Director: Simon Verhoeven
Writer: Matthew Ballen, Philip Koch, Simon Verhoeven
Producer: Quirin Berg, Max Wiedemann
Stars: Alycia Debnam-Carey, William Moseley, Connor Paolo, Brit Morgan, Brooke Markham, Sean Marquette, Liesl Ahlers, Shashawnee Hall
By shunning a strange loner, a popular college student sets in motion a supernatural mystery that endangers her close friends.
Since there is more than one movie with the title, it might merit mention that this review is for the 2016 “Friend Request” starring Alycia Debnam-Carey of “Fear the Walking Dead,” not the 2013 thriller with Anthony Michael Hall. Though given that the latter has just 50 IMDb votes and no user or externally linked reviews, I suppose it’s a longshot anyone is looking for that.
Laura is the kind of popular girl pulled from a cool college student stereotype. Her Facebook friend count is closing in on one thousand. She has one boy in her bed and another pining in the wings. Yet Laura is still sweet enough to treat her psych studies seriously and always takes time out to talk to mom.
Social outcast Marina comes from the opposite side of that coin. She sits in the corner with a hood hiding half of her head, occupies her imagination through a pen making macabre doodles, and oddly idolizes Laura from across the lecture hall.
Not unsurprisingly, Marina’s Facebook friend count sits at zero. Somewhat surprisingly, that goose egg is about to go up by one.
Marina drums up enough courage to invite Laura to be her first virtual friend and, taking an interest in her artwork as well as pity on her loneliness, Laura clicks ‘accept.’ She immediately wishes she hadn’t when Marina comments on every post, sends pestering messages, and Photoshops a picture of the two imaginary BFFs together. So Laura says goodbye with the ‘unfriend’ button and hello to a new kind of nightmare.
Word soon spreads that Marina killed herself. Police didn’t find a body. But students have seen the gruesome webcam video of Marina burning an illustration of Laura and hanging herself, with the resulting fire sending Marina’s corpse up in flames. What no one yet knows it this seeming suicide may have been an obscure occult ritual.
In death, Marina is determined to make Laura as lonely as she was in life. One by one, Laura’s friends enter a weird waking world built from Marina’s mind, and they don’t make it out alive. Before Laura becomes the last classmate standing, she must solve the mystery of who Laura really was, and what it is she wants from beyond the grave.
“Friend Request” sounds a lot like “Unfriended” (review here), and it is. But the movie may have more in common with “The Ring,” as its concept of viral vengeance comes with a twisty backstory involving witches, cults, black mirrors, and demons. There is a little more to this mystery than “ghost out to get the bullies,” which sends “Friend Request” forward on the right foot.
Director Simon Verhoeven is clearly versed in well-worn tropes of routine horror. What is interesting about his approach is he doesn’t exploit expectations. He uses them as distractions.
Verhoeven baits a lot of the usual jump scare hooks. A profile shot frames Laura so her background is obscured when she opens a medicine cabinet. Several people peer into dark mirrors with empty space conspicuously positioned to one side. Except instead of reeling in the line with an anticipated surprise behind a closing cabinet door or suddenly reflected scare, scenes continue uninterrupted. It isn’t much, but it’s a small touch that tells us Verhoeven wants substance inside these frights instead of only loud noise and visual shocks.
“Friend Request’s” setup stage is surprisingly suspenseful with decent supernatural depth. Alycia Debnam-Carey has the right pinch of charm to carry the movie’s main arc. Subplots are complemented with ghastly imagery of mutilated faces or a burning woman giving birth. There’s a sinister darkness to several of the slayings and to Marina’s true story casting an appropriately haunting pall over proceedings.
For a while, “Friend Request” outpaces peers like “The Gallows” (review here) or “Ouija” (review here) for teen-targeted terror that is eerie and entertaining. With a capable cast, premise, and cinematography, it is certainly put together as well as any comparable studio-backed thriller finding its way into mainstream multiplexes.
Which is why the last act descent into formula is such a letdown. All of that creepy exposition lays good groundwork for something a step above in the supernatural slasher subgenre. Then “Friend Request” starts chucking out the usual claptrap of our heroes losing cellphone service or finding themselves in a dark, dilapidated factory for the finale. When a reveal comes that Marina’s real last name is Nedifar, it sounds so out of place that it immediately screams “anagram!” And what do you know, ‘Nedifar’ rearranged spells ‘a friend.’ (Insert eye roll here.) By the end, Verhoeven can no longer hold out on convention and he concludes the penultimate scene with a ‘gotcha’ lunge at the camera.
There is enough effort and initial intrigue to “Friend Request” to keep it a notch above average as “Single White Female” for a social media age with a supernatural twist. The movie might have been better still with a more menacing, less predictable third act. It almost seemed as if it would get there too. Too bad it didn’t.
Review Score: 55