Here’s something to think about. On August 6, 1991, British computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee published an article entitled “Short summary of the World Wide Web project” to the Usenet group alt.hypertext. That article’s publication coincided with the début of Berners-Lee’s “World Wide Web” as a publicly available service on the Internet. The Web’s success drove the Internet, in 1991 largely populated by academics, students, researchers and computer geeks, to become an essential mode of communication. Its ubiquity is such that to call it “ubiquitous” seems like a gross understatement. If it’s not the most important technological development of the late 20th century, it ranks very high on the list.
In this context, a series like Darknet isn’t merely inevitable. I’m actually a bit shocked that a series with this basic premise–a horror-anthology with stories linked by the recurring plot device of a sinister web forum whose users post disgusting pictures, share snuff videos, and discuss subjects beyond the pale–hasn’t come down the pike before. (Maybe it has–Darknet’s inspiration apparently is a Japanese series named Tori Hada, which I’d not heard of before this.) Developed by director Vincenzo Natali (Cube, Splice) and his production partner Steven Hoban, Darknet promises horror “designed for a 21st century internet mindset.” Can it deliver on its expectations? Let’s find out!
“Darknet 1” (Oct. 31, 2013)
This week on Series: Alison (Michelle Alexander) suspects someone is breaking into her apartment. Gord (Will Bowes) makes contact with a killer on a creepy website called Darknet. Lewis (David Hewlett) discovers strange clues hidden in a series of airport lockers.
“Darknet 1” begins with a young woman (I resist the temptation to call her a “girl”) on a subway train, plugged into hear earbuds, listening to something the subtitles identify as “death metal” but plainly isn’t, and receiving numerous texts reminding her not to forget the onions. The earbuds remain in place for the duration of the cold open, as we follow her from train to station to bus stop, and since the music which isn’t death-metal remains at high volume, she barely has time to register the hooded maniac before said maniac buries an axe in her skull. Welcome to Darknet.
Vincenzo Natali, who wrote and directed the episode, establishes the basic format of the Darknet episode. An arresting opening leading into two or three separate stories, each one having vague links to others. For example (SPOILER ALERT), over the course of the episode, Gord reads about Lewis’s airport-locker mystery and ends up with a piece of evidence in Alison’s case; his Darknet-friend the murderer ends up killing the girl with the onions and the not-death-metal. This gives the plotting a bit of a contrived feel, considering that the episodes are only half an hour long.
The episode’s brevity is both a blessing and a curse; yes, there’s very little character development, but the pacing is so brisk that it’s easy to forgive (or at least forget). But some of the stories beg for further fleshing-out. The tale of Alison’s toilet seat, with its delicious Twilight Zone-style ending, is the only one of the three that truly satisfies, and it earns the right to leave one of its biggest narrative threads dangling. Lewis’s story ends abruptly and begs for further development, while Gord’s ends with a cheap gotcha! moment and doesn’t feature anything resembling a resolution.
On the positive side, strong performances come from the cast, particularly Michelle Alexander and David Hewlett, and Natali puts in a solid directing job–I don’t think he’s anyone’s idea of a great director (his work for Hannibal notwithstanding), but the visuals are engrossing and effective. Overall, it’s a bit on the “meh” side, but as a pilot its job is to pique the audience’s interest in future episodes, and on that level, it works.
“Darknet 2” (Feb. 28, 2014)
This week on Darknet: Barbara (Natalie Brown) teases details of a recent murder out of a policeman. Darren (Kjartan Hewitt) can’t find the source of an annoying buzz in his new apartment. Serial adulterer Chris (Brett Ryan) follows clues promising to lead to a sexual encounter. The possibility of being spied on by a peeping tom fascinates uptight Lora (Lina Roesseler).
“Darknet 2” doesn’t promise much during its cold open. Natalie Brown spends it using that exaggerated “sexy” voice that actresses use when their characters seduce people they’re not really interested in but want to manipulate for their own ends. (You know the voice I mean. I’m pretty sure actual women don’t talk like this in real life, but maybe there are some who do and I just don’t know any of them.) She does it because she wants Greg Calderone, who lays his “nebbishy cop” act on even thicker than Brown does hers, to tell her all about the murder that he’s not supposed to tell her. Meanwhile, the episode subtly teases hints that Brown herself might be the murderer. Wait a second…did I say “subtly teases?” That has to be the booze talking. The only way the episode could be less subtle is to give Brown a sign reading I’M THE REAL KILLER, and we all know what that means: Calderone should be carrying one reading, NO, I’M THE REAL KILLER.
Thankfully, the meat of the episode turns is a vast improvement on its prologue and edges out its predecessor when it comes to engagement value. Chris’s story is the only real disappointment, partially because this is the second episode in a row to feature a guy following obscure clues to a shocking revelation, but mostly because of its horrifically anticlimactic climax. Chris is a total idiot, which does not help matters, but Brett Ryan plays it up to the point where you feel no shame for rooting against him.
Darren’s story mostly works, but it feels rushed, like it needed a full half-hour to itself. The sound design is a bit off: much of the time, I couldn’t even hear the insidious buzz driving Darren to the edge and only knew it existed because of the subtitles. By default, Lora gets the strongest story. It’s a bit on the gratuitous side, but the shock is a genuine one I didn’t see coming, and Lina Roesseler turns her porn stereotype of a character (y’know, the high-strung businesswoman who takes her suit off, lets her hair down and becomes a sex kitten?) into something with a little more depth.
I was also impressed by how skillfully director Steven Hoban and writer Pascal Trottier play on the series’ “linked stories” conceit; you’re supposed to think the stories are linked in a certain way and when they’re not, it’s an actual, y’know, surprise. Overall, enough of an improvement on the début to justify further watching. Or maybe I just think Lina Roesseler is hot.
Season episode ranking
- “Darknet 2”
- “Darknet 1”