Friend Request, 2016.
Directed by Simon Verhoeven.
Starring Alycia Debnam-Carey, William Moseley, Connor Paolo, Brit Morgan, Brooke Markham, Sean Marquette, and Liesl Ahlers.
Enjoying college life as a popular student, Laura shares everything with her more than 800 friends on Facebook. But one day, after accepting a friend request from a social outcast named Marina, Laura’s life is cursed, and her closest friends begin dying cruel deaths. Before her time is up, Laura must solve the mystery behind Marina and her Facebook profile, in order to break the deadly spell.
The idea of Internet Killers has been popular in the horror genre for nearly fifteen years, and no one has yet to really get one right. Going back to Feardotcom and .com for Murder back in 2002 and all the way through Antisocial, Pulse, Chain Letter and the ungodly awful Smiley, it just seems like no can nail what makes the Internet a scary place. Hell, even the Hellraiser franchise even tried their hands at it with Hellraiser: Hellworld and spectacularly failed. Last year’s Unfriended was stylistically impressive but failed to meet expectations, and only Nacho Vigalondo fared slightly better with Open Windows. Can actor-turned director Simon Verhoeven get it right with Friend Request?
Popular college student Laura (Alycia Debnam Carey) has over 800 friends on Facebook, and is happy to add one more when she’s approached by goth loner Marina (Liesl Ahlers). However Marina, who has no friends on Facebook and is therefore weird, is far too keen causing Laura to cut ties with her and give her the dreaded ‘unfriend’ trigger. Flipping out, Marina kills herself and now appears to be stalking Laura and her colourful cast of bland friends via social media and their nightmares.
In the beginning, it feels like Friend Request is going to be a Single White Female for the Facebook generation, but it quickly and sadly goes down a very different route. What could have been a more interesting premise becomes a rather standard horror affair, as Friend Request attempts to take elements from Ringu, The Craft and A Nightmare on Elm Street and mould them into one, but never matches up to any of them individually. Verhoeven does craft some really excellent set pieces when he turns the horror dial up, and even his now-standard jump scares are effective and well-earned.
But like many of the Internet Horrors listed earlier, Friend Request falls down some rather steep plot holes which just leave you throwing your arms in the air in annoyance. Laura and her friends discover so much information about Marina and can prove that some bizarre things are happening behind their laptop screens in the code, but they never show this to the police who are investigating Marina’s death or the killings that follow. Its common for the police to be stupid in these types of horror movies (not that this excuses the lazy writing on display), but Friend Request doesn’t even give them the chance to be incompetent. Instead, Laura and her vapid friends are the ones who come off stupid.
It feels like Verhoeven and his script (which is also credited to Matthew Ballen and Philip Koch) is trying to make a comment on the narcissistic nature of social media and how popularity can now be given a hard number (in this case, a friend count) but its never used to its full potential. Throughout the movie we are informed that Laura’s friend count is dropping rapidly, but its not being used as a ‘ticking clock’ correctly. We later learn that Marina wants Laura to feel loneliness she feels, but that comes far too late in the game for the friend counter to mean anything. So, really, one can only assume the dropping of friends is a scare tactic for millennials. “OMG you guys, look how many friends she’s losing!” or, “OMG she isn’t as popular as she once was!” Perhaps the visual of not being able to unfriend someone on Facebook is also a scary prospect that this cynical 30-year old writer doesn’t understand.
That is all very facetious, as Friend Request does have some redeeming features, though even they come with their own issues. Debnam Carey does the best with what she’s given and there’s a pretty solid showing by ex-lover Connor Paolo, but no time is given to her other friends, which makes their deaths seem incredibly inconsequential. And, as stated earlier, Verhoeven does display some expertise when it comes to crafting tension building sequences, but he’s doing what every horror director has done prior. He only gets a pass here because he doesn’t butcher it like some others in his position have.
The real issue with Friend Request lies in its third act, which falls impressively flat. Not only is it taken from the Big Book of Horror Clichés, but it also manages to grind to a halt the pretty solid pacing. Character developments happen out of nowhere and then shockingly lead to nothing, and the actual finale is so rushed is almost feels meaningless. It’s almost as if Verhoeven was worried Friend Request would run over 90-minutes so he rushed through all of the tension in order to get the credits rolling. It’s such a shame as, despite some glaring issues, there are some solid ideas within Friend Request‘s plot. Combining black mirror magic and witchcraft with 21st Century technology and the importance of social media in day-to-day lives is really interesting, but Verhoeven drops the ball massively.
While not the worst Internet Horror you’ll ever see (that accolade still belongs to Smiley), Friend Request is yet another disappointment from the sub-genre. One half-decent performance, some interesting ideas and a few good scares can not make up for its half-baked exterior and gaping holes. Maybe one day we’ll get a movie that proves this genre has been worth revisiting for the last fifteen years, but this is not it. The DVD box art has one review which claims Friend Request to be “unforgettable and unmissable”, but it’s actually the total opposite.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Luke Owen is the Deputy Editor of Flickering Myth and the co-host of The Flickering Myth Podcast and Scooperhero News. You can follow him on Twitter @ThisisLukeOwen and read his weekly feature The Week in Star Wars.