If you’re the type to be aware of something like Friend Request, this week’s social-media-based frightener that was filmed in South Africa, is set, seemingly, in America, and was released originally in Germany under the title Unfriend, you might also remember 2015’s Unfriended. This film is hoping that you don’t. Both involve a group of young people being terrorised by a classmate who was cyber-bullied into suicide, but whereas Unfriended (which went by Unknown User in Germany, making the idea-theft somewhat less egregious) was a clever bit of genre fare that ably turned the familiar quirks of internet life into tools of suspense, Friend Request is a weakly imitative piece of ****.
The irony, of course, is that had Friend Request been released first, even unchanged, it would have at least seemed conceptually novel rather than flagrantly fraudulent. As it stands, we can only be thankful that the copying and pasting didn’t include Unfriended’s central gimmick, which was that it unfolded entirely from the vantage of a teenage girl’s laptop screen. Friend Request opens things up a bit, letting us see our protagonist IRL. Her name is Laura (Alycia Debnam-Carey), a college sophomore who, out of pity, accepts the friend request of Marina (Liesl Ahlers), the lonely girl who sits at the back of classrooms and yanks out strands of her hair. Because Laura spends so much time on her non-specific social media profile, free from claims of copyright infringement, she apparently missed the memo sent by popular media and network news that goths are ******* mental. Luckily, though, she’s about to find out first-hand.
Thanks to a lengthy, sort-of flashback sequence, we get to see Marina take Laura’s act of casual decency as an invitation to cyber-stalk her; liking all her posts, sending constant video chat requests, and following her around at school. Marina’s page is full of unsettling photos of mangled faces and black-and-white videos of people stomping on dolls, which should be a clue as to her hobbies, which include the summoning of wasps, the random manipulation of office hardware, and supernatural murder disguised as suicide. Speaking of suicide, Marina hangs herself over a roaring fire when Laura walks back her act of charity and unfriends her. I think what the film is trying to say here is that if you give a weirdo an inch they’ll take a mile.
Socially-irresponsible subtext aside, JUMP-SCARES. And if that shocked you, so might the efforts of director Simon Verhoeven, whose attempts at scares are of a roughly equivalent level of subtlety and sophistication. His film lays out its methods and intentions from the start, with our protagonist watching a video of a cute cat which transforms into a monstrous snaggle-toothed one when she least expects it. You can consider that a finger on the pulse of always-online topicality – certainly a much better approximation of internet culture than the goofy gimmick the film adopts once people start getting offed. See, whenever one of Laura’s chums bites it, a video of their apparent suicide springs up on her not-Facebook page, causing most of her followers to unfriend her. The film treats this as though it’s incredibly compelling, which is to say that the haemorrhaging of Laura’s online popularity is the central dramatic thread of a story in which the ghost of a dead witch torments the vapid social-circle of a teenage do-gooder.
If this all sounds like bullshit, well… it is. Laura and her friends – including her boyfriend, Tyler (William Mosely), her jealous ex, Kobe (Connor Paolo), and her bestie, Olivia (Brit Morgan) – start looking into Marina’s past to determine how and why she’s engineering their dwindling social media fortune. The mythology includes a witch coven, a boarding school, a big fire, and some other stuff. It’s all told in a determinedly uninteresting flashback, which is basically genre shorthand for “none of this matters”. The film’s honest, at least. It’s just a shame that it’s honest about being rubbish. For its occasional flashes of conceptual or visual inspiration – some prescient points about internet addiction being likely to kill you, say, or some nice shots of computer monitors illuminating a dark room – this Friend Request is ultimately one that you’d be better off rejecting.
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Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.