Friend Request: When a Stranger Pokes, by David Bax
Friend Request, directed by Simon Verhoeven (no relation), is mostly a collection of scary movie tropes, slightly reconfigured for the world of Facebook. The social media site is never mentioned by name, however, instead replaced by endless utterances of the words “profile” and “timeline.” I mean, it’s not a movie where someone actually shouts, “The friend requests are coming from inside the account!” But it’s not too far from that, either. Still, while it may be silly and corny and will likely prove largely forgettable, it’s executed with enough care, skill and sadistic joy to guarantee a fun time, not to mention enough jolts to make sure you spill most of your popcorn.
Alycia Debnam-Carey (The 100, Fear the Walking Dead) stars as Laura, a well-liked student at an unnamed coastal university. She and her friends (including fellow CW veteran Connor Paolo from Gossip Girl, not looking any older than he did when that show bid farewell five years ago) seem to exhibit a healthy balance of good grades and good times. But when Laura shows a bit of kindness to pale, gothy Marina (Liesl Ahlers), a student with no friends in the real or digital realms, she opens a can of worms (actually, wasps), unleashing supernatural cyberstalking havoc on herself and her peers. If that all sounds like a bad episode of Black Mirror, at least Verhoeven seems aware of it, dropping in a few oblique references to the series.
Let’s get one thing out of the way. Friend Request is often a howlingly dumb movie. For example, there’s a running bit where Laura’s Facebook friend count is shown rapidly dwindling as Marina or some other malevolent force keeps posting graphic, disturbing videos on her account. Every time this happened, the audience in my screening laughed out loud. Not only is it a tone deaf, out of touch stab at capturing the importance of online validation to millennials, it’s also completely implausible. I don’t think it makes me cynical to assume that if someone started sharing security footage of a young man bashing his own brains in against the wall of an elevator, their number of followers would be more likely to increase than drop.
Remarkably, though, as stupid as Friend Request can be, its characters are not. Instead of running headlong into danger like most of the death toll fodder in such movies, these folks mostly react with a healthy sense of self-preservation—not that it helps them. The only time they put themselves directly in harm’s way, it’s out of purpose and necessity, with a plan to confront and vanquish the evil that’s plaguing them. This is less indicative of a smart screenplay than it is of how doltish so many other horror movies can be.
In between the plummeting friend counter and the boneheaded dialogue (“That chick is just damaged!”), Friend Request keeps things lively with a steady output of solid creeps and scares. Marina’s hobby of making macabre Flash animation sets the spooky atmosphere and then Verhoeven’s camera luxuriates in it, keeping the viewer on edge with its sinister patience. This is a film that understands the potential energy of unoccupied or obscured space in the frame and then repeatedly shocks you by bringing the scare in from someplace other than where you’re looking for it.
Friend Request won’t go down in history as great horror cinema but it will provide above-average returns for those seeking frights and thrills in the dark with their friends and sweethearts. Just try not to pay too much attention to the confused message. As much as it wants to have something to do with Internet addiction and superficial friendship, it fails to make the case that Laura has done anything to deserve this treatment other than being nice to Marina. So, young people, if you’re popular, it seems all you have to do is steer clear of the weird kids.