Movie Review: ‘FRIEND REQUEST’ unleashes a familiar ghost in the machine

Courtney Howard // Film Critic

FRIEND REQUEST

Rated R, 92 min
Directed by: Simon Verhoeven
Starring: Alycia Debnam-CareyWilliam MoseleyConnor Paolo, Brit Morgan, Brooke Markham, Sean Marquette, Liesl Ahlers, Shashawnee Hall, Nicholas Pauling, Dorothy Ann Gould

There have been some smart movies about tech panic and society’s new-ish horror – our unhealthy dependence on social media. FRIEND REQUEST is not one of them. As much as director Simon Verhoeven’s chiller wants to be taken seriously, nothing but unintentional laughter ensues. Equating it to UNFRIRENDED meeting THE RING is too high of praise. Saying it has the potential of being a slumber party cult classic, a la I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER, is really going overboard. Basically, FRIEND REQUEST is a parental finger-waving on the dangers of FOMO in the digital realm.

Laura Woodson (Taissa FarmigaAlycia Debnam-Carey, the lone actor who makes this material somewhat palatable) lives the picture perfect life – online and off. She’s lots of fun! She’s got gorgeous flowy hair! She’s got lots of friends! However, one day, she befriends the wrong person – weird, gothy outcast Ma Rina (Liesl Ahlers). She’s weird! She’s got trichotillomania! She’s got no friends! Literally, no one until Laura makes that grave decision of clicking that accept button on her FacebookNotFacebook profile. It’s not long before Laura struggles with her newfound friendship with Ma Rina, leading to Ma Rina killing herself in a ritualistic arty snuff film. This (again, literal) viral video meant to torment Laura, inflicts cruel damage on all of Laura’s popular pals too, picking them off Agatha Christie-style, one-by-one, until Laura can figure out how to break the curse. With Detective NoTact (Nicholas Pauling) and Detective NotBuyingIt (Shashawnee Hall) hot on her heels, and the true identity of her psycho harasser clouded, Laura’s got her work cut out for her.

Verhoeven jam packs this film with cheap, loud, repetitive jump scares. He even lines up the clues to let you know they’re coming: the soundtrack buzzes with a digital interference noise; whispers swirl; a barely one-dimensional character turns and walks down an empty hallway; the sound drops out; and then SCREECH! A demonic vision! Over and over again. The accompanying visuals also only go so far. Colored contacts and CGI swarms of wasps don’t do much.

Alycia Debnam-Carey and Liesl Ahlers in FRIEND REQUEST. Courtesy of Entertainment Studios.

Had we grown to care the least bit about these characters (though it feels outlandish to call them that) maybe we’d delight in their comeuppance, or feel sad with their demise. But we don’t. They are all a bland amalgam of meat puppets sucking up screen time – and boy do they in act three when things meander. Plus, it has the gall to set itself up for a sequel.Though I did spend part of the time thinking of a far better spin-off series for the detectives – a LETHAL WEAPON actioner where they solve paranormal crimes – I’d rather this franchise stop dead in its tracks.

Sure, it’s funny to see the filmmakers spectacularly botch things, like when Laura’s macho surfer boyfriend Tyler (William Moseley), in the heat of the killings, gets upset that she’s investigating with puppy-dog-eyed computer-nerd Kobe (Connor Paolo). Not the time or the place, brah. You won’t be able to stifle your laughter at Laura’s blonde bestie Olivia’s (Brit Morgan) line, “Unfriend that dead bitch,” or at tertiary character Headmistress Exposition (Dorothy Ann Gould), otherwise known as Ms. “I’ve Seen Things, Kid.”

Lacking genuine scares, smarts or suspense, this FRIEND REQUEST should be denied and blocked.

Grade: D- (for dumb and dismal)

FRIEND REQUEST is now playing.

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