuff videos with strangers on the internet’s darkest reaches, and the audience gets short — but highly effective — looks at what the videos contain.
It’s those videos that earned Dark Web its R-rating, and distill the senseless violence Susco didn’t want his audience to turn away from. Vulture sat down with the director to break down how Dark Web’s snuff films came to life, why he refused to shy away from such uncomfortable imagery, and how he hopes his movie will prompt discussion about rape culture.
Violence Without Reason
In the Verge’s review of Dark Web, the movie is criticized for its apparent nihilism, with the writer saying, “It’s about as bleak-without-explanation as you can get. Where the original Unfriended had a villain who was driven to murder by the slightly doofy motivation of ‘teen humiliation,’ the villains in Unfriended: Dark Web aren’t motivated by anything at all.” And that’s true. The bad guys in Dark Web have no greater operating principle than “Because we can” — but honestly, would an army of anonymous 4chan trolls give you a better reason for why they doxx and harass people if you asked?
When you’re making a movie about the Bad Internet, you don’t need malicious intent to deliver a product that leaves viewers feeling hopeless. Susco says he was trying to make a movie about a modern world that can’t seem to grow out of its most brutal impulses, and just like in real life, the impulse to do harm online can spring more from dark reflex than reason.
“It’s funny, because I’ve never looked at it as mean-spirited — not that it couldn’t be interpreted in that way,” says the director. “The things that I wanted to explore, one of them was the cruelty in our culture that is very challenging to comprehend. Some people have said that you get to the end of the movie and their motivations don’t really seem clear, and that was sort of the point. I wanted to have the film play in an honest way, even though I didn’t set out for it to be so cruel.”
Making the Snuff Films
“We never wanted to have violence in those videos,” says Susco. “We wanted to see a part of the experience, just to give an idea of what was happening, and let the mind fill in the blanks of what the rest of the videos might have been. I think what people can come up with in their minds is a lot scarier than what I can show them.”
Chilling as they are, the director is right about the snuff films themselves not being very brutal. But what they heavily imply is so abominable that it does trick audience into thinking they’ve seen more detailed horrors than were actually present onscreen. For example, trephination is mentioned, but you don’t actually see a hole being bored into someone’s skull.
For some viewers, though, Susco’s internal reasoning behind them doesn’t make the impact of the morbid clips any less traumatic. The director doesn’t deflect when asked about how his movie might affect assault survivors, and stands firm in his choice to leave the most bracing parts in. “We certainly have had some people who have really lashed out for the triggering stuff, but at the same time, there was going to be no quarter for me on that. I’m just absolutely shocked at how the internet has revealed — again, in 2018 — the way that men lash out against women. It’s is unbelievable.”
Embracing the R-Rating
Thanks to those torture shorts, Susco’s dreams of a (relatively) more polite movie with more broadly palatable rating were dashed. It turns out bringing women’s worst fears to life and shooting them in haunting black-and-white will keep you from getting access to the unaccompanied teen crowd, but the director insists what he’s showing is no worse than the real world.
“The rise of trafficking in this country, and abuse in this country — and all over the world — it’s incredibly shocking to see,” he says. “And that’s why we got an R. I was pretty surprised when we first got it, but then the MPAA said, ‘This is implying some really dark stuff and it plays as really real, and if you want a PG-13 you have to take all those videos out.’ And that to me would have made it a rather toothless movie. Ultimately, I didn’t want to shy away from that. This is the world we live in, and I just wanted to reflect it.”
The Line Between Confronting and Abetting Rape Culture
If Dark Web makes you angry at the way its villains victimize women, Susco wants you to know that he’s plenty pissed off, too. “Any time I want to feel terrible about where we are in the world, I just run around online and read comments and read the way we attack each other — but particularly women,” explains the director. “It’s really alarming, and there was no way I was not going to lean hard into that. I think people are becoming more willing to talk about it, which is fantastic, but we have much further to go to address a lot of rough questions about ourselves. And the violence against women, that rape culture, that is an essential part of that conversation.”
It will be up to each viewer to decide whether or not Susco’s film is part of the problem of systemic violence against women or if it is bluntly forcing people to understand the urgent need for solutions. Empowering as it can be to see a Final Girl kick ass, he knows too what a problematic genre horror can be for women — but still hopes its sledgehammer messaging can get viewers fired up enough to see Dark Web as something other than a diversion.
“I’ll be the first to admit, there’s a weirdness about certain horror movies that seem to get off on violence against women and the way that it’s represented,” says Susco. “I don’t like that. I’m a giant horror fan, and it chafes you to have this genre that you love sometimes feel like it’s actually feeding the fire. It’s a balancing act for sure, and we’re going to get some flak for it. And that’s fine. My hope is that people leave the movie and are thinking about stuff, and that it’s not just ‘That was a fun 90 minutes. Cool.’ Even if it makes them angry, at least it’s provoked something.”