Written by: Matthew Ballen, Philip Koch, Simon Verhoeven
Directed by: Simon Verhoeven
Starring: Alycia Debnam-Carey, William Moseley, and Connor Paolo
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
" I just want to be friends... best friends... forever."
The spirit of 2006 is alive and well in Friend Request, a film you’d swear has spent the past decade collecting dust on a shelf alongside the likes of They, Darkness Falls, Pulse, FearDotCom, and other similar attempts to ride the coattails of The Ring right into the dust. If that franchise’s revival from earlier this year didn’t dredge up enough bad memories from an era overrun with underwhelming knock-offs, then rest assured this latest effort provides yet another reminder that some things are best left to the past. Despite some noteworthy wrinkles and a surprising mean streak, Friend Request never makes much of a case for revisiting this nonsense, especially since its technophobia already feels dated.
Not that it’s really about technology in any meaningful way, of course, no more than Friday the 13th is about summer camp. Instead, Facebook—or at least a reasonable facsimile—serves as the conduit for carnage when weirdo college student Marina Mills (Liesl Ahlers) commits suicide only to return from the beyond to stalk Laura Woodson (Alycia Debnam-Carey). During her lonely, final days, Marina had become obsessed with Laura, looking for any opportunity to hang out and desperate to be considered among the popular girl’s best friends. When her behavior grows obsessive, Laura cuts her off, prompting the poor girl to enact her supernatural form of vengeance. If she won’t be her friend, then Laura won’t have any friends, which is bad news for all the dopes in her life, including shady ex-boyfriend Kobe (Connor Paolo) and current beau Tyler (William Moseley).
What sinks this almost immediately—well, besides the thudding, generic familiarity of it all—is just how vapid these characters are. At no point do you feel particularly invested in any of them, including the supposedly slighted Marina herself. Since the film spends so little time with her or Laura before the hauntings begin, there are no real stakes grounding their drama. From what we can see, Laura might hang out with Marina once before the obsessive behavior starts, then promptly drops her like a bad habit, meaning one girl looks like a psycho stalker while the other comes off as a callous bitch. Just who are we supposed to really care about here? Neither provides a compelling answer, nor do the disposable set surrounding them—even though the script does feign at an attempt at creating some sense of camaraderie with this group, it’s never convincing, and most of them are so grating that they practically court vicious deaths.
To its credit, Friend Request does deliver those, at least for the most part. For whatever reason—probably since a movie with this title seems to be marketed directly at the Baby’s First Horror Movie tween crowd—I assumed this would be watered-down PG-13 junk with little to offer in the way of gory payoffs. Thankfully, this was a misguided assumption, as the film does have the basic decency to off these goons in gruesome fashion. None of the bloodshed is exactly mind-blowing, but it’s a bit jolting to see one guy basically pummel his own face into elevator walls until he dies. One girl blows her own brains out, while another slits her own throat, resulting in a mean streak that’s just perceptible enough to give Friend Request a slight trash quality.
It’s not nearly enough to completely rescue it from its all-too-familiar trappings, though. Neither is the admittedly cool mythology, which trades in the usual ghost business for straight up witchcraft. Marina’s goth look isn’t just some chic fashion statement—it turns out to be a way of life (and afterlife, I suppose) when the nature of her bizarre lifestyle (which includes producing unsettling artwork) is explained when Laura digs into her past. Such a minor detail doesn’t exactly change everything, but it’s an appreciable enough wrinkle to a very tired formula, one that opens the door for black magic rites and some killer black mirror iconography. When a movie feels this generic, you look for any little thing, even if it’s some trippy artwork posted on a girl’s Facebook page.
Unfortunately, Friend Request constantly leaves you grasping for anything like that since it’s so overwhelmingly familiar. Arriving in the shadow of Rings—a film that basically felt like a remake—does it no favors because the story constantly invites comparison to that film’s famous arc, right down to the disturbing circumstances surrounding Marina’s childhood. Of course her mother was dabbling in dark arts; of course Marina’s spirit is attached to the site of a ritual-gone-awry; and of course Lauren is tasked with tracking down the site and setting that spirit free. You have seen this before many, many times, though Friend Request might be the first such movie to pair its heroine with her ex-boyfriend just to generate some more cheap drama.
I will say that development at least allows for an off-the-rails finale that largely abandons the supernatural shenanigans in favor of slash-and-stalk nonsense. Wisely sensing that Marina is only out to off Laura’s friends, Kobe surmises that he can spare himself of a grisly fate if he just knocks his old girlfriend off first. Sound logic, if not completely sociopathic and apropos of nothing that happens beforehand. Some obvious friction sparks between Kobe and Tyler throughout the film, but Laura hangs out with her ex without much incident at all—in fact, she might share more screen-time with him, so this climactic turn of events feels totally cheap and unearned, no matter how surprising it may be.
There’s probably a decent (if not relevant) movie to be gleaned from the scraps scattered about here. Throughout the movie, an on-screen graphic keeps a running tab on the number of friends Laura loses because she can’t delete her hijacked Facebook account, which becomes Marina’s favorite haunt. Each death is inexplicably captured on video and mysteriously appears on Laura’s page, prompting everyone—including authorities—to assume she’s some sicko. Like Unfriended before it, Friend Request captures the horrors of public shaming, if ever so slightly—again, it’s not really about that because that would require it to be about anything beyond delivering rote, tame spookiness and empty, schlocky payoffs. In many ways, Friend Request feels like a feature-length take on one of those cheap, annoying internet videos that draw you in, only to jolt you from your chair with a loud noise—as if it couldn’t feel any more dated.
Indeed, this is the latest in the line of duds that leave you wondering just how anyone thought this deserved a wide theatrical release (especially since it was released overseas over 18 months ago) when any number of the year’s more daring indies could have used such a boost. With its faint embellishments, you can almost see some trash potential in Friend Request, but even these base ambitions remain quite out of reach.
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