Friend Request is the second “Facebook horror film” to receive wide release in the past two years. That number may either seem too high or too low to you, but it’s certainly fertile pop-culture territory: young, hip kids live their lives online and die for it, mwahaha.
This week’s new film (which, technically, came out in Germany in 2016) isn’t shy about aping the 2015 film Unfriended, and it liberally borrows from the likes of Black Mirror, as well. In good news, this unoriginal horror movie plays smart, funny, and breezy with its material, which is mostly the point of a good slasher flick anyway. It’s certainly not the ultimate “evils of Facebook” film, in terms of either social commentary or pointed, Facebook-related barbs, and its weak ending tanks some of the fun. But there’s still enough solid stuff here to make this a pleasant, beginning-of-autumn horror surprise.
College student Laura Woolson lives her entire life through Faceb—er, sorry, through an unnamed, entirely blue social media network site whose news posts, shared media, mobile messenger app, and general design is a nearly perfect copy of Facebook. She selfies, parties, volunteers overseas, keeps tabs on a cute surfer boy named Tyler, and has a serious case of duckface. We see her early life play out as a social-media montage. Her friend count is above 800.
Her life collides with Marina Mills, conveniently enough, at a college psychology course during a lecture about Internet Addiction Disorder. A professor reminds the class that this disorder is “an escape from things we don’t want to deal with,” and, of course, the students don’t notice. They’re too busy checking their phones and laptops. Friend Request wastes no time outing Marina as a terrifying, made-of-red-flags goth kid, as every early shot of her comes complete with eerie stares and creepy sound cues, and it’s during this lecture that Marina’s across-the-room stares turn into a more overt act: she sends the cute, popular Laura a friend request.
“This girl has zero friends?” Laura’s friend shouts with a laugh later on while flipping through Marina’s bizarre profile. “What is she, 12 years old?” But Laura takes pity on the weirdo, whose social media page is covered with intricate, hand-drawn artwork, and clicks “accept.” Things, unsurprisingly, get weird from there. When Laura complains about her busy life, Marina excitedly and wickedly whispers in response, “too many friends!” People start having eerie dreams. Marina begins obsessively e-stalking Laura. And when tragedy befalls the new kid, Laura quickly realizes that she’s trapped: bad stuff is going to happen to everyone she cares about, especially if they’re connected via social media.
Unfriended has a similar premise: a teenager dies, then she mysteriously takes her vengeance out on a group of friends in a way that connects them all via various chat and networking platforms. But Unfriended lives and dies much more by the sword of its gimmick, which has the entire film take place on the protagonist’s computer screen (with friends’ faces and events appearing primarily via video-chat windows). Friend Request may not be as clever, but it’s infinitely more watchable and actually flexes some really solid set-design chops. It doesn’t look like a cost-cutting horror flick; rather, its creepiest moments take place in a large variety of locations, and that’s key for a fun horror film.
Good horror, so-so tech
“Fakebook” integration happens all of the time in Friend Request, of course, with the good times (emojis and selfies) and the bad times (dropping friend counts, “delete your account” demands) all being shown on screen via familiar UI. But thanks to how the plot unfolds, the social-media aspects ultimately become window dressing for a more traditional horror film story that combines the occult with a shunned outcast.
And the movie really is at its best as a traditional, straight-up horror homage, especially when it dances with your expectations that something awful is about to happen. Creepy sound effects start playing—and in this film’s case, the telltale “Marina is about to strike” sound isn’t a Jason Voorhees’ stutter-gasp but a wave of those cell phone reception buzzes that you sometimes hear in nearby speakers. It’s, quite frankly, an awesome use of the tone. The film’s good scenes borrow from the traditional creepy-stuff guidebook, and you can expect uneven lighting, wasps, doll parts, intricate mirrors made out of animal bones, and silent, faceless children leering around corners.
Friend Request leans more on tension and creepiness than jump scares, and its likable characters and striking artistic and set design go a long way toward making you teeter toward the edge of your seat during these moments. This isn’t as remarkable as, say, It Follows, but it’s also a far more interesting and entertaining horror film than the new It.
The film’s producers have definitely done their tech-based homework in some ways, and the token super-geek character, Kobe, is always accompanied by accurate screens of things like code and searches through the Web’s darker corners. (One blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appropriation of 4chan imageboard content is quite good.) But one crucial point of the film’s logic is totally busted: Laura and her friends see certain, awful content automatically appear on their social media pages, but neither police intervention nor phone calls to the social networking site will let Laura delete her page as it starts becoming otherworldly.
In addition to seriously violating American law (imagine if Facebook never let you delete an account), this angle of the film also isn’t explored in an interesting way. Friend Request could have satirized the modern “fake news” explosion by having people believe soundly untrue stuff spewing out of Laura’s overtaken profile. Or Laura could have tried, and failed, to mount a real-life campaign of battling disinformation, only to find that people were more interested in what social media said on their screens than what she said in real life. Instead, Friend Request pretty quickly gives up on making interesting tech-related statements or jokes. The movie resorts to witchcraft and dark rituals, not computer-related satire.
This shift is still enjoyable and watchable, thanks to a solid cast and serviceable teen-humor script. (Remarkably for Western cinema, the cast is mostly female in a way that feels organic and unforced.) The script’s primary exception comes when one character’s motivations take a bizarre turn near the film’s end. This attempt at a surprise-twist ending fails because its logic runs counter to the rest of the film.
In spite of the shortcomings—and a lack of more interesting cheesy-horror takes on teens’ addictions to phones and oversharing—I found myself pleasantly surprised by most of Friend Request. It’s also a welcome opportunity to resurface the ambitious Unfriended. If you’ve seen neither, I’d say the older film is more interesting, if only by a smidge, while this week’s newer film is certainly more deserving of a theater experience with a laughing and gasping crowd.