Friend Request reads like a baby boomer’s campfire story about the internet based off his granddaughter ignoring him on a long car ride while she tries out new Snapchat filters.
Making a horror film set in the digital space of social media isn’t a bad idea in itself. If we’re talking about the isolation and loneliness that sets up harrowing sequences between potential victims and ghastly monsters, the typical subjects of mainstream horror spend more time these days on Facebook than they do in wooded cabins or secluded beach houses. The problem with Friend Request is in its execution. It’s a horror film that legitimately expects you to be terrified when a character tries to delete her Facebook profile and is unable to do so. Any film that thinks viewers are going to shit their pants at an error message dialogue box doesn’t deserve the benefit of the doubt.
German director Simon Verhoeven (no relation to Dutch director Paul Verhoeven) has crafted a foreign production ostensibly set in a reasonable simulacrum of an American college town that is exactly as tone deaf as one might imagine. Friend Request is about Laura (Alycia Debnam-Carey), a girl we know is popular because she has a thousand Facebook friends, a hot surfing med-student boyfriend and an astonishing number of hazy, bleached-out selfies on her timeline. Everything in her life is as happy as a pretty white girl in a Neutrogena commercial until she makes the common mistake of Facebook friending a weird, lonely girl from her Psych class. Marina (Liesl Ahlers) is everything Laura isn’t. She has zero friends, awful hair and a Facebook profile filled with moody animated shorts that look like pre-viz for a Tim Burton movie. Marina mistakes Laura’s well-intentioned pity for genuine compassion and loses her entire shit when her messages go unanswered and she’s not invited to an intimate birthday party. She’s so pissed she, uh, decides to commit suicide by simultaneously hanging and burning herself on camera after a picture of Laura is torn up and engulfed by the flames.
Laura is understandably racked with guilt, and when her Facebook is hacked and the suicide video is uploaded from her account, it feels like the movie is going to actually go an interesting route. The film’s first act is littered with heavy-handed setup for a story exploring our reliance on the internet and its hazardous effects on the way we relate to others. The attention paid to Marina’s art and her uncanny penchant for producing animation that would normally require an entire studio to create implies that maybe her “death” video is a fabrication and she’s faked her suicide to get revenge on Laura. That would at least make a little sense thematically and would open the door for some interesting observations about how our digital lives affect our real ones, however basic and overt that commentary might be.
Instead, Friend Request goes the supernatural route, with Marina basically haunting the internet like a vengeful spirit and picking off Laura’s friends one by one. This is a movie that keeps an ongoing counter of Laura’s dwindling number of Facebook friends. How’s that for adherence to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs? The kills are suitably over-the-top and there’s a healthy number of legit jump scares to keep audiences on their toes. But in between those moments of genuine tension, Verhoeven returns to the well of hand-over-mouth reaction shots and close-ups of Facebook—David Fincher made an entire fucking movie about the creation of Facebook and didn’t have this many cutaways to laptop screens and cursors dramatically hovering over the “unfriend” button.
The inherent hilarity at this film’s curious reliance on ringtones and recognizable notification sounds as a shortcut for suspense and unease is bad enough, but it’s not the most insulting element. The film actually takes time to set up real questions about interpersonal relationships in the digital age. It even has the gall to make all its main characters classmates in a psychology class! Yet when it comes time to unpack Marina’s motivations, every single character reduces her to a stereotype and refuses to say anything about her obvious mental health issues, even when a flashback to her youth heavily implies she was sexually assaulted on more than one occasion. Laura’s irritating friends who pressured her to ignore Marina in the first place are intended to elicit sympathy every time one of them gets their much-deserved comeuppance, while Marina is reduced to an ill-defined boogeyman because the screenwriters seemed to think making a laptop screen into a witch’s black mirror was an impressive enough narrative device to not have to do any heavier lifting.
The final act is baffling in its ineptitude, as one of the supporting character’s totally goes off the rails before we’re treated to an anticlimactic conclusion anchored by one of the dumbest final images in recent film history. Friend Request reads like a baby boomer’s campfire story about the internet based off his granddaughter ignoring him on a long car ride while she tries out new Snapchat filters. That this half-baked script made it through a number of hands and still got a green light should serve as inspiration for any budding filmmakers afraid that their ideas aren’t good enough for Hollywood. Relax, young would-be Tarantinos; there’s always room for more garbage.