The past few years have gifted us a couple of great Internet horror movies in Unfriended and The Den. The former, unfairly dismissed by those unwilling to look beyond its gimmicky premise to spot the genius within, lost points in its final moments by ending things on a lame screamer, better suited to a YouTube video than an intelligent horror movie with a strong anti-bullying message. This moment, Unfriended‘s weakest by a long shot, is the entire basis for 2016’s first, but probably not last, Internet horror movie, the tonally inconsistent, bizarre and often (unintentionally) hilarious Friend Request.
Our heroine is Laura (Alycia Debnam Carey, strikingly similar in looks, but not acting chops, to Vera Farmiga), an outgoing, sweet-natured girl with a tonne of Facebook friends. The film’s cleverest moments come right at the beginning, when her social media life is set out in a series of zippy, well-edited sequences bleeding reality with the Internet. After befriending a lonely classmate named Marina (newcomer Liesl Ahlers, overdoing it during her short camera-time), Laura soon finds herself being cyber-stalked and annoyed by the rabid attention of her new buddy.
Upon being unfriended by her one and only friend, Marina kills herself. And, when video of the act surfaces on Laura’s page, everybody starts to think that she had something to do with the suicide. Before too long, her dwindling friend count isn’t the only trouble Laura has to grapple with as her friends are picked off one by one, seemingly by Marina herself. Is the girl back from the dead to wreak havoc on Laura’s life for the heinous crime of being unfriended? Does Laura have something to do with it? Is this story really credited to three separate writers?
Friend Request is a German-South African co-production that locates the action in the US but never once convinces as an American-set movie, regardless of its mostly American cast. With only two names attached – Fear The Walking Dead‘s Debnam Carey, and Gossip Girl‘s Connor Paulo – it has to survive mostly on scare appeal and ingenuity, sadly lacking in both categories. Debnam Carey is a fine heroine, but her drippy boyfriend (William Moseley) weighs her down during what should be her biggest moments, and the supporting cast are mind-numbingly throwaway, thinly-drawn to the point of almost being background extras.
Paulo fares particularly badly among a bad bunch. Seemingly desperate to throw off the shackles of his girly past, he plays a bad boy hacker with a massive, and very attention-grabbing, hand tattoo that looks to have been scribbled on with Sharpie and a mask hanging in his dorm room that suggests he may be part of Anonymous. Tasked with selling the movie’s most ill-conceived, whiplash-inducing turnaround, Paulo devours the scenery with gusto, uttering the line “This…isn’t…code” as though he’s attempting an impression of Christopher Walken.
The problem isn’t entirely his as, with a script this terrible, it’s a wonder any of these poor kids (and adults – one of the cast looks to be at least forty, in spite of playing a college student) can keep a straight face. Lumbered with delivering lines such as “Unfriend that dead bitch” with sincerity, this lot give it more than the job is worth, somehow managing to suggest both that Facebook is the be all and end all, and that it’s also completely meaningless in real life. The problem is that nobody, including the filmmakers, seems sure of what the hell the bloody thing is all about, or why the idea of control of online identity being taken away is so frightening.
Marina is a demon, a ghost, a witch and a hacker depending on what sort of spooky stuff she’s doing at the time. Laura figures out remarkably easily what the girl is up to, robbing the flick of any tension whatsoever (not that it had any to begin with) and, although it takes her a couple of well-scouted creepy locations to fully solve the non-mystery, by that point nobody really cares why Marina is doing what she’s doing. Or, for that matter, Laura’s dull friends who for some reason keep wandering off on their own in spite of the present and very real danger.
Further to this, in spite of being entitled Friend Request, nobody involved with this movie seems to understand how Facebook actually works. When Laura first accepts Marina’s request, she later meets up with her in real life which is something most users just will not do – particularly those with 800 plus friends. And, after discovering that her new friend is a bit of a loon, Laura is forced to unfriend her even though this will not stop her from receiving messages – only blocking Marina will do that. Of course, none of this would matter if the flick was remotely scary, involving, or even tense.
Every single scare is a cheap jump scare. There are just two moments when characters don’t immediately cotton on to something spooky that’s happening near them. Nothing is original, everything stolen from well-established horror properties from The Exorcist to Halloween 2 to A Nightmare On Elm Street. But, as with the movie’s misunderstanding of the appeal of Unfriended, these classic films are pointed to in moments and sequences that are so badly constructed and predictable, as to completely miss the point of what made the ideas brilliant in the first place (several are in the trailer, too, but that’s another story).
There is just one moment when Friend Request gets it kind of right, horror-wise, with a spot-on, rough, and very bloody moment in an elevator that recalls Unfriended‘s infamous blender death. It’s the movie’s bravest moment, the only time a chance is taken. Otherwise, it’s just the same scares we’ve seen a million times over – and can spot coming a mile off – trotted out with the remarkably overdone score screeching whenever it’s time to be frightened. The final act is particularly dreadful, the ending an attempt at shock that is so blindingly obvious Marina might as well have posted it on Facebook for all to see.
It’s a shame, because the movie starts off well enough, with Marina’s suicide announced to a shocked class of students before jumping back in time two weeks to set the whole thing up. Little flourishes, like Laura’s social media landscape and Marina’s creepy, self-made animations, as well as the juxtaposition between the light-filled life of one girl versus the darkness of the other, suggest there may be a good idea buried underneath here somewhere, just waiting to pop out. Unfortunately, it’s never going to be able to emerge amidst meaningless exposition, an utterly contrived premise and a complete lack of scares – or, for that matter, stakes.
Friend Request‘s biggest crime, however, comes with its unearned, and utterly ill-judged anti-bullying message, shoehorned in to make us feel bad for watching the downfall of an outwardly nice girl who didn’t really deserve to suffer in the first place. Of course, it’s difficult to push such a message, however well the intention, without understanding how social media functions in the first place. Where Unfriended forced a group of friends to confront their worst selves, and then punished them for their sins, Friend Request takes a sweet girl and destroys her for the simple act of logging on in the first place.
It’s as mean-spirited as Marina, and you’ll want to unfriend it just as swiftly.
WICKED RATING: 2/10
Director(s): Simon Verhoeven
Writer(s): Simon Verhoeven, Matthew Ballen, Philip Koch
Stars: Alycia Debnam Carey, Connor Paolo, William Moseley, Brit Morgan
Studio/ Production Co: Wiedemann & Berg Filmproduktion
Release: April 22nd, 2016 (UK), US release TBC
Length: 92 mins.