A few years ago, a delightful little horror yarn called ‘Unfriended‘ hit screens and managed to get far more fear and tension out of staring at a desktop than should have been possible. Few people actually bothered to give it a shot because the concept of an “internet ghost” movie sounded lame. For proof of what a surprisingly impressive achievement ‘Unfriended’ was, we now have ‘Friend Request’, which is basically the garbage internet ghost movie everyone feared last time.
The story follows a popular college student named Laura (Alycia Debnam-Carey from ‘Fear the Walking Dead’), who has so many Facebook friends that the movie needs to keep count on screen. She’s just that beloved on social media. One day, while she’s attending a lecture on internet addiction (because the movie is indeed that stupid and obvious), she catches the attention of a shy and hoodied transfer student named Marina (Liesl Ahlers). Weirdly, Marina has no Facebook friends. None! Can’t you believe it? Laura becomes her first Facebook friend and sees a wall filled with violent, gothic and creepy posts for the Hot Topic crowd. Even worse, Marina starts to get weird and possessive.
When Laura unfriends her, Marina kills herself. A video of the suicide appears on Laura’s timeline and her friend count starts to drop. (The horror!) Next thing you know, all of Laura’s friends are being haunted by jump-scare clichés. Could it be a spooky internet ghost determined to crush Laura’s online social life? Is there any reason why we should give two shits or half a fuck? No!
More than anything else, it’s going to be amazing to see how cringeworthy and dated ‘Friend Request’ feels in just a few short years. The fact that viewers are supposed to feel suspense and anxiety over a friend counter clicking down is laughable. There’s also a scene in which a haunted “Error” screen preventing Laura from deleting Facebook pops up in ways that are supposed to shock. Token efforts to make this nonsense seem like some sort of commentary on internet addiction are dumb, if not downright insulting. This isn’t a movie made by people with anything to say. It’s a movie made by people who came up with a somewhat new hook for the same old scares and think that’ll be enough to sell reheated leftovers to a new generation.
The practitioner behind this nonsense is German director Simon Verhoeven – because this is a European production attempting to pass as an American film like in the grindhouse days. Sadly, he is of no relation whatsoever to Paul Verhoeven. ‘Friend Request’ really could have used the heightened bad taste, shock tactics, camp humor or sneaky intelligence that the Dutch auteur would have brought to the table. Instead, this lesser Verhoeven’s focus seems to entirely be rooted in easy jump-scares. You know, faces popping out of shadows, loud noises on the soundtrack to punctuate supposed spookiness, and for some reason a swarm of CGI bugs. That sort of thing. Easy stuff. Cheap gags. You get a bunch of those old tricks woven in with some C-level high school essay critiques of internet culture. Doesn’t that sound great?
Well, it’s not. ‘Friend Request’ is about as dumb, instantly dated, and lazy as a spooky internet ghost movie could possibly be. Sadly, this lacks any of the stylistic innovation of ‘Unfriended’ or the sly commentary of something like ‘Pulse’ (the Kiyoshi Kurosawa version, not the American remake garbage). It’s entirely possible to make an internet ghost story that’s both scary and clever. ‘Friend Request’ just isn’t that movie. You probably could have assumed that from the trailer, but it’s worth pointing out. This is a truly ghastly attempt at contemporary horror destined to disappear without much fuss and then possibly get a mini-revival once all the bad move appreciation podcasts get hold of it in a few months.
There’s certainly plenty to make fun of in ‘Friend Request’. Whether or not that demands a trip to the theater depends entirely on your commitment to snide mockery and/or irony. Even if you eat that stuff up, I’d advise against it.