Ok horror fiends, you know the drill. Every few months some crappy horror film is trotted out to theaters in hopes of making some quick cash for the studios via a big opening weekend. This September, the offering placed upon our altar is FRIEND REQUEST.
(Caution: There are plenty of spoilers below. If you are actually intending to see FRIEND REQUEST, and are still holding out hope for some genuine surprises, feel free to hop off this review. I’m respecting the film’s potential spoilers as much as the film respect’s its audience- not at all.)
The very first scene of the film is a college professor telling his lecture hall that a student has just committed suicide, and the aforementioned “dead” student recorded her “death” and uploaded it to the university’s server. I have to give it credit; FRIEND REQUEST does not spend any time mincing words.
From here, we get a flashback to the two weeks prior. Laura (Alycia Debnam-Carey) ) is a popular and typical college student. We can see this through her celebratory social media montage. One moment she’s on a beach, the next she’s partying with her pretty friends, racking up “likes.” One fine day, a mysterious new student, complete with black hoodie and darting eyes, “friends” Laura on the film’s version of Facebook. Marina (Liesl Ahlers) has zero friends, both virtually and IRL. But her new status with Laura gives her one friend, and she can prove it dammit.
Marina’s obsession with Laura is matched only by the scores of creepy animations she creates and posts to her Facebook feed. Laura is a bit put-off by the dark imagery, but decides that Marina needs a friend, and mistakenly assumes that Marina is harmless. Her obsession with Laura reaches a peak after Laura lies to Marina about her birthday gathering. Facebook never tells a lie, so after Laura is digitally outed, Marina confronts Laura in the dining hall. A little shoving, and some yelling, and next thing we know Marina has killed herself in front of her webcam and we are brought to present day.
I don’t mean to be flippant about such a serious topic as suicide, but the reality is that FRIEND REQUEST is even more dismissive of Marina, and her suicide, than I am comfortable with. In today’s social and political climate, it seems a huge, tone-deaf misstep to characterize the outcast, weird kid, as a harmful pariah. The emo, hoodied kids have it rough enough without yet another horror film painting them as evil incarnate. Also, Marina’s stalking behavior and emotional weaknesses are never tied directly to her dark and supernatural past. Rather, she is painted as a troubled girl who just so happens to have a bit of witch in her family tree.
The reason I used “death” in “quotes” earlier is a giant plot hole in the film. You see, Marina recorded and broadcast her suicide, but not the location of her suicide. This leaves detectives asking around to determine where she might have offed herself. Certainly the first person they would ask would be Marina’s only friend Laura, who just so happens to be the same person who had a public argument with Marina in the dining hall just before her death. This process somehow leads the police to know for certain that a student has died, but they have no body. Maria uploaded scores of videos and clips of death, and wasps, and fires, but even in the complete absence of a body, authorities are convinced that her suicide video is real.
Tobe fair, Marina’s death is real, and it turns out that her method of self-immolation was a ritual to arrange for her spirit to come back and haunt the shit out of Laura and her friends. Marina’s favorite method of ghostly hijinks takes the form of messing with people’s Facebook accounts, and then making them see some scary stuff that isn’t really there so that they kill themselves. She runs through Laura’s friends like a checklist, in typical slasher style.
Though there are some worthy, disturbing images, both on and offline, all of the good stuff happens off screen. The camera consistently goes in for the close up on Marina’s next victim, only to have it cut to black, and then return to the death after it is done. Where is the fun in that?
Even beside the lighthearted attitude toward suicide and the flinching camera, FRIEND REQUEST’s greatest flaw just might be the weight it gives to social media. Though it would have been trite, I was anticipating some degree of questioning the level of devotion these kids have to their Facebook accounts. In fact, the exact opposite is true and the film treats online life as just important, and occasionally more important, than life offline. We see how perfect Laura’s life is through a montage of her online persona. Furthermore, we often see Laura’s name on the movie screen, right next to her friends count. As that count decreases (thanks to Marina’s meddling), so does Laura’s mental health. The number of “friends” is presented as a direct representation of Laura’s happiness. This should be problematic, even to the most die-hard Facebook addicts. Also, as the going gets tough for Laura and her gang, the worst possible thing for Laura is that she loses control of her Facebook account. She reacts more violently to not being able to delete a post than she does to getting stabbed! FRIEND REQUEST is anything but critical of this representation, and in fact makes the argument that social media life is just as important as human life.
FRIEND REQUEST is not only socially irresponsible, it is boring and unimaginative. It’s a shame that all of the talent poured into the film (the performances were mostly good, and the film was well shot) was unequivocally wasted.