Every year, we get dozens of horror films that come out in theaters, but many of them are either reboots, sequels or just so predictable that they almost don’t deserve to be called horror films. Four years ago, a horror film came out that channeled the millennial zeitgeist so well that it created its own novel narrative format. This year, Unfriended: Dark Web continues the narrative mantle but improves it with a story that lives in the realm of possibility. Writer/Director of the film, Stephen Susco, talks about his connection to horror, how the unseen is scarier than what is shown, creating an Unfriended cinematic universe, and more.
It’s been about 15 years since The Grudge was released and you’re still going strong in the horror and suspense genre. What do you think draws you to tell these kinds of stories?
Stephen Susco: I’ve always loved scary stories, ever since I was a kid. I read all kinds of books, but there just was something about the Stephen King and Ray Bradbury and Dan Simmons that just haunted me. I’ve always been intrigued by the scary stuff, I just don’t know how to explain it. I also think the horror genre is really vital and is constantly going through convulsions and transformations. I really like the way it allows us to explore ourselves and our darker impulses. It’s ultimately a really fertile genre.
What are some of your favorite horror films or franchises?
SS: All of my favorites are the slow-burning stuff. The Shining, The Exorcist, Alien, John Carpenter’s The Thing, The Sixth Sense, Session 9. My favorites are the ones that grab you by the gut and slowly twists. I’m sure I’m missing a lot of gems in there.
This sequel to Unfriended, Unfriended: Dark Web, follows the same on-screen, storytelling format as the first one; everything happens on a computer screen. As your directorial debut, what was it like working with this format.
SS: It’s one of the reasons I was really excited for the project. I had been looking for a film to direct for a while, but I really wanted to do something that was different and that really spoke to what interested me. When the opportunity first arose, I was both excited and scared by it. The original Unfriended movie was so unbelievably unique in its narrative form and idea. I was interested in trying something within those restrictions, but I didn’t want to do a sequel because it would come off as a pale shadow of something that already worked really well the first time. I was surprised when I said that to them and they were wide open to looking at the franchise as the format, not the story. So I essentially pitched them a diametrically opposed idea. I told them that I wanted to invert everything; I want to do a thriller instead of a horror movie, real-world instead of supernatural, have the violence off camera instead of on, etc. Blumhouse and all the producers were completely onboard with trying something different with the same narrative construct.
Now that Unfriended has become more of an expanded universe, did you have any contact with Nelson Greaves, the writer of the first film?
SS: Nelson was definitely involved, right from the beginning. He wrote and produced the original film so he had been down this path before. He was instrumental since the beginning. He gave me a lot of great advice on what to be prepared for, not just with filming, but with post-production. As lead producer, he watched every cut of the film, and I was very lucky to have him. The movie has a very unusual format and he was the first person to actually try it so his advice was very important to me. It added a lot of security to me because it was a brand new experience for me.
Most of the violence in the film happens off-camera. Do you think it’s more powerful to hint at it and leave our imagination to fill in the rest?
SS: I’ve always believed that what we don’t see is more frightening than what we do. There are a lot of movies that use that same technique. I think Alien is sort of the classic one, where you see pieces of this monster instead of the whole monster making it more frightening. It’s very primal. We’re born afraid of the dark. We’re born afraid of the thing in the closet. We’re born afraid of the thing under the bed. What’s particularly terrifying about them is that every person has a unique idea of what that thing is. It’s much scarier to think about what you’re not seeing than it is to be shown something.
It’s probably better to leave us to scare ourselves in the end.
SS: Yeah, amen. That’s why some scary stories work better in a book because you create your own images in your head. But when you see a movie, that tells you what to see and it defines it for you, making it less frightening than what you would have probably thought about.
In the last decade, long-form horror genre things like TV shows have become really popular.
SS: Oh, I love television. I’ve written a ton of TV shows, but haven’t had anything that’s gotten made yet. I think its phenomenal that this is becoming much more popular. Sometimes there’s a frustration with feature films because sometimes you want the story to go on much longer, and TV is always a fun exercise in being able to explore things at a deeper level. TV really gives you a chance for deeper dives into character and conflict, even within horror situations. We’re sort of living in a golden era of television and I’m really looking forward to continuing down that path in the future.