“DARKNET, Episode 1″ (Webseries Review)
There’s been such a dedication to surprise twists and audience subversion in modern horror that many of the attempts to do so never really feel organic or, by proxy, earned. In a way, the groundwork laid by Alfred Hitchcock, Rod Serling and Arthur Conan Doyle of allowing subtlety and character development to bring the shock of the story full circle has been lost over the years, as a need for new storytelling techniques have all replaced that nuanced craft with bait-and-switch narrative structures that often give way to plot holes. And even though the “full circle” structure is often built upon against-all-odds coincidences, they never condescend to the audience, rather allowing them to put together the puzzle and come to the realization on their own terms.
However, it’s this storytelling mechanism of interconnectivity and interwoven fates that make the pilot of Vincenzo Natali’s webseries DARKNET one of the most fun and freaky episodes of horror television to come out of the web. Implementing a narrative surrounded by the presence of an online destination that serves as host to the horrific underbelly of the human condition—secret worlds of caught-on-tape terror such as snuff films and human trafficking—DARKNET weaves together multiple stories through those engaging in the website. The show acts as malevolent nesting doll, waiting for the audience to familiarize with its ominous atmosphere before revealing yet another sinister story underneath its skin. And most of all, it’s incredibly resourceful and never exploitative of its audience; it realizes that with this narrative structure, there’s a certain amount of predictability to the concept, yet it’s getting to that inevitable spot that evokes the most dread, almost in a way of a “long con.”
The pilot, written and directed by CUBE and HAUNTER helmer Vincenzo Natali, is a suspenseful piece of work, showing the filmmakers penchant for simplicity and patience is still as effective as ever. Natali’s changing perspective is crafted in traditional fashion and reminiscent of Polanski in that there’s always a sense of mischievous and tense voyeurism within every shot, and when the eventual horror is revealed, the result is not only gratifying, but logical in it’s payoff of the technical skill that preceded it. Cinematographer Alex Gomez sets up a sleek, brooding composition to the story’s visuals, set against an industrial cityscape that sets up the long, vacant world which parallels the dark, dangerous world of DARKNET. And the minimalist score from Alex Khaskin is wonderfully old-school and appropriate to the classically informed atmosphere of the episode.
Of course, as with many of Natali’s projects, the technicality on display mirrors the level of acting in the episode, which often requires long, physical performances over talky dialogue. If anything, the dialogue, which is still good, serves as a courier between each silent, mood-driven set piece. The lead performances from Michelle Alexander and Will Bowes are great and absolutely believable, and their reactionary and involved acting is instrumental to how it draws you in. Likewise, the appearance of Natali regular David Hewlett is a welcome surprise, even if his place in the story adds a terrifying spin to the site itself.
Simply put, DARKNET is captivating, brutal and absolutely horrifying. A piece of horror television that’s more concerned with unbearable tension and intelligence than engaging taboos and shock-and-awe surprises, DARKNET is a refreshing twist on modern horror. Natali utilizes a conceit that’s never been properly handled in horror before and does so without an arbitrary need for supernatural involvement (at least not as of this first episode, which largely restrains the horror to the depths of human depravity).
Vincenzo Natali and producer Steve Hoban (who directs the second episode of the series) have raised a significant bar for the rest of the episodes, but one well worth raising. The pilot is defined by a less-is-more style, one that is reminiscent of the golden age of horror. In fact, in utilizing that curiously hypnotic style, the series puts you in the same position of its ill-fated victims, as you’re ever so easily caught up in the disturbing seduction of DARKNET.
The pilot for DARKNET, directed by Vincenzo Natali, can now be seen on Darknet Files.