The scariest thing in Simon Verhoeven’s social media-themed horror film Friend Request isn’t any of the frequent gruesome onscreen killings of its young characters. Rather, it’s this warning that keeps popping up on their computer screens: “An unknown error has occurred. Please try again later.” Just typing the words brings on a shudder.
No doubt you’ve encountered a variation of the phrase at some point or another. And you’ve probably also kept careful track of how many friends you have on Facebook, looking on enviously at other members with higher numbers. This film, like such predecessors as Unfriended, taps into those technology-based anxieties. Unfortunately, it squanders the opportunity to explore them in a meaningful manner by resorting to tired horror movie tropes. It’s too bad, because Friend Request starts out promisingly.
The story revolves around Laura (Alycia Debnam-Carey), a university student who has a hunky, supportive boyfriend (William Moseley) and tons of friends, both on Facebook and IRL (if you have to look that up, this movie probably isn’t for you). Since her social media friends number is over 800, Laura doesn’t mind accepting a friend request from Marina (Liesl Ahlers), a hoodie-wearing, Goth-like fellow student. It’s not surprising that Marina has made the request, since her friend tally before Laura signs on is exactly zero.
Marina, whose Facebook page is filled with her original creepy drawings and animations, soon becomes obsessed with Laura. After Laura lies to her about a birthday party, Marina becomes even more unhinged, to the point where Laura is forced to unfriend her. Marina’s response is to post a video online in which she’s seen committing suicide by simultaneously hanging and setting herself on fire.
That would seem to be the end of Laura’s involvement with the disturbed young woman. That is, until Marina begins cyberstalking her from the grave and posting horrific videos in Laura’s name. Laura finds herself unable to delete the videos or even remove her account. And then her friends wind up being systematically murdered in bizarre, supernatural-drenched incidents often involving swarms of black wasps. Even worse, onscreen graphics illustrate how Laura’s number of Facebook friends begins dropping precipitously.
The screenplay by Verhoeven (son of director Michael, The Nasty Girl), Matthew Ballen and Philip Koch works reasonably effectively until roughly the film’s halfway point. It’s then that the storyline devolves into a series of gruesome Final Destination-style deaths that, while admittedly shocking, don’t show us anything we haven’t seen before. As Laura enlists the services of a hacker friend (Connor Paolo) who finds himself in way over his head, Verhoeven employs a series of jump scares to increasingly familiar effect.
Although visually stylish and imaginative — the short bits of animation on display wouldn’t be out of place in a Tim Burton film — Friend Request gets less interesting the more it goes on. Still, you can’t entirely dismiss a horror movie in which unfriending someone on Facebook is vividly depicted as the ultimate act of brutality.
Production companies: Wiedemann & Berg Filmproduktion, Seven Pictures, Two Oceans Production
Distributor: Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures
Cast: Alycia Debnam-Carey, William Moseley, Connor Paolo, Brit Morgan, Brooke Markham, Sean Marquette, Liesl Ahlers, Shashawnee Hall
Director: Simon Verhoeven
Screenwriters: Matthew Ballen, Philip Koch, Simon Verhoeven
Producers: Quirin Berg, Max Wiedemann
Executive producers: Byron Allen, Carolyn Folks, Jennifer Lucas, Chris Charalambous, Mark Borde, Richard Barner, Chad Doher
Director of photography: Jo Heim
Production designer: Sylvain Gingra, Tommy Stark
Editors: Denis Bachter, Tom Seil
Composers; Gary Go, Martin Todsharow
Casting: Tannis Vallely
Rated R, 92 minutes