Friend Request (2016)

SEPTEMBER 22, 2017


I've seen a couple people make the joke that Friend Request looks like something one might mock up for a film that needed a cheesy horror movie playing in the background (you know, for the two or three movies per decade that don't just use Night of the Living Dead), but for what little it's worth, it's actually the best of this year's crop of college kid-centric horror flicks. Unlike Rings, Bye Bye Man, and Wish Upon, I didn't spend the running time rolling my eyes or trying to keep track of how many plot holes it already racked up - I was actually enjoying it in a low-key, timekiller way until its endless and misguided third act. Props for trying something a little different in one of these things, but it didn't quite work due to not being properly set up, and probably accounts for the film's low grades more than anything else.

And by "one of these things" I mean yet another movie where our heroes get freaked out by a vengeful ghost for an hour or so and then decide that the only way to stop the thing that's been killing their friends is to drive to the old _____ (burnt out commune, here) and put the body to rest or whatever. It's amazing how these places are always a couple hours' drive away from where the protagonists live - just once I want to see one where they discover the old factory/asylum/warehouse/whatever is actually located in another country and they can't find a flight. OR, less jokingly, they discover the place is a full day's drive away, but relatively early in the film, and turn the 2nd half or so into more of a road chase, so that we can at least get a change of scenery and a kind of ticking clock scenario that you don't often get in these sort of movies. But alas, they follow the template of The Ring fairly closely, which might have worked better if we didn't have a genuine (well, technically genuine) Ring movie just six months ago.

Hilariously, like Rings, this one's been on the shelf for a while - it was actually shot in early 2014, and released in Germany last year. Why it took so long to come here is unknown, but oddly enough the movie's approximation of Facebook is a pretty close match to what we have now*, so it didn't feel as dated as you might expect for a nearly four year old production about the internet. They never actually use the name "Facebook" (I call it Fauxbook), but the social media site that the ghost uses to spread her terror is pretty much identical, with little variations in the terminology (like "Spread" instead of "Share") to keep them from being sued I guess. It's a good choice, I think - previous films have built their versions from the ground up, which automatically disconnects the audience its catering to as we instantly recognize it as phony. Here, you might just assume it's the real FB, and so the movie's central concepts - accepting strangers as "friends", the jealous rage one gets when seeing their friends having fun when they weren't invited, etc. - work as intended, without the usual distraction of seeing all the characters being obsessed with a social media app the audience recognizes as fake.

Anyway, for those uninitiated, the central conceit is that a fairly popular college sophomore named Laura accepts a friend request (hey, that's the title!) from Marina, a "weird" girl in her class, feeling sorry for her as she has no other fauxbook friends. Marina's nice at first, but then becomes overly pushy, tagging Laura in all her posts and messaging her nonstop about hanging out, missing her, etc. After Laura has a birthday party that she doesn't invite Marina to, the latter freaks out and kills herself - but she films herself doing it and posts the video on Laura's wall. And then continues doing so, from beyond the graaaaaaaaaave! Or, you know, whatever. Anyway, Laura's social circle starts shrinking as the friends begin dying off one by one in mysterious ways, and videos of their deaths are also posted on her timeline. Because of this, the 800 or so other people start defriending her (after leaving comments like "U R SICK!" and such), and Marina's plan becomes clear - she wants Laura to be "friendless", like her.

It's not the worst concept for a movie, really (plus it's not just a generic online ghost - she's actually a witch!), and if they really dug into the psychology of our obsession with social media and used the ghost-y stuff as more of a backdrop, it might have been a really great little slice of social commentary. The 800+ randoms is something that they don't really explore; we get graphics every now and then showing her declining friend numbers, but who are these people? We only ever see Laura with her five besties and her mom - were the others just complete strangers as well? Does she care that these people, who can't even really be called acquaintances, aren't going to see her statuses anymore? There's a minor subplot about how they can't delete their profiles (Marina's ghost won't let them), but it would have been interesting if she simply WOULDN'T delete hers, because she'd lose all her virtual friends. I myself never take anyone on Facebook that I don't actually know, but I know a number of friends who accept every request they get and somehow notice when one of these folks drop them ("Who unfriended me? I had 895, now I have 894!"), so I wish the movie took more time on the idea that these "friends" aren't actually friends at all and Marina is just one of many who were inadvertently scorned by conflating real life friendship with a virtual one.

But instead we just get the usual shit: someone dies, it looks like an accident, there's a suspicious cop who wonders why our protagonist knows two recent victims of tragedy, then another one dies, lather, rinse, repeat. While I was grateful that their phones had nothing to do with their demises, none of the deaths are particularly interesting (or graphic; the film's R rating is mostly for the six or seven F bombs), and you can easily guess the order in which they occur to boot, so it makes it an even bigger bummer that they didn't spend more time on the online obsession angle. Laura is even enrolled in a psych class that is currently on the topic of social media dependency, and the professor has this John Hurt/Jared Harris kind of authoritative presence, making it seem like he might be a more important character down the road, but he's largely dropped from the proceedings after a while. To be fair she's eventually suspended due to being a seeming liability for the school (even though it happens every few minutes it seems, she never thinks to take out her phone or laptop and show the police that she isn't the one posting snuff films and that her account can't be deleted, so the school thinks she's nuts), but again, it seemed like a missed opportunity not to include this guy on the action, if they wanted to *say* something about the very thing the teenagers in the audience will likely start looking at before the credits roll (the opportunities for a meta sequel are RIPE!).

Now I gotta get into spoilers, so skip the next paragraph if you want more surprises.

All that said it's really not all that bad until the third act, where they make a choice that is laudably unexpected and even somewhat daring (for this brand of horror, I mean), by having one of the friends realize that they can be spared Marina's wrath if Laura isn't alive to be alone. So he tries to kill her, and the finale becomes more of a slasher film chase climax, with Marina just hanging out on the sidelines I guess. I admit I didn't see it coming, but that's largely due to the fact that it's not really set up at all. The would-be killer is her friend-zoned buddy Kobe, who is also the requisite hacker type who offers up exposition like "These posts aren't written with any kind of code that I've ever seen before!", i.e. the kind of shit that means nothing in time that they maybe could have spent hinting at his out of nowhere villain turn. He even kills one of the other friends, which makes even less sense, and this all goes down during an endless climax that has Laura travel to the aforementioned commune, but then to another location after discovering the commune is a dead end. When she's not being pursued by Kobe she's just wandering around dimly lit hallways, with Marina making precious few appearances - so when they have Laura go through these motions again at a different place, I felt my last bit of goodwill toward the movie fade away.

It's not a total failure like its aforementioned peers, however. For starters, they believe in James Wan's rule about fake scares, in that there shouldn't be any - two 'classic' ones are set up (a refrigerator door being held open for an unusually long time, and a fogged mirror about to be wiped away) without the expected BOO! moment after, and there are no sudden doorbell/phone ringing kinda ones, either. In fact, the closest the movie gets to one is not only kind of effective in its carnival funhouse kind of way, but it's also thematically appropriate - Laura watches one of those "Hey look at this cute video" things where the subject (a cat, in this case) suddenly morphs into a possessed demon and shrieks. And then there are a few subtle scare moments without any attention being drawn to them, like when a character turns away from his laptop but his reflection on the screen stays frozen in place. Nothing particularly earth shattering, mind you, but it at least shows they were trying to avoid the pratfalls of so many others, and not wasting the audience's energy on false scare moments. It also makes good use of the fauxbook layout/function to introduce us to all of the primary characters quickly, showing their profiles and an assortment of pics/statuses that inform us what they're like and how they relate to one another in a few seconds of mostly dialogue-free screentime, as opposed to awkward expository dialogue that takes a lot longer. It's a shorthand I've seen in other films, but since this one's actually ABOUT this social media platform, it also works as introduction for how *it* works, for the non-computer types in the crowd who might have little idea what Facebook even is, i.e. the parents that will have to bring their kids to this inexplicably R-rated movie.

So basically it's not a good movie but it's also not as bad as many reviews will have you believe, the ones that will be an unfortunate product of the tendency to grade everything on a "fresh/rotten" scale with no room for the middle ground that it actually occupies. Sure, in the wake of It it might seem like the bottom of the barrel, but comparing this kind of thing to that juggernaut is highly unfair. The film actually belongs in the same class as Bye Bye Man and those others I mentioned, and to my eyes it's an improvement on those (though not quite up to par with the similar Unfriended, which took full advantage of its cyber-scenario and didn't skimp on the death scenes, not to mention fleshed out all of its characters as opposed to just the lead), and after Annabelle: Creation I appreciated something a little quieter that didn't seem to have a mandate to throw a scare at the audience every five minutes. They were putting some effort into making an effective horror film in the vein of the 2002 Ring, so even though they missed the mark I can at least appreciate that I wasn't spending 90 minutes feeling like the filmmakers thought I was an idiot. Much obliged!

What say you?

*Unless they updated it digitally - there was an inordinate number of VFX companies listed in the credits, despite the fact that there aren't a lot of obvious CGI effects for the ghost or kill scenes, which are also very brief anyway. So it's possible they went back and updated the Fauxbook screens to be more timely, as we all know how often they change it.


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