Remember the good ol’ days, when all it took to get butchered in a horror movie was losing your virginity? At least sex is interesting! Now you can get haunted from beyond the grave for “unfriending” someone. Which is a made-up action. It’s, to coin the lingo of our time, a digitally native concept. Breaking up is a real thing. Not being friends anymore is a real thing.”Unfriending” means you clicked a thing on the internet that said “unfriend” — regardless of the fact that being “friends” with them in the first place was a hollow gesture. I mean, I’m friends with my mom on Facebook (and dear lord, how I tried to keep her off of it but here we are). That woman literally gave me life, and her profile shows up on my friend list next to old coworkers and people I went to grade school with, folks I may not have shared an in-person interaction with in more years than I’ve even been ON Facebook.
(And I’ve been on Facebook since it was called “TheFacebook” and only a handful of colleges had access to it. You know how we used it back then? To connect with kids you went to class with, so you could get the homework assignments when you skipped because of your fucking hangover. And of course — drunk party pics. SO GET OFF MY LAWN.)
All of which is to say that I was ready to go HAM on this fucking movie. I’d been gleefully preparing my arguments about how horrible Facebook is all week. I didn’t think I needed to see a single frame. I’d go, eat some popcorn, be underwhelmed, then sit at my computer and work my big girl pants into a twist about the uselessness of social media and the degradation of society. Friend Request would be nothing more than a spring board for my philosophical tear down our digital existence.
But then I went and saw the movie. And dammit — it turns out it’s actually worth talking about.
It’s not a great movie. Let me get that out there right up front. In 5 years, will you remember watching it? Or that it even exists? Nah, probably not. What it is, though, is just promising enough to be frustrating. Originally released over a year and a half ago as Unfriend in director Simon Verhoeven’s native Germany, the film had to change title because of another little social media horror film that made some waves: 2014’s Unfriended. Whereas the earlier film also used a social media specter (and, oddly enough, the concept of a viral suicide video), that’s basically the end of the similarities. While Unfriended put a technological twist on the found footage horror format, Friend Request unfolds in a much more straight forward manner. Sure, you’ll see Facebook profiles. Oh, how you’ll see Facebook profiles. But the entire story isn’t told through that singular lens.
What Friend Request captures successfully is the sinking dread of losing control over your online persona. And if it had stuck to exploring that aspect — the helplessness of being judged based on a social media presence that is out of your hands — it would have been far more memorable. Sad as it is to admit, the most tense moments in the film aren’t the slayings, they’re the constant error messages every time a character is denied access to their own profile. The inability to remove a hacked post. The inability to delete your own online existence. That is a powerlessness that hits like a gut punch. I hate to say it should rank up there amongst our worst nightmares… but frankly, it kinda does. Because even if you and I know that we can delete ourselves from Facebook or remove ill-advised tweets, we also know that nothing is every truly gone. Everything lives on, somewhere. The internet never forgets. We ARE already that powerless, whether we acknowledge it or not.
There is a trick that’s used throughout the film: a ticker shows the number of friends the main character, Laura (Alycia Debnam-Carey,The 100), has. At the beginning of the film her online “friends” number well over 800 and are still climbing. But as her Facebook profile is further and further hacked, and more sick videos are posted in her name, that number dwindles. Sure, it’s laughable. People are dying! What does a fucking Facebook friend count matter? But paired with the angry looks Laura gets as she walks across campus, it’s clear that what happens online doesn’t strictly stay online. Nobody gives her the benefit of doubt. No one approaches her to ask why she would post such horrible things. She was nice, and happy, and popular, and then she wasn’t. Our “friends” are willing to accept either reality and act accordingly.
Doesn’t that sound like an interesting story? Too bad Friend Request only flirts with those kinds of themes rather than digging in. Laura and her friends are exactly what their profiles make them seem. There is no duality, no sense that someone might make themselves look happier or nicer online. And speaking of “on the nose,” Laura and her roommate Olivia (Brit Morgan, True Blood), are literally learning about Internet Addiction Disorder in their Psych 101 class! It’s there that Laura first encounters Marina (Liesl Ahlers), the lonely new girl who smiles shyly from under her hoodie while picking out her own hair. Marina, you see, is an anomaly. Sure, she suffers from Trichotillomania, but more importantly she HAS NO FRIENDS ON FACEBOOK! When she sends the titular friend request to Laura, our protagonist is so nice that she accepts. She is intrigued at first by the beautiful dark artwork Marina posts… until she scrolls farther down to find the much more disturbing images residing in Marina’s timeline.
Laura thinks she’s simply Marina’s first online “friend” but Marina thinks it’s something more. And when the new girl doesn’t get invited to Laura’s birthday shindig, she takes it personally. Here again the film brushes up against something that actually feels like a real, earned fear: the misinterpretation of our online relationships in the real world. You and I know that just because we’re all “friends” online doesn’t mean it translates equally offline. Regardless of what Facebook says, I will call my mom on the phone but I won’t likely be calling that kid I took lifeguarding classes with when I was 17. But what if someone breaks that social contract of expectation? If you’ve known the horror of accidentally “liking” a photo you didn’t want anyone to know you’d been creeping on, then you can imagine the deeply resounding weirdness of encountering someone who doesn’t experience that shame. Who will, in fact, go through all your old photos and like them, or comment, or photoshop herself into them. What if the Facebook stalkers we have to fear are the ones who don’t even know that Facebook stalking is wrong?
When Marina angrily confronts Laura about the birthday incident, Laura “unfriends” her. And then… Marina kills herself. Which is how the woo-woo spooky bad shit starts, with the suicide videos and the profile hijacking and whatnot. Marina’s motivation is to make Laura feel the loneliness that she herself felt. To tear down Laura’s perfect life, full of friends and Instagram filters, piece by piece. It’s when the bad shit shifts from the technological to the supernatural that Friend Request loses it’s bite. Turns out that the creepy dead girl is more than just an online specter, to the film’s enormous detriment. All the needless backstory and explanation of how Marina is doing what she’s doing takes away from the impact Marina could have as a, let’s say, digitally native villain. Also, frankly, the supernatural aspects are just REALLY dumb. And it trickles over into even the clever bits of the film and sours them.
And there are weird bits of cleverness that might impress you. For example: in Laura’s friend group there is Tyler, the hot guy she’s dating (William Moseley, fucking Peter Pevensie from The Chronicles of Narnia!), and Kobe, the nerdy guy who is totally pining after her (Connor Paolo, fucking Serena van der Woodsen’s little bro on Gossip Girl)! Tyler is a surfing med student because of fucking course he is, look at him. Meanwhile Kobe is a beef. Just kidding! He’s a tattooed, vaguely mopey hacker. Given that this is a horror movie, Tyler should wind up being too good to be true, while Kobe should be the one who will be ride-or-die for Laura until the brutal end. The film plays with those expectations, especially as far as Paolo’s character is concerned. You know what? I’ll say it: Eric van der Woodsen is the secret weapon of Friend Request.
But enough about what’s interesting. I said this wasn’t a great movie, and I fucking meant it. The deaths are standard, run of the mill jump scares with a lot of overused imagery. The twist ending lands with a dull thump while thinking it’s far more clever than it is. And despite this being a horror movie, there were still a few too many nonsensical plot contrivances that kept pulling me out of the story. Like, Laura — can’t you try a little harder to PROVE to the cops and the school that you have lost control of your profile? All it would require is opening your laptop and showing them the error messages. Then maybe call the Facebook support line a few more times?
Also, and I know I said this before but I’m gonna say it again: the supernatural elements are crap. It deserves repeating. Because that’s the thing, this film isn’t irredeemable. It proves that there is fear to be mined in our social media existence — fear that is intrinsic to they way we live our lives online, and the vast chasm between that and the real world. Which is why it’s so disappointing that Friend Request took the good ideas and plastered over them with a thick layer of uninspired, hackneyed bullshit — all because it didn’t have the confidence to let Marina be an inexplicable evil, or the skill to explain her haunting in a way that didn’t rely on timeworn clichés. In the end, I didn’t walk out of the theater scared of Facebook. I walked out being exhausted by it, and hating it. Which is how I felt to start with.