Swirling around the central conceit that social media is a bad thing and we’re all addicted, Friend Request marks the English language debut of director Simon Verhoeven, and those who have already seen last year’s innovative horror Unfriended will feel plenty familiar with some of the ground it covers, albeit in a markedly different way.
As with Unfriended, Friend Request spins a horror yarn in which a group of young adults come up against more than they bargained for online. Meet Laura (Alycia Denam-Carey), bright, young, pretty. She has an abundance of good things in her life, so much so that it seems as though she fell smiling out of a Coca-Cola advert. And she has over 800
At college she attracts the attention of squirrelly Marina (Liesl Ahlers), about as rote and cliché a depiction of the young outsider as you’re ever likely to see. Marina adds her on
Facebook. Accepting, Laura is shocked to discover that she is in fact her only friend. Out of a sense of pity and obligation she puts up with an increasing amount of stalkerish behaviour from Marina before cutting the cord. Marina promptly offs herself, recording the event and sending it out onto the web. Shortly thereafter all manner of spooky supernatural shenanigans start taking place as Laura’s circle of friends starts to drastically reduce in often violent and spooky ways. Marina is out to get Laura from beyond the grave, using technology against her, whittling her friends down one by one.
What follows isn’t necessary bad per se, but instead thunderously average. Almost contemptibly routine. Friend Request is a thoroughly modern Hollywood studio horror film (WB) with all the lack of ambition or innovation that comes with it. The set-up and delivery is textbook. Once a couple of deaths have established a trend, Laura and her besties become little Nancy Drews, investigating Marina’s back story through clues already delivered to the audience in jump-scare form scant moments earlier. Unfortunately Laura’s Scoobie Gang are rather anonymous, not least of all her who-is-he-again? boyfriend Tyler? (William Moseley?).
The ‘scares’ when they’re donated to us are of the frustratingly cheap variety, telegraphed far in advance of their occurrence, more inclined to induce annoyance than fear. Friend Request isn’t scary, but it sure is annoying.
Nevertheless there are the bones of a serviceable Ring-esque horror movie here, but one of the largest problems facing Friend Request is how much better and more compellingly it’s ground was covered by Unfriended last year. That movie took place almost entirely within a single laptop screen. Sounds awful, but it worked surprisingly well; note-perfect for the sense of dread and suspicion it was tapping into. Verhoeven’s film is presented efficiently and unremarkably as yet another anonymous horror film, one with very little to distinguish itself.
There are a few scant saving graces, notably the subtler moments dotted throughout the film like Easter eggs. After one violent brush with death occurs, the film fades through to Laura waiting in a hospital corridor. The colour scheme of the hallway is an exact match for
Debnam-Carey is committed in the lead role, carrying the film through, and she is at least ably supported by Connor Paolo as token-nerd Kobe. Between them they almost make up for the shambles that is much of the rest of the cast. And it’s also worth noting that the most visually arresting moments here are the occasional animated sequences that litter the opening stretch; animations of Marina’s that provide the first clues to her twisted (and thoroughly generic) heritage.
For these handful of positives Friend Request skirts falling into outright disaster. Truth be told, it’s difficult to get heated about this movie one way or another. Verhoeven has delivered a product for Warner Bros, but one that is almost totally devoid of character, nuance, depth or intrigue (and which features a lot of product placement for Apple). It’s as though it’s been designed for an audience with a 0% attention span, it’s creators assuming with a shrug that the millennials in the cinemas and at home on their sofas watching, probably aren’t watching; they’re on their phones, checking their
*Perhaps unsurprisingly, Facebook haven’t allowed their product to be used or named directly in this film, and so we are treated to something that looks very, very, very similar to Facebook but technically isn’t.