The encounter between the lead characters and The Circle evokes a wider sense of anxiety regarding the extent to which we upload information about every area of our lives into the digital network, and the lack of control we truly have over this information once it is circulated within the frictionless, immaterial sphere of cyberspace. The hackers are able to exert an enormous amount of power over the central group of friends, but they can only do so because the lead characters have voluntarily inputted so much of their information into their electronic devices. The various technologies that are turned against them haven’t been imposed on them from above; the characters willingly monitor their lives through vlogs and social media pages.
* * *
Stephen Susco’s micro-budget, self-reflexive horror film Unfriended: Dark Web (2018) opens with an image that will be familiar to many viewers who have attempted to watch a movie on a poor-quality media piracy site: a low-res version of the Blumhouse logo appears out of the darkness, its texture blurred with digital noise and its motion glitchy and awkward (Figure 1). This eerie de-familiarisation of a recognisable logo through the deliberate addition of image artefacts typically associated with amateur video and illicit textual reproductions not only establishes Susco’s tendency to generate scares through the distortion and degradation of digital footage, it also reflects transforming habits of media spectatorship in the age of ubiquitous computing. The filmmaker recognises that the majority of his viewers will view Unfriended: Dark Web at home on a computer screen, that they will have it open as just one tab amongst a flood of other content vying for their attention, that they will likely pause, rewind, fast-forward, or skip moments at will. Some spectators will purchase a HD video file of the film or find it on a legitimate streaming site, but many others will scour the web for torrents, wading through ad-infested pages and sorting through copies marred by compressed picture quality.
Throughout the feature, Susco creates tension by destabilising the boundary between the diegesis and the media-technical context the film is embedded within. The entire feature is presented as a screencast, with the protagonist Matias engaging with the events depicted through interaction with his laptop screen. The screen is divided into multiple sections, each of which depicts an action that unfolds simultaneously alongside the events shown within the other frames. A webcam feed showing the reactions of Matias is the only image that remains on-screen for the entire runtime, seemingly playing out in real time with no cuts. Numerous other windows appear, disappear, and reappear throughout the film, such as written chat boxes, web pages, video files in the form of MP4s, animations, and Skype feeds that connect the protagonist to the other main characters. At times, there are only one or two windows on-screen, at other times there are up to twenty, bombarding us with information in visual, written, and audial forms. Because Susco’s images are designed to mimic the design of a computer screen, watching Unfriended: Dark Web on a laptop can often seem like an uncanny experience. The viewer may mistake Matias’s cursor for their own and attempt to move it, or they may mistakenly attempt to click on one of the tabs that only exist in the diegesis of the film.
A major reason why Unfriended: Dark Web is such a powerful exemplar of the digitally constructed horror film is that it not only incorporates the language of new media into its aesthetic design, it also engages with prevalent cultural fears and anxieties connected to new regimes of digital communication on a thematic level. The plot concerns a group of young people who are targeted by an expansive ring of cyber-criminals after Matias finds an abandoned laptop at a nearby diner. Upon logging into the device, he finds that it is filled with unnerving material: violent video files, confidential information on other citizens, and applications that enable access into “dark web” channels. Most distressingly, Matias finds that a cryptocurrency transfer with a value of $10 million has been passed on to the laptop’s owner, with a cryptic accompanying message implying that it is his payment for taking part in the production of a snuff film that has been circulated online. Matias explores the contents of the device while connecting with his friends through video-chatting and text-messaging programs. Before long, the laptop’s original owner – a nefarious blackhat hacker referred to only as Charon IV – makes contact with Matias, revealing that he has been observing the actions of the group all evening through his access to their individual webcams and that he has gathered a substantial amount of personal information on all of them by hacking into various online databases. Charon IV reveals that he has tracked down the address of Matias’s girlfriend Amaya and threatens to murder her unless Matias organises a laptop transfer. Matias makes an ill-judged attempt to ensure Amaya’s safety by cashing out the $10 million into his own bank account, promising to return it to Charon IV so long as he doesn’t lay a finger on her at any point during the handover. However, this action draws the attention of a flood of other hackers connected to Charon IV, who all belong to a transnational hacking and trafficking network called The Circle. Desperate to maintain the secrecy of the organisation, members of The Circle begin to kill off Matias’s friends, one by one. Matias can only watch helplessly as this violence unfolds, unaware not only of the identities of the attackers, but also of the scale of the organisation. The hackers use complex VPN systems to avoid detection, assume fabricated online identities, trade in crytopcurrency to avoid interaction with financial institutions, and they implant a bug in the laptop operated by Matias that makes them appear as hazy blurs when they materialize in front of his webcam. At the end of the narrative, it is revealed that the entire night has been a ruse set up by The Circle: the hackers deliberately planted the laptop in the diner for a bystander to find, so that they could partake in a regular ritual that they call “Game Night,” during which they terrorise and ultimately murder a randomly selected group of civilians.
Unfriended: Dark Web, then, updates the slasher movie formula to reflect contemporary fears regarding networked social relations, mass surveillance, the fragility of identity, and the precarious nature of privacy in the digital age. It is precisely because the feature is firmly rooted within an easily identifiable horror movie formula that it is able to disarm us so effectively by twisting the familiar into the novel. The desktop-based concept requires the filmmakers to fundamentally reconceive of the ways in which these familiar tropes and plot details are formally constructed. For instance, the structure of the desktop film does not allow for dialogue sequences to be captured in a shot-reverse-shot pattern, as such a technique would require the filmmaker to cut away from the protagonist’s screen. This self-imposed limitation encourages Susco to think creatively about how to depict crucial exchanges of information between characters. The majority of the dialogue sequences in Unfriended: Dark Web are constructed so that the face of the speaker and the face of the listener(s) are visible at the same time, often surrounded by a myriad of other pictorial elements that hold the potential to draw the viewer’s eye (Figures 2-3).
Unfriended: Dark Web is a particularly effective example of the small but notable subgenre that has come to be known as the “desktop film.”1 The desktop film stages its action in the form of an extended screencast that unfolds over real time, typically guided by the central figure of the computer operator who engages with the digital interface to contact other users, scour text-based web pages, access videos and other files contained on the hard drive, and explore online archives. Although this form was once primarily practiced within the fields of the essay film and gallery art, it is increasingly being embraced by narrative feature filmmakers. In addition to the Unfriended series, the trend is exemplified by films such as Aneesh Chaganty’s Searching (2018), Ben Chanan’s Cyberbully (2015), and Rob Savage’s Host (2020). In effect, the narrative desktop film imposes on the database a linear cause-and-effect trajectory that provides some semblance of sequential order, even while the composition of the feature breaks away from classical rules of dramaturgy and continuity editing.
The narrative-driven desktop film exists at the meeting point between the traditions and strategies of the classic feature and the operations of new media. As Lev Manovich observes, the computer interface is structured according to the logic of the “database,” as it stores fragments of audiovisual media in a nonlinear, nonhierarchical assemblage that the user may directly interact with and consume in whatever order they desire. If the traditional paradigm of cinematic spectatorship involved the viewer observing a fixed, predetermined series of images projected onto a screen that they were unable to physically touch, then the development of the participatory digital interface has radically transformed the relationship between spectator and screen content. As Manovich argues, in the computer age, the world increasingly seems to exist as “an endless and unstructured collection of images, text and other data, of which database become the only possible way to access it.”2 Engagement with the digital database allows for the user to endlessly manipulate and rearrange pictorial elements that exist as blocks of binary code.
Because the digital image exists not as a photochemical record of light values stored on a material surface, but as an abstract grid of binary code saved to a computer hard drive, the indexical link between the pro-filmic events and its cinematic record is severed. As a result, digital footage is more malleable; unlike photochemical film, it does not exist as a “block of duration,” but as a series of “discrete and definable minimal units (pixels) open to transformations of value and syntactic recombination.”3 As cinematic images are increasingly being produced, edited, stored, and distributed on digital devices, the essential material constitution of cinema is no longer distinguishable from that of a computer, and the spectator has gained a higher degree of agency over their interaction with audiovisual materials. The digitization of visual culture has given rise to what Anne Friedberg terms the “mobilized virtual gaze” of the spectator. The computer screen, Friedberg argues, is not a fixed surface on which images are projected, but a “graphical user interface” that presents the user with “multiple-frame images,” thus challenging the fixed single-point perspective that is a core principle of the classical continuity style in cinema.4
Although the narrative desktop film draws on the language of the computer interface, it does not fully exhibit the logic of the database; it is grounded within the mould of the classical fictional feature while also drawing on the formal properties of computer media to establish new methods of narrative representation. Because the computer database presents the user with a nonlinear array of audiovisual materials and information fragments that they must actively navigate to make sense of, the desktop film is particularly well suited to mystery narratives, which perhaps explains why it has become associated with the horror and thriller genres. In these films, the protagonist/user tends to be burdened with a central puzzle that needs to be “solved,” and this process requires them to search through streams of unordered information contained on various web pages, messages, and computer programs. The lead character of the desktop film, therefore, embodies what Manovich describes as the natural condition for the media-consumer in the digital age: “[The] subject of the information society finds peace in the knowledge that she can slide over endless fields of data, locating any morsel of information with the click of a button, zooming through file systems and networks.”5 As the viewer’s perspective is restricted to the viewpoint of the central character, they only understand as much as they do, and are bound empathetically within this search for meaning. Only in the final moments of the film does the truth become clear and everything that came before resolves into focus. The forging of a coherent narrative out of dispersed and unorganised scraps is, therefore, the very essence of the desktop film; the spectator is encouraged to place themselves in the same position of the user-protagonist who embarks on a process of uncovering and piecing together information through perceptual engagement with the laptop screen – all the while remaining fixed in place as an embodied, corporeal subject, just as the viewer is. As such, the desktop film stages an uninterrupted presentation of the protagonist’s thought process, externalised on screen through methods of computer engagement such as scrolling through websites, reorganising files, and typing messages.
As Sara Magno notes, the desktop film “uses the computer not only as the apparatus through which the film is composed, but the setting for the story to unfold, a story that reflects back on the materiality of the desktop itself.”6 The protagonist of the narrative desktop film typically takes the form of the user who interacts with the computer interface, thereby providing a straightforward figure of identification to perceptually guide the viewer’s navigation through the database. Although the narrative desktop film presents the viewer with pieces of information dispersed across several web pages that exist within the diegesis, the actions of the protagonist provide a linear forward drive that belies the nonhierarchical structure of the real computer database. We witness in the fictionalised desktop film, then, a constant tension between the logic of the database and the logic of narrative; the protagonist acts as a guide who cumulatively generates meaning by piecing together disparate audiovisual materials into a coherent, logical sequence. It is not my intention to downplay the inventiveness or the formal sophistication of the narrative desktop film by making these points; on the contrary, it is the contention of this article that by combining elements of the narrative film and new media, the desktop film holds the potential to launch a substantial investigation into the ontological nature of digital media, its relationship to classical cinema, and its impact on human subjectivity.
As Jing Yang observes, the contemporary phenomenon of the “desktop film” is both a product and reflection of the “diversity and hybridity of transmedia and media convergence that characterises cinema in the digital age,” rooted as it is in the language of “[the] computer screen, the Internet search engine, hyperlinks, social media (such as Facebook), MSN Messenger (such as iMessage), instant video communications (such as Skype and FaceTime), webcast, webcam, video/audio player, cellphone and so forth.”7 Unfriended: Dark Web constantly foregrounds the presence of webcams, smartphones, and other mechanisms of image production and distribution that mediate the characters’ experience with the events of the narrative. The majority of the spotlighted devices are commonplace consumer-grade items, likely to also be found in the home of the viewer. Every action depicted in the film is framed as being recorded through these devices – we never enter the omniscient perspective of a disembodied camera, so crucial to the classical continuity style. But Susco uses a multitude of consumer-grade technologies not merely to heighten the sense of realism, but to reflexively explore the omnipresence of image- and sound-recording devices in contemporary social relations. The image-production tools on display throughout the film do not just communicate narrative information; they actively shape the decisions of the characters and, thus, the direction of the plot. For example, throughout the first act, Susco ramps up the tension by creating an ironic contrast between the jovial chatter of Matias’s acquaintances – at this point unaware of the impending danger – and the increasingly disturbing visual material present on the other windows open on his screen. Visible only as small fragments of the image, each one locked in a tight medium close-up, these characters are blissfully ignorant of the horrific information that Matias and the viewer are privy to. At other times, the unique language of the desktop aesthetic is used to purposefully conceal information. For example, in the film’s third act, one of the friends, Nari, goes against his instructions and calls a police officer for assistance – an action that directly leads to her death. Matias is unaware that Nari has done this until it’s too late, however, because when she steps outside the strictly delineated purview of her laptop camera, she is no longer visible on Matias’s computer screen.
There are two types of camera used extensively throughout Unfriended: Dark Web. The first type is the shaky, handheld DV camera. These cameras are presented in the film as being operated by the characters themselves, and the footage they produce is unstable, jittery, and often obscured by poor light conditions. Camera motion is swift and clumsy by design, as the characters tend to wield them in a manner that is uncertain and unpremeditated, instead responding intuitively to their immediate circumstances. Unlike in the classical continuity style, which provides us overarching, omniscient view of the scene from the outside, the handheld camera is an active participant in the scene, restricted by the subjectivity of whichever character is operating it. Because the character may be distracted, nervous, or unaware of what the important element in the frame is, the viewer must often work actively to make sense of unclear footage.
On the other end of the formal spectrum, Unfriended: Dark Web makes extensive use of fixed, static cameras that are not connected to the subjectivity of anybody present in the diegesis. These include webcams built into computers, surveillance cameras in public streets, and security cameras mounted around domestic spaces. In contrast to the responsive, rapidly moving handheld cameras, these devices are rigid and unflinching. They capture every event that unfolds in front of the lens from a set distance. Their stasis lends them an eerie quality, as these devices do not indicate which details within the frame we should focus on, they do not move to reveal potentially significant actions occurring beyond their field of vision, and they do not register any affective response to violent or otherwise distressing incidents that occur within the space. For example, the brutal murder of A. J. is captured by his built-in desktop camera, which provides the viewer with a deep-focus wide shot of the character’s basement throughout the entire scene. Hearing a squad of heavily armed police officers arrive at his door, A. J. walks away from his computer and walks toward the staircase. Because the camera does not move, he comes to be framed in the background of the image, positioned in the underlit left corner of the screen. The cops open fire on A. J. and he slumps on the ground, his deceased body obscured by an obtrusive banister jutting toward the foreground of the image. The camera remains motionless, and continues to record the room after the death of its inhabitant (Figures 4–6).
But no piece of footage is ever presented to the viewer directly; the interface of the laptop is a constant presence, making the spectator constantly aware of the materiality of the medium. In contrast to the classical continuity style, which effaces the presence of the mediating apparatus so that the viewer may perceive the screen as an Albertian window into a world that exists beyond the lens, the desktop aesthetic of Unfriended: Dark Web constantly draws our attention to the recording medium. As Kevin B. Lee observes, “[t]his form of filmmaking treats the computer screen as both a camera lens and a canvas.”8 In other words, film does not ask us merely to look through the recording apparatus but to look at the apparatus. The film features scraps of footage presented as “prerecorded” material, but they are all positioned as elements that exist within the “frame” of the computer desktop, a single surface that combines all the disparate audiovisual elements that the protagonist interacts with in the “present tense” of the screencast. Of course, the sensation that the film is unfolding as a continuous screencast is only an illusion. Every narrative desktop film is the product of several different events shot/digitally composed separately and then merged together in postproduction to create the impression of real-time liveness. Nevertheless, the blending together of diegetic time and extra-diegetic time in a film like Unfriended: Dark Web is still a powerful strategy for heightening suspense, and the illusion is supported through techniques such as buffering screens, fluctuations in image quality, and other moments of technical “failure.”
Keeping the viewer aware of the material properties of the recording apparatus was, of course, a central feature of the earlier subgenre of the “found footage” horror that gained currency in the late ’90s and 2000s as the proliferation of affordable, consumer-grade DV cameras and the development of primitive online platforms for disseminating amateur footage led to a heightened interest in nonprofessional forms of image production. Features like Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’s The Blair Witch Project (1999), George A. Romero’s Diary of the Dead (2007), and Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza’s Rec (2007) foreground the physical properties of the camera, which is treated as a player in the events as they unfold. These films are told through the viewpoint of a character with little formal training who wields the recording apparatus. The film therefore sustains the illusion that the camera is tethered to the individual perspective of a single individual who lacks a full, cohesive understanding of the situation they have been thrust into – as a result, their perspective is often uncertain, misguided, and fallible. As such, they often become distracted by insignificant details, struggle to maintain a clear point of view, and only capture partial fragments of important events. In these films, the confusion experienced by the protagonist is compounded by the technological limitations of the (typically) low-quality tools at the character’s disposal, with glitches, sun flares, motion blurs, and abrupt focal shifts. In this sense, these earlier found footage horror features represent a significant precursor to the modern narrative desktop film. There are, therefore, two significant differences between the desktop horror film and the more primitive iteration of found footage horror: first, while found footage horror films are presented as prerecorded documents, unearthed at a later date, desktop horror films give the illusion that they are unfolding over real time; second, while the found footage horror film has always treated the filmmaking apparatus as a participant in the action, the desktop horror goes further, incorporating not only the camera in the diegetic space but also the devices on which images are edited, consumed, and distributed.
Unfriended: Dark Web is steeped in a sense of unease and uncertainty regarding the networks of digital information that have come to infiltrate every aspect of modern life, from interpersonal communication, to shopping, to managing a bank account, to downloading a video file. In this sense, the film offers a consideration of the nature of panoptic surveillance within a hyper-modern digital network society. In 1787, Jeremy Bentham described a prison that he termed the “panopticon,” in which all inmates would reside in identical cells organised in a circle-like structure around a giant inspection tower. From this centralised vantage point, the inspector of the prison would be able to monitor all the cells simultaneously, while remaining hidden from the inmates’ field of vision. Because the prisoners would know the inspector could potentially be focusing on them at any moment, Bentham reasoned that they would soon regulate their behaviour to conform to expectations at all times – even in the instances when no guard was present or the guard was distracted, the inmate would assume that they were being watched and police their own behaviour accordingly.9 Bentham’s model of the panopticon forms the foundation for Michel Foucault’s critique of state power in Discipline and Punish. Modern “disciplinary societies,” Foucault argues, operate according to a similar logic as Bentham’s prison, as the prevalence of monitoring devices in public spaces instils within the subject the sensation that they are perpetually being observed, and therefore leads them to conduct themselves in a manner that is aligned with dominant social expectations. Foucault describes this as a process of “internalising” the gaze of the watcher, so that the citizen effectively regulates their own behaviour.10
In Postscript on the Societies of Control, published in 1992, Gilles Deleuze draws on Foucault’s observations to propose that “disciplinary” societies were rapidly morphing into what he terms “societies of control.” In a disciplinary society, the subject is ushered through an assortment of different institutions, each of which imposes some sort of monitoring in a distinct way (the factory, the bank, the school, etc.), while in a “control” society, all these institutions exist as “metastable states coexisting in one and the same modulation.” Control societies “no longer operate by confining people but through continuous control and instant communication,” and therefore “the disciplinary man was a discontinuous producer of energy, but the man of control is undulatory, in orbit, in a continuous network.”11 For Jamais Cascio, the rise of computational communication networks and consumer-grade digital recording devices has intensified the properties of Deleuze’s “control” society. While in the traditional panoptic model, citizens are subjected to the authoritarian gaze of “observers” who expose them to constant surveillance against their will, in the contemporary network society citizens willingly wield a range of digital devices that allow for them to be monitored by state agencies and private companies. While social media sites and video-sharing platforms ostensibly offer the user full control over their online experience, they also require the user to input a large amount of personal data, which then exists in a precarious state online. As Cascio writes, “constant surveillance is done by the citizens themselves, and is done by choice. It’s not imposed on us by a malevolent bureaucracy or faceless corporations.” Cascio refers to this new regime of surveillance as the “participatory panopticon” described as “the emergent result of myriad independent rational decisions, a bottom-up version of the constantly watched society.”12
The social environment depicted in Unfriended: Dark Web reflects the new phenomenon of the participatory panopticon. Indeed, as Jamie Tram observes, the rise of the desktop film is inextricably connected to the popularity of “participatory online platforms such as YouTube and Reddit.”13 Although a desktop horror film like Unfriended: Dark Web does not allow for the spectator to directly interact with the text and alter screen content, the web-like design of its images reflects the immense media saturation and participatory modes of spectator engagement associated with modern audiovisual culture – and it directly taps into the dangers that may arise as a consequence of the individual’s immersion within the data stream. The characters each operate a variety of recording devices, and constantly review, inspect, and discuss the visual content they produce. While these digital information networks offer the user the opportunity to create customisable social media pages, connect with friends, and engage in dialogue with a diverse array of global users, it also renders the individual highly susceptible to covert strategies of surveillance from a range of nefarious sources.
The film at first presents us with a micro-community – a group of friends communicating through a seemingly private group Skype session. As the film progresses, they realize, however, that they are being targeted by a vast network of hackers, who produce and circulate snuff films across the deep web. It is never made clear just how large or powerful this organisation is, and we never get to know the backstory or psychological motivation of any member within the organisation. The Circle is terrifying because they seem to be simultaneously omnipresent and elusive. They are primarily visible not as corporeal antagonists, but as immaterial forces causing havoc within the realm of cyberspace – they intrude into group chats using voice distorters and anonymous avatars, they crash computer programs, they create eerie distortions in Matias’s video feeds, they seize control of other users’ screens to display horrific messages. Even when their violent actions cross over into the realm of the physical, they do not appear as recognisable human forms. Because the viewer’s perspective is filtered through the laptop screen, and because the laptop has been manipulated so that the visages of the Circle hackers are rendered unrecognisable, we perceive them (aside from a brief moment in the middle of the feature in which Charon IV reveals his actual face – but he is only one individual in a much more expansive organisation) as abstract glitches within the image (Figures 7-8). Because the shape and scope of the hacking network remain unknown, and because they never materialize in a concrete, embodied form, the characters are never able to confront them directly. The invisibility and intangibility of the hacking network, coupled with its seeming omnipresence, is reflected of the decentralized, abstract nature of modern, computerized surveillance. The dispersed nature of modern surveillance, its total mobility and its invisible nature, makes it harder to fight or resist.
The encounter between the lead characters and The Circle evokes a wider sense of anxiety regarding the extent to which we upload information about every area of our lives into the digital network, and the lack of control we truly have over this information once it is circulated within the frictionless, immaterial sphere of cyberspace. The hackers are able to exert an enormous amount of power over the central group of friends, but they can only do so because the lead characters have voluntarily inputted so much of their information into their electronic devices. The various technologies that are turned against them haven’t been imposed upon them from above; the characters willingly monitor their lives through vlogs and social media pages. The characters’ daily lives are deeply intertwined with digital technologies, but they never truly consider what may happen to their personal data once it spreads through online networks. The horror in Unfriended: Dark Web reflects the more mundane, everyday fear that we may lose control of our digital footprint; the pervasive worry that we may accidentally download a piece of malware, or open a malicious scam email, or add a fraudulent Facebook friend, and, as a result of this one slip, our lives could be ruined.
Unfriended: Dark Web is filled with moments in which characters discover – to terrifying effect – that they have lost control of their devices: the first twist of the film sees Matias find out that the webcam he previously believed that he alone wielded power over was being used by Charon IV (and possibly other members of The Circle) to monitor his activity; the hackers access private videos and images and broadcast them to the rest of the group; chat windows are muted, disabled, and minimised by remote users to manipulate the lead characters. This anxiety is also expressed on an aesthetic level, as the prevalence of pictorial glitches, digital abstractions, and other forms of computer malfunctions remind the viewer of the ease with which computerised machines can, by the nature of their technological limitations, produce effects that are opposed to the intentions of the user.
I’d like to close this discussion by returning to a point I made in my opening paragraph. The directors of desktop films demonstrate an acute awareness of the conditions under which their texts are likely to be viewed, and they consciously engage with this extra-diegetic context to heighten the spectator’s sense of unease. As Chloé Galibert-Laîné notes, the transformation of the cinematic frame into a mirror of the computer interface results in perceptual confusion for the viewer, creating the illusion that their own “device is suddenly possessed by someone else – it’s like a ghost who is moving the mouse around.”14 The feature begs to be viewed on the private site of a home computer rather than the communal space of a theatre, as doing so produces the illusion that the diegetic horrors of the film are spilling out into the real-world device of the user’s laptop. During tense moments when the characters anticipate further correspondence from the hackers, for example, the spectator may easily mistake a notification on their own device with a diegetic sound effect, or vice versa. If a viewer receives a message while watching, it may take them a moment to determine whether the newly opened window is an actual correspondence from an acquaintance or an in-film development. The strategies employed by Unfriended: Dark Web to produce anxiety and dread intersect with the material infrastructure of the actual digital interface on which it is intended to be watched. Susco’s feature, therefore, is designed to become firmly integrated into the very landscape of new media that it criticises, reflexively underlining its own status as a digitised object destined to circulate amongst the mass of audiovisual phenomena that fills contemporary communication networks.
Unfriended: Dark Web is, unquestionably, a deeply pessimistic film. It sets up a deterministic structure in which resistance to surveillance is impossible, and its characters, we learn, have always been doomed to failure. The effectiveness of Susco’s film lies in its ability to tap into a distinctly modern sense of anxiety pervasive in a computerised network society, mining horror from the tenuous power relationship between ourselves and the post-cinematic technologies we use to mediate our lived experience. And it does so in a way that intelligently translates familiar horror tropes to the aesthetic language and spatiotemporal relations of new media forms. But what prevents Unfriended: Dark Web from reaching the heights of comparable recent features like Jean-Luc Godard’s Film Socialisme (2010), Michael Mann’s Blackhat (2015), and M. Night Shyamalan’s Glass (2019) is its unrelenting bleakness. While these films similarly rail against the threat to civil liberties presented by all-encompassing, panoptic digital communication networks, they also take into consideration the potential for sociopolitical resistance achievable through fruitful engagement with the synoptic channels that exist within these same systems. Unfriended: Dark Web offers a compelling critique of a contemporary infrastructure of online socialisation that erodes the user’s privacy and exposes them to severe levels of panoptic surveillance; but, ultimately, it only offers a prescription and fails to consider a cure.
- See Yang, J. (2020). “Media Evolution, “Double-Edged Sword” Technology and Active Spectatorship: Investigating ‘Desktop Film’ from Media Ecology Perspective.” Juiz de Fora, PPGCOM – UFJF. 14 (1). pp. 125–138. [↩]
- Manovich, L. (1999). “Database as Symbolic Form.” Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies. 5 (2). p. 81. [↩]
- Rodowick, D. N. (2007). The Virtual Life of Film. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. p. 166. [↩]
- Friedberg, A. (2006). The Virtual Window: From Alberti to Microsoft. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. p. 85. [↩]
- Manovich, L. (2002). The Language of New Media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. p. 274. [↩]
- Magno, S. (2019). “Narrative and Database in ‘All That Is Solid,’ a Desktop Documentary.” Galáxia. 41. p. 16. [↩]
- Ibid. p. 129. [↩]
- Lee, K. B. quoted in Grant, C. (2015). “On Desktop Documentary (or, Kevin B. Lee Goes Meta!).” Film Studies for Free. https://filmstudiesforfree.blogspot.com/2015/04/on-desktop-documentary-or-kevin-b-lee. Last accessed 7 April 2022. [↩]
- See Bentham, J. (1969). A Bentham Reader. Edited by Mack, M. P. New York: Pegasus. [↩]
- See Foucault, M. (1991) . Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Edited and translated by Sheridan, A. London: Penguin Publishing. [↩]
- Deleuze, G. (1992). “Postscript on the Societies of Control.” October. 59. p. 5. [↩]
- Cascio, J. (2005). “The Rise of the Participatory Panopticon.” Open the Future. http://www.openthefuture.com/wcarchive/2005/05/the_rise_of_the_participatory.html. Last accessed 7 April 2022. [↩]
- Tram, J. (2019). “Digital Disquietude in the Screencast Film.” Senses of Cinema. https://www.sensesofcinema.com/2019/cinema-in-the-2010s/digital-disquietude-in-the-screencast-film. Last accessed 7 April 2022. [↩]
- Galibert-Laîné, C. quoted in Kiss, M. (2021). “Desktop Documentary: From Artefact to Artist(ic) Emotions.” NECSUS European Journal of Media Studies. https://necsus-ejms.org/desktop-documentary-from-artefact-to-artistic-emotions/. Last accessed 7 April 2022. [↩]