UK Release Date: 20th April 2016
Runtime: 92 minutes
Director: Simon Verhoeven
Writer: Simon Verhoeven, Matthew Ballen, Philip Koch
Starring: Alycia Debnam-Carey, Liesl Ahlers, William Moseley, Brit Morgan, Connor Paolo, Brooke Markham, Sean Marquette
Synopsis: A popular college student finds herself being terrorised through Facebook when a girl in her class commits suicide and promptly starts haunting those who made her feel like an outsider.
Social media horror became a bona fide subgenre last year with the surprisingly terrific Unfriended. That movie’s successor is the delightfully trashy Friend Request, helmed by German filmmaker Simon Verhoeven. It’s a surprisingly entertaining film that takes the inherently unusual premise of haunting through the internet and gives it a sprinkling of social commentary about a generation that lives its entire life through the prism of a friends list.
Laura (Alycia Debnam-Carey) is about as popular as a college student could possibly get, with a heaving friends list and a hunky surfer boyfriend (William Moseley). She takes pity on the lonely Marina (Liesl Ahlers), but rejects her when she becomes something of a stalker. Laura is guilt-ridden when Marina commits suicide and soon finds herself being attacked through the internet by forces from beyond the grave. She enlists the help of BFF Olivia (Brit Morgan) and tech-savvy Kobe (Connor Paolo) to drive the evil presence of their deceased peer out of their lives.
Unfriended succeeded largely on the smart, innovative concept of setting its action entirely within the confines of a computer screen. Verhoeven does not hang Friend Request on a similar gimmick and the narrative unfolds in a far more conventional fashion, with various members of Laura’s friend group targeted for gruesome death when they receive a telltale friendship invitation from Marina. It’s a simple storytelling device, but one that allows for some genuinely creepy sequences that provide something of an unusual take on the usual jump scares favoured by formulaic horror movies.
It’s fair to say that the script to Friend Request leaves a lot to be desired. Liesl Ahlers villain is hopelessly underwritten and too often falls into a deeply conventional cliché role. The film makes some attempts to critique the constructed nature of modern popularity with its over-cranked central character, who is positioned as a pure caricature of what is perceived as popular in the web-native world. Unfortunately, the dialogue never matches up to that glimmer of intelligence. As much as lines like “unfriend that dead bitch” have a certain B-movie appeal, it makes it tough to take the movie’s darker edges seriously.
Alycia Debnam-Carey, best known for her role in Fear the Walking Dead, does a very solid job in the central role and manages to rise above the caricature she is in the script. Debnam-Carey is innately likeable, but also manages to embody the touch of falsehood that marks her out as someone more concerned with their social media persona than who they really are. Credit must also go to Ahlers for managing to find a genuinely unsettling edge to Marina, who is a cardboard cutout of a character on the face of it.
Friend Request never quite captures the same intrigue that made Unfriended such a success, but it does prove that there is something about social media that horror cinema can learn to tap into. It even manages to pack a genuinely bleak twist in the tale that is a stark contrast to the awful final jolt provided by Unfriended, which almost scuppered the entire movie. At its best, Friend Request is a compelling tale with some genuine scares, but it is hamstrung by clunky dialogue and formulaic characters.
Pop or Poop?
It is easy to be cynical about horror movies based around the internet and social media. Friend Request, however, is a film that remembers to be scary and also has some socially conscious ideas to its story, even if the scripting leaves more than a little to be desired.
Verhoeven, in his English language debut, proves himself to be a director with a good eye for a scare and a satisfying grasp of the dark side of the web. The performances, too, are able to elevate the material to leave a genuine chill behind every click of the like button.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.