It is difficult to emphasize how utterly not frightening “Friend Request” is. Perhaps it would help to point out that the audience erupted into a combination of groans and laughter every time something “scary” happened. In fact, the film’s most horrifying moment takes place when you realize that it’s only half complete and you still need to sit through another 45 minutes of cheap jump scares.
Writer-director Simon Verhoeven’s new film is a standard horror tale with a technological twist. Our main character, a model Facebook user and socially active college student named Laura (Alycia Debnam-Carey), accepts the Facebook friend request of a mysterious and brooding classmate, Marina (Liesl Ahlers). Laura is disconcerted to find that Marina is a bit of a creep — her Facebook wall is filled with disturbing videos and she seems to have an unhealthy obsession with Laura.
After Laura rejects Marina’s further attempts at friendship, Marina kills herself, and, through some never-explained sorcery, uploads a video of her death on Facebook through Laura’s account. Marina’s spirit or something begins killing all of Laura’s friends in increasingly gruesome ways, turning the film into a poorly assembled montage of gross-out violence.
The infusion of the internet into a classic horror tale is a novel idea, but prevents the story from instilling any terror. The internet is just lines of code — there’s no room for us to buy into the spirituality and witchcraft that “Friend Request” claims can occur through Facebook. The film’s pathetic solution to this problem is that one character looks at the code of Marina’s Facebook and instead of seeing HTML finds shimmering hieroglyphics. This cringe-inducing explanation may seem like a small issue, but it’s never fully possible to immerse yourself in the world of “Friend Request” because it’s based off of an unbelievable premise.
In all fairness, it’s extremely difficult to make an effective web-based horror film. The internet connects us to millions of people, inhibiting the feelings of isolation and claustrophobia that horror films thrive on. All of the best horror films operate in an enclosed space: the forest in “The Blair Witch Project,” the spaceship in “Alien,” the Bates Motel in “Psycho” and the Manhattan apartment in “Rosemary’s Baby.” Imagine how unfrightening “The Shining” would have been if the Overlook Hotel had high-speed Wi-Fi connection. We’re not scared by “Friend Request” because we know that the technology is escapable; the characters could always just toss out their laptops.
2017 has been an excellent year for the horror genre. Films such as “Get Out” and “It Comes At Night” used subtle visual techniques and intelligent storytelling to create an underlying feeling of terror that continued even after you left the theater. Verhoeven’s idea of horror, however, is slapping some royalty-free spooky sound effects over cheap editing tricks — a feat easily accomplishable by any tech-smart 10-year-old with Final Cut Pro and internet connection. Stephen King once described terror as “when you come home and notice everything you own had been taken away and replaced by an exact substitute.” To Verhoeven, terror is simply flashing a scary face on the screen to make your heart skip a beat — a decidedly unnuanced way of approaching the horror genre.
If there’s any pleasure in watching “Friend Request,” it’s in how the film depicts our anxieties and misconceptions about social media. To Laura, the real horror isn’t that her friends keep dying; it’s that each death is uploaded through her Facebook account, and more and more people start to unfriend her. After all, what could be worse than a low friend count?
The film’s sarcastic portrayal of social media use isn’t enough to make “Friend Request” interesting. Despite the film’s trim 92-minute runtime, it somehow feels interminably long. In a year filled with thrilling and innovative horror films, “Friend Request” is too uninspired to be worth your time or money.