After sitting on the shelf since it completed shooting in 2014, the internet-based horror offering Friend Request has the further indignity of being released just two weeks after It, which is still raking in the cash at the box office and leaving little room for other horror movies in the process. And while the movie has a few interesting ideas, scary sequences and interesting visuals, the entire work feels like a collection of cheap jump scares culminating in a lazy, ridiculous ending that feels like the filmmakers had no idea how to wrap the thing up.
The film opens in a college classroom during which the professor delivers the news that one of the students has killed herself. Laura (Alycia Debnam-Carey of “Fear the Walking Dead”) and Olivia (Brit Morgan, best known as Livewire from “Supergirl” or her run on “True Blood”) look at each other in disbelief, at which point the film jumps back in time two weeks to unveil an insane sequence of events that involves a gothy transfer student named Marina (South African actress Liesl Ahlers) reaching out to Laura to be friends on Facebook (although the word “Facebook” is conspicuously never used in the movie). Impressed by examples of Marina’s creepy artwork in her profile, Laura accepts and instantly becomes an object of obsession for Marina who bombards Laura with messages and other stalker-ish behaviors.
The images of Marina hunched over her computer waiting for a response from Laura are so eerie and sad that you almost feel bad for the girl, until she confronts Laura at lunch and humiliates herself in the process, resulting in the rather graphic suicide that combines hanging and burning herself via a streaming webcam from an unknown location. As rattled as the other students are by this, things get much worse when one by one, the dead girl’s account starts friending Laura and her pals who Marina believes wronged her in life. Each person starts having grotesque visions of mangled bodies and giant wasps chasing them, until they end up dead and Laura’s now hijacked account posts the video of the death.
There’s a great deal of discussion in Friend Request about internet addiction, but that’s never really explored as a metaphor for what’s happening to these kids. Something takes over everyone’s account so that they can’t unfriend Marina or delete their profile pages. Also, many of the eerie images created by Marina on her page factor into these new deaths but also provide clues to Laura as to Marina’s history and the possible location of her suicide. There’s talk of orphans, witches and that weird condition where people pull out their hair, but none of it really amounts to anything, especially since the police in this film might be the dumbest in the history of movie cops.
If I did my research correctly, Friend Request marks the English-language debut from German-born actor-turned-director Simon Verhoeven, who has a genuine feel for haunting images and understanding that the scariest thing in the world is what lies just beyond a flashlight’s glow in a dark room. But he has no sense of pacing or ability to generate any real tension without tossing in a dopey jump scare. It’s as if he’s afraid of lingering in the fear, which is exactly what he should be doing. It doesn’t help that many of his cast members (particularly the men, whom I haven’t even mentioned, for good reason) aren’t especially good actors.
Friend Request is more frustrating than outright disappointing, because you can see glimpses of promising concepts. It’s the follow through where things fall apart. And while this work is mostly a bust, I am curious what Verhoeven does next in the horror genre. That’s the positive things I can say about this one.