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Non-Review Review: Friend Request

Friend Request does not work.

There is a great horror film to be made about the internet age. After all, the best horror has always reflected the time around it. The witch hunts of the fifties paved the way for The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, while the AIDs panic of the eighties gave way to body horrors like The Fly or The Thing. There is undoubtedly a classic horror waiting to be made about the perils of online life and the strange connections that form through computer monitors. Unfortunately, Friend Request is not it.

"I CAN HAZ FRIEND?"

“I CAN HAZ FRIEND?”

In the world of 2016, an entire generation of people have grown up with the internet; there are young adults who cannot remember what dial-up sounds like. For this generation of young people, the internet is no longer the information superway designed to ferry information and facilitate communication. For the internet native generation, the web is its own ecosystem. It is a rich social universe with its own expectations and unwritten laws, a world of strange connections and unlikely exposure, posing its own challenges and offering its own opportunities.

Friend Request nominally touches on big themes and idea connected to the internet age, but in a way that feels consciously focus grouped. It seems like the script for the film was thrown together by people who had read articles populated with buzzwords like “cyberbullying”, “Facebook stalking”, “memes”“relationship status” and “likes.” The screenplay feels curiously out of step with the world it depicts, like a version of Ringu written by somebody had only heard the concept of VHS described to them in passing.

"This is going to be on my IMDb profile, isn't it?"

“This is going to be on my IMDb profile, isn’t it?”

Friend Request tries to understand social networks, but with the grace of those confused apes staring at the obelisk in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The screens in Friend Request are most threatening when turned off, when their black reflective surfaces resemble the smooth and impenetrable exterior of that strange staring object. The film uses the visual interface that was popularised by Sherlock to relay messages and convey information in the digital realm, a gimmick that seems at least half a decade out of date. A “friend counter” ticks down like a clock towards doomsday.

The result is a hideously confused film. The basic plot of Friend Request wants to hit on issues like cyberbullying and cyberstalking, but does not necessarily understand how those work. The film starts with the suicide of a lonely girl on a college campus following the rejection of her only online friend. However, the film runs into a bit of a problem here. After all, the victims in most horror films tend to be groups of attractive and likeable college kids who form tightly-knit social groups. The baddies in horror films tend to be weird loners who dress in black and do gothic stuff.

Nothing back could come from this.

Nothing bad could come from this.

As such, this leads a bizarre situation where the ghost of a socially alienated young woman who committed suicide proceeds to cyberbully a group of intensely popular cool kids. It is an attempt to build a horror movie around the concept of cyberbullying that seems to side with the kind of social cliques who typically engage in cyberbullying. If only all those isolated and depressed lonely kids would stop bothering those sexy popular teenagers! the film suggests, in a weirdly earnest way.

Friend Request never bothers too much about the logistics of its technological threat. The operators and service providers are largely absent from the film; there is undoubtedly some biting social commentary to be made about how such social networks respond to issues of harassment and intimidation, but the sole acknowledgement that such sites must be hosted somewhere is a brief call in which an operator insists that our heroes have not reached “a call centre.” All of the characters use one social media platform, but luckily it is the platform written in demon code.

"This is just like The Social Network, if those creepy twins were creepy children."

“This is just like The Social Network, if those creepy twins were creepy children.”

Friend Request papers over the fact that it does not understand how its characters use the internet by building a stock horror narrative. For all that the title and the premise provide Friend Request with a hint of social relevance, the basic plot looks like it was assembled from a low budget horror film madlib. There are witches! There are cults! There are weird symbols! There is an orphanage! There are bugs! There are creepy children! Some of whom say the word “forever” in an ominous manner!

Most transparently, there are hints of a vast occult mythology that seems mandated in every horror film since Paranormal Activity. All of this feels terrible convoluted and formulaic. The pattern is fairly rote; characters are killed in horrific sequences that are populated with dream imagery that the rest of the film then pauses to explain. One victim is confronted with a pair of grotesque children, right before our protagonist discovers that that the back story reaches back to involve the murder of two young children.

"We can be friends forever and ever and ever and ever and ever... sorry, I have a mild stutter."

“We can be friends forever and ever and ever and ever and ever… sorry, I have a mild stutter.”

There is something frustrating in all this, as if Friend Request is afraid that “haunted social media” is not a strong enough hook upon which to hang a ninety-minute horror, and so the film has to fall back on hints of a strange demonic cult and obscene rituals and back story that is revealed in a manner not unlike peeling the layers of an onion, but which ultimate says nothing much nor nothing original. It is a very familiar and very rote horror dressed up in twenty-first century imagery.

There are points at which Friend Request threatens to tip into self-parody. At one point, the investigation into the suicide leads our heroine to a creepy boarding school. The principal helpfully provides an ominous info dump about the horrors inflicted upon her students while casually pulling on a cigar as if she has another dozen or so of these exposition session schedule this afternoon. Once our protagonists presses her for some useful information beyond what the films is willing to share at this point, she simply responds, “I wouldn’t know anything about that.”

The horror!

The horror!

When adults do appear in Friend Request, the movie becomes almost self-aware. It seems to be openly revelling in the sheer ineffectiveness of adult characters in teen horror films, drawing attention how completely useless anybody in authority really is. The school administration seems positively relaxed by all this weird supernatural stuff, while the case finds itself in the hands of two of the most ineffective police officers in the history of the genre. At one point, one of the cops finds himself in a frankly absurd situation. All his partner can offer is an exhausted “really?”

Other highlights include a hospital observation ward where nobody ever sees anything, a taxi driver who seems very casual about the fact that the passenger bleeding in his back seat doesn’t want to go to a hospital, a parent who checks in with her daughter precisely twice, and a janitor who really doesn’t think too much about weird lighting phenomenon in the college computer lab. There is some clever commentary to be made about how adults often fail to understand the digital world inhabited by younger people, but Friend Request never makes the connection.

Dial it back!

Dial it back!

Friend Request is not being clever in drawing attention to stock horror tropes by acknowledging them in explicit terms. Instead, these nods towards the contrivances and clichés of the genre play as a half-hearted attempt to mount a pre-emptive defence, an attempt to inoculate the film against criticism for its lazy plotting and hackneyed writing. Unfortunately, the script is neither clever enough nor charming enough to successfully distract against its many shortcomings.

Director Claudia Verhoeven does manage a few half-decent jump scares, but she is working with a script that has absolutely no idea what it is trying to say about modern technology beyond the fact that people probably shouldn’t accept friend requests from satanist witches. Which may not be a bad idea, but feels like a waste of the premise.

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6 Responses

  1. This sounds as if the filmmakers wanted to jump on the scary social media bandwagon that was started by unfriended. Even the basic plot sounds similar, a suicide victim gets paranormal revenge on popular teens.

  2. “There is a great horror film to be made about the internet age.”

    What about Unfriended? I mean sure it’s not perfect but it’s gotta be better than this movie right?

    • I’m going to confess that I haven’t seen Unfriended, although I’ve heard good things. I would be very surprised if it is worse than Friend Request.

      • It at least does the whole “cyberbullying” and “Ghost haunting students” plot with more nuance and development. I’d happily request you to do it… But then that would be making a really bad pun, so I won’t.

      • I watched Unfriended over the weekend. It is really good.

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