A popular college student graciously accepts a social outcast's online friend request, but soon finds herself fighting a demonic presence that wants to make her lonely by killing her closest friends.
September 22, 2017
Rated R for horror violence, disturbing images, and language
Matthew Ballen, Philip Koch
Alycia Debnam-Carey, William Moseley, Connor Paolo
Let’s consider expectations for a moment. Feels like lately that most modern of institutions, social media, has turned life into an echo chamber, a bully pulpit, a political bullhorn, an utterly exhausting exercise in hyperbole, or at the very least a moral “choose your own adventure”. Whether we label them trolls or Trump, the alt-right or social justice warriors, there must always be an “other” to demonize. We spew bile at 140 characters, quibbling over who doxxed who, the true meaning of Anita Sarkeesian’s “garbage human” moment, Nicki Minaj’s butt, but there is really only one sin that atheistic Millennials believe in. For the love of Christ, don’t sit on the fence.
I write this as a preface to Friend Request, the new supernatural horror film from director Simon Verhoeven, because hyperbole seems to not only be the theme of the movie, but also the theme of reviewing movies like this. Friend Request is not a great movie, but it does manage to be satisfying at times. It’s a perfectly safe bet as a jump scare product, which means it’s not particularly challenging. But it doesn’t pretend to be something it’s not. If the recent marketing debacles of It Comes At Night and mother! are any indication, horror audiences aren’t particularly fond of having that social contract violated. We do have our expectations. In short, you’ll get what you paid for.
Popular college student Laura, (Alycia Debnam-Carey), feels sorry for the social outcast in her psych class, Marina, (the excellent South African actress Liesl Ahlers, made-up to look like a Lizbeth Salander / Carrie White mashup). Poor, plain Marina has zero friends on Facebook. Insert South Park jokes here; unfortunately, they do apply. Marina is emotionally disturbed, exhibiting signs of trichotillomania, the irresistible urge to pull her hair out. Marina also has an artistic bent, uploading short films to her Facebook that are both surreal and macabre, (or a Tim Burton ripoff, take your pick). Ultimately, Laura is too creeped out by Marina to continue to be her friend. In retaliation, Marina ritually sacrifices herself on camera, turns into a disembodied, vengeful witch, and terrorizes Laura through her Facebook page. This is where Friend Request completely screws up its tone.
The “your Facebook is haunted” hook, as seen in all the marketing for the film, is inherently stupid. For all it’s Japanese horror trappings, à la Ringu with its spirituality versus technology, one simply can’t escape the inherent silliness of the premise. However, the biggest asset Friend Request has is it’s two main characters, but it abandons one of them before the halfway mark. All because of the hook, that surefire way of marketing the movie to its chosen demographic. That’s why I know this is a perfectly satisfactory horror product, but it could’ve also been a genuinely decent film.
As the second act kicks in and the ghostly murders begin to happen, I couldn’t help but regret the loss of Marina’s character. For all the themes Friend Request goes for, (ethics in social media, identity theft, groupthink, violent content being uploaded for entertainment), the soul was simply gone from the story. The movie misfires because it uses Facebook as a plot point, rather than what it is, a McGuffin. Marina becomes a supernatural monster, but we barely know anything about her. Certain revelations happen later, pieced together like a mystery story by Laura, as if Marina were a Samara or the boogeyman. But Marina was a person in the story. She should have been treated as such. Her tragic history should have come from her own lips. We could have seen the pain and loneliness she experienced in her life, making her ultimate fate all the more emotional. But Friend Request isn’t interested in emotion. It knows you came for the blood, and there will be blood. Plenty of it.
Simon Verhoeven gives us the most flat, workmanlike way of making a horror movie. Many of the scares are obvious, right down to the cliché of a character opening a fridge door, shot in profile with the door obscuring the background. Tension music mounts, the audience snickers, steeling themselves for the monster to appear when it shuts. We’ve been conditioned against cheap tricks like this. Of course the moment ends in a fake out, but the audience is laughing anyway, because it’s not clever. Like a standup comedian relying on the same shtick after twenty years, Friend Request becomes painfully stale. So many scenes fall back on draining out the soundtrack, and then pummeling the senses with a loud noise; the kind of malarkey Paranormal Activity has relied on for over a decade. It’s rote by this point.
Friend Request would have benefited from more authorial direction. Many may demonize Darren Aronofsky or Lars von Trier for perceived stylistic fascism, (I myself have taken umbrage with their more annoying pretentions in the past). But at the very least, they competently speak the visual language of film. That is the reason why Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1973) becomes a classic, and Kimberly Pierce’s remake becomes a dumpster fire. It’s not because of the story being told, ludicrous or not, but how it’s told. When you think about it, many of the scares in The Shining are ridiculous. Really, a guy in a bear costume? Skeletons covered in cobwebs? That’s matinee schlock, but not in the hands of Stanley Kubrick.
The performances in Friend Request are far more solid than the one-dimensional characters the script gives them. Arguably, the acting is the best part of the movie. Somehow Debnam-Carey, Ahlers, actress Brit Morgan, and the rest manage to wring life out of the material. Connor Paolo was my favorite. His character, Kobe, is given the unenviable task of trying to explain all the supernatural shenanigans. Any actor who can look at a line of Facebook code and say, “I’ve never seen this before, this looks like a spell” with a straight face is a hero in my book. And there’s a neat little twist with Kobe at the end, but I won’t spoil the fun.
Friend Request arrives in theaters on September 22, 2017.