Friend Request (2016)
★ / ★★★★
Decline at all costs because “Friend Request,” directed by Simon Verhoeven, is a most generic horror film, severely lacking in suspense, thrills, and common sense. Even its most utilized tactic to terrorize the viewer, jump scares, is not executed in such a way that one never sees it coming. When the lights go dark and the character detects something is terribly wrong, cue the countdown from fifteen to twenty seconds because the jump scare is coming. The picture does not know the idea of variation and restraint.
The first quarter of the picture shows it has potential to become a horror film that is relevant to its time. When the focus is on how social media is a part of every day life nowadays, it is both intriguing and relatable. It works two-fold. First, it familiarizes us with the lead protagonist’s social media feed and so we get to know Laura (Alycia Debnam-Carey), or a version of her that she wishes the world to know, simply through pictures, short videos, and status updates. Second, it gives the viewer the impression that the material is setting up to comment on how social media has changed our lifestyles, for better or worse.
However, screenwriters Verhoeven, Philip Koch, and Matthew Ballers prove incapable of putting their finger on the pulse of their subject and exploring it in such a way that is both damning, amusing, and true. For instance, the story takes place in a university setting and yet we do not meet characters who use social media in different ways. They are all rather flavorless and boring, simply waiting to be picked off by the spirit of a girl named Marina (Liesl Ahlers) who committed suicide by hanging and burning herself in front of a laptop because Laura unfriended her on Facebook.
Perhaps the material might have worked as a satire. Although unintentional, I was amused by the reaction of Laura’s best friends (Brit Morgan, Brooke Markham) once the spirit begins to go after them and their loved ones. They are rather quick to place the blame for something that Laura has proven she has no control over. One has to wonder at the possibility that maybe the material is making a statement about the fragility of friendship within the context of college and social media. But the screenplay requires depth, or an iota of intelligence, for this possibility to be fully fleshed out.
Initially visually impressive, particularly when showing Marina’s original but somber animations, “Friend Request” falls apart right before it hits the halfway point. Even its nightmare images involving wasps and faceless children eventually suffer from diminishing returns. By the final act, it is challenge to care about any of the characters, where the story is heading, and whether Laura and her friends would live to post another status update.