“Unfriend this dead bitch.”
The horrors of the Internet are vast and numerous. Like driving in a car or riding public transportation, it’s surprising — and startling — how much blind trust we put into building our Internet portfolios, especially on a daily basis. Hell, on an hourly basis. Maybe even on a minute-by-minute basis. The Internet can a dangerous, treacherous place, filled with unknown threats, unsuspecting hazards and lurking villains. The irony that I’m writing these words down on the Internet is not lost on me. With that in mind, I’m admittedly a little surprised by how few horror movies have successfully captured the dread of being on the web. If there’s one thing that we can all relate to — if there’s one threat that connects us all, beyond death and taxes — it’s the peril that comes from signing onto the Interwebs. Alas, the Internet is a fertile ground for frights that remains untethered by recent cinema, especially by the likes of Friend Request, a Facebook-themed German horror import that’s not easy to like — and even harder to love.
Laura (Alycia Debnam-Carey) practically lives for Facebook. Considered one of the most popular girls at her university, Laura enjoys an active social life and has over 800 friends on her account (Side note: I’m most certainly not a popular person, and I have over 1,000 friends on Facebook. Get it together, girl.) She’s well-liked by her peers and, if anything, she has too many friends. What’s a girl to do, right? Living with her three best friends, Olivia (Brit Morgan), Isabel (Brooke Markham) and Gustavo (Sean Marquette), while also very close friends with Kobe (Connor Pablo) and in a relationship with Tyler (William Moseley), Laura is living her best life, and she’s the type of person who wants to be friends with everyone. Literally. That’s why she accepts the dangling friend request of Marina (Liesl Ahlers, in a strong turn), an isolated, artistic and deeply mysterious fellow classmate with no Facebook friends. Until now.
Upon accepting her request, Marina develops a stalker fixation (even a potential crush) on Laura, following her around campus, always complimenting her on her looks and going through her entire profile and liking and commenting on every. single. status. Laura is, at first, moderately charmed by Marina’s behavior, but she quickly grows bothered by her overbearing tendencies. When Marina soon grows aggressive, she can no longer, in good conscience, continue being her friend on Facebook. But when she finally clicks “unfriended” on the familiar blue site, everything in her precious life goes to shit.
Not long after, Marina unveils a video of her suicide on the school’s webpage. Her corpse, however, is missing and it’s revealed that she gave the school a false identity. And that’s just the beginning. Soon, from the dead, Marina begins to haunt and terrorize Laura via Facebook, sending the video of her own death and then promptly hacking her account and posting it on her wall, with all of her friends tagged. She tries to delete the status, but she can’t. She tries to delete her account, but she can’t. She tries to contact Facebook to get them to take down the account, but they can’t. She’s forced to live with the agony that her Facebook account is no longer her own. And that her friend list is dwindling by the day! Oh no!
But that’s not all. Soon, even Laura’s friends — real life friends, I should stress — are similarly terrorized by Marina, finding themselves unwillingly friended by her, similarly threatened by her undead presence and soon dropping like flies from Marina’s spells. Marina won’t rest until Laura understands her suffering and finds herself with zero Facebook friends. There is clearly a history of black magic in Marina’s past, it suffices to say, and if Laura wants to live — and, more importantly, get control of her Facebook account again — she’ll have to track Marina IRL and discover who she really is, away from the Internet.
It’s all terribly silly, particularly when you find yourself writing it out. But that shouldn’t be the kiss of death. If anything, Friend Request is the type of horror film that would greatly benefit from a sense of humor about itself. We, the Internet generation, are nothing if not self-depreciating and ripe for satire.
Friend Request practically needs to have fun with its premise if it wants to succeed at all, and that’s what ultimately made 2015’s similar Unfriended such an enjoyable, charming surprise. Willing to provide stark, brutal commentary on our Internet-focused times, while also providing a fair share of laughs and thrills, that Internet-centered chiller stealthily wins you over with its persistence and cheekiness, even (or especially) during all its silly moments. Friend Request, in contrast, is too dull to own up to its goofiness and too bland to be funny. This clunky, moderately sincere indie horror flick is frustratingly too down-the-middle for its own individual good. It’s not scary enough to earn playing it straight, and when it does try to sneak in a couple gags, they’re more awkward than amusing. It doesn’t find that balance that would win us over either way. It also doesn’t help that it relies almost solely on cheap, predictable jump scares.
Despite some creepy imagery and occasionally impressive atmosphere, Friend Request is a muddled, middling dullard, most especially compared to the exceptional Instagram dark comedy/thriller Ingrid Goes West from earlier this summer. Where that sleeper hit owned up to its depravity and provided a telling, tragic and terrifically, horrifically funny commentary for our generation, Friend Request leaves us with next-to-nothing. It also doesn’t help that it feels as if it should’ve come out back in 2012, instead of in 2017, not long after The Social Network was released and when Facebook was closer to its prime sell date. The film has a weird way of ignoring sites like Twitter, Pinterest, and the aforementioned Instagram, which is what makes it even weirder and more unconnected to our times. When you’re a horror movie centered around online crazes and you feel out of touch, you definitely have a problem.
Now, I’m a relatively young person with a persistently unhealthy addiction to Facebook. Just after I typed that sentence, I promptly checked my Facebook again for god knows what number time today. I really need to do something about my obsession. It’s getting to the better of me. If there’s anyone who should’ve been quivering and shaking in their seat during this movie, it’s me. But I frequently found myself bored by Friend Request. Not simply because it’s generic, unexceptional and generally tame, especially by recent horror standards, but because it fails to give us much of anything. Not every film needs to be message-driven, of course, but Friend Request is practically screaming for some social commentary that it either doesn’t feel compelled to provide or is unsure how to express. Director Simon Verhoeven wants to make a topical, relevant horror film that’ll really connect with the youngsters, something that’ll make them regret their next Facebook visit. Instead, he made something that already feels dated and unrelatable. It’s unacceptable. You still can’t give a “thumbs down” on Facebook, but such restrictions don’t apply here.