The 2014 film Unfriended (released in 2015) was a pretty banal ghost story in which a bunch of generic teenagers are taken to task for their past sins in the matter of a bullied girl who committed suicide. It would be almost insufferably generic and forgettable, except for one very important thing: the entire film plays out in the form of a real-time screenshot of the laptop of one of the teens, as they all start to work out what the hell is going on in a group Skype call. It is an ingenious way of assembling a film about the modern age, not least because of how much data the film gives us that we never, ever use: open tabs, Spotify playlists, the names of files that are never opened.

It was one of the most genuinely revolutionary films of the 2010s (there are similar precursor films, but they neither show the whole desktop nor juggle multiple programs in the same way), and also a film that could basically only be done once: though I hold out hope that one day we might see this approach used in a romantic comedy or basically anything that's not a cheap horror picture, it's not exactly surprising that we haven't*. And of course, anybody trying to do this as a horror film was instantly going to be hit with the accusation "yes, but that's just a rip-off of Unfriended". So it's surely inevitable that the first film to finally take up the baton that Unfriended proffered is an official sequel, Unfriended: Dark Web. And when I say "official sequel", I also mean "but not an actual sequel", since the only relationship between the projects besides their offbeat form are the producers and the word before the colon.

To begin with, Dark Web completely tosses out anything even slightly paranormal. As the title suggests, the film is all about what happens when a relatively normal person accidentally winds up peering in the cobwebby abyss of the "dark web", that lawless frontier of the internet where people buy and sell murders, where child pornography flows like water, and where governments are toppled by bored teenage hackers. So basically, a way for screenwriters in the 2010s to write stories about the internet like they used to write in the 1990s. Specifically, a Los Angeles programmer named Matias (Colin Woodell) has recently come upon a laptop that is not exactly his, and while he and several of his college buddies play Cards Against Humanity over Skype, he keeps getting weird Facebook messages from random women who think he's Norah C. IV, the laptop's legitimate owner. Eventually, he gets found out by Norah C. IV themself, and they are most definitely unhappy with Matias's accidental discovery of the dark web murder-porn ring that Norah C. IV has been involved with.

So basically, it's a really obtuse slasher movie: Matias tries and fails to keep his friends from knowing what's going on, but about midway through the film, he blurts it all out, and from then on, a target has been painted on each and every one of his friends, who get killed one at a time. It is, as such things go, a more colorful slasher film than usual, and not just because of the computer gimmick. The cast are, themselves, an unusually well-defined bunch: indeed, Matias ends up being the most generic major figure in the film. His friends, gathered together for their international online game night, are Serena (Rebecca Rittenhouse) and Nari (Betty Gabriel, who gives the best performance but also should never have been cast: she's too recognisable from her excellent turn in Get Out to feel as invisible as the other actors), who've just announced their engagement (Nari is also, for her part, the sharpest of the group by); Damon (Andrew Lees), a tech whiz in the UK who feeds Matias most of the information he/we get about the dark web; Lexx (Savira Windyani), a multilingual DJ; and AJ (Connor Del Rio), who is the most annoying but also maybe the savvies of the group, himself a left-wing vlogger on the fringes of the dark web. Matias also has a girlfriend, Amaya (Stephanie Nogueras), and his current programming project is to create a digital sign language interface so that he can communicate with her better, though she's grown pretty impatient with his refusal to just learn sign language, and the friction between them plays out in a different window from the rest of the plot.

The film is decidedly better than Unfriended; the characters are better, and have been written and performed just right to feel like enough of a nerdy bunch to be involved in an internet-based horror movie (they are, after all, playing Cards Against Humanity on Skype). The plot is, itself, more tightly yoked to the internet, to its benefit: the ghost of a bullied girl extracting her revenge could and has shown up in any location but pissing off a murder cult on the dark web necessarily needs to happen on a computer, and the bits we see of the dark web have an appealingly old-fashioned design mentality. There are holes in all of this, to be sure: Matias is much too dumb about the way computers work to be credible as a programmer of a fairly involved app, and the plot unsurprisingly pivots on people making obviously bad choices - a whole group of them, no less. But for the most part, Dark Web is a solid attempt at doing this weird thing in a thematically resonant way.

It is, however, less complex than Unfriended. Obviously, it was never going to feel as fresh, but it also feels less ambitious. The computer desktop as a messy, organic thing simply doesn't happen: Matias only opens plot-specific programs, with exception of Spotify, and even that doesn't feel as voyeuristically revelatory as it did in the first movie. Just about the only actively interesting thing that happens is when Matias first turns on the computer and spends time trying to work out the password: it's a neat little backwards way of letting us know that he didn't get the computer on the up-and-up. Otherwise, this is a very simplified version of storytelling through computer programs, without the intriguing corners of the first movie.

The other big problem is that, for all that it's better than I expected it to be, the story is still pretty dumb. Mostly, this is backloaded into the last third, when things start to be revealed about the nature of the particular dark web cubbyhole that Matias has stumbled into. If it was annoyingly dependent on characters making bad choices to begin with, it grows increasingly contrived and implausible. Horror movies that go to hell in the final act are nothing new, but Dark Web starts to break in ways that specifically ruin the relatively plausible, quotidian feeling built up in the first hour. It's still an unusual enough exercise that it's worth a watch out of curiosity, but we're now two-for-two on films in this series that really feel like they ought to be doing more than just presenting the same old shocks in online drag.

*Except that we sort of have: Timur Bekmambetov, a producer of both Unfriended films, directed the political thriller Profile, which has shown up in a few festivals but at the time of writing, has no set release date; and the thriller Searching follows Unfriended: Dark Web to theaters by only a few weeks. For Joe & Jane Average-Moviegoer, though, Dark Web is the first film that makes good on Unfriended's promise.