By Preston Wilder
How does a low-budget horror film with no recognisable names play the Cyprus multiplex? EU quotas may have something to do with it – Friend Request is German-made (though it’s in English), and there may be some non-cinematic incentive to screening it here – but the main reason is undoubtedly Facebook. The parallel world of social media is endlessly fascinating, both to those familiar with its workings and (even more) to those who aren’t. It’s often said that the ‘evil child’ horror boom of the 70s (The Exorcist, The Omen) was a response to the inter-generational battles of the late 60s – a sense that the kids were out of control – and horror films like Unfriended and this one, or the whole found-footage genre with its ubiquitous cameras, may be a response to the digital onslaught that seems to have swallowed up an entire generation.
Laura (Alycia Debnam-Carey) is a popular college student, her popularity confirmed by her 800+ Facebook friends. She receives a friend request from Marina (Liesl Ahlers), a lonely girl, her loneliness confirmed by her zero (zero!) Facebook friends. We already know, from a prologue, that Marina committed suicide two weeks later – but Laura likes the Gothic art on Marina’s FB page (tree trunks with gaping mouths, that sort of thing) and accepts her request, only to find herself being stalked by the increasingly needy girl. Things come to a head when Laura’s birthday arrives, and Marina expects to be invited to the party. “Aren’t you celebrating with your friends?” she asks – which is when the penny drops for the shocked, savvy viewer: ‘Omigod, this crazy girl thinks that Facebook friends are actual… friends’.
Friend Request, at its best, throbs with unspoken unease about the world of its protagonists. Laura’s friends aren’t really friends, yet they’re the measure of her happiness: after Marina’s suicide, someone – her vengeful spirit – starts posting vile death videos on Laura’s account and her friend-count drops precipitously, the unfrienders leaving affronted comments in all-caps (the film actually misses a trick here, since someone posting disgusting videos would probably end up getting more social-media followers, not fewer). As our heroine’s world crumbles, onscreen text tracks her plummeting numbers – ever-closer to Marina’s single-digit count, which of course is the ghost’s intention (it wants to make her feel “lonely” by killing all her friends). Losing control of one’s Facebook profile becomes a stand-in for losing control of one’s life. The real villain of the piece isn’t a homicidal ghost but a pop-up reading “An unknown error has occurred. Please try again later”. I think we can all relate.
The film has enough time-capsule value to be at least interesting. It also has some style, including an animated interlude (though it doesn’t approach the formal boldness of Unfriended), and a Goth-depressive undertow – the ghost doesn’t actually kill people but prompts them to kill themselves – that recalls Japanese horror; as in Ring, the source of the evil is a sad, lonely girl. But Friend Request finally lacks the vision to become something special, not to mention that some of it is faintly ridiculous. The dialogue is occasionally tone-deaf – “She burned and hung herself in front of a laptop. Who does that?” – the film cluttered with clichéd horror motifs like clowns and dismembered dolls. Connor Paolo is distracting as nerdy friend Kobe, his bug-eyed expressions of terror clearly an internet meme waiting to happen. The implicit message – that lonely freaks are dangerous – is questionable, to put it mildly. I also suspect that any Facebook account featuring videos of sadistic deaths would get shut down pretty quickly, but I wouldn’t know about that.
A laptop is a “black mirror”, we’re informed in the final act. Marina is a witch using “black mirrors” to commune with the Other Side, and peering into a laptop – our default 21st-century posture – creates such a mirror. The only solution is to destroy the laptop, indeed (since the ghost can apparently spread from one machine to another) the only solution is to destroy all laptops. I’d happily add another star to the rating if Friend Request climaxed with an orgy of frenzied computer-smashing – but in fact it doesn’t go there, ending more conventionally (if still quite darkly). This is low-budget horror piggybacking on a trendy subject, not without a certain imaginative flair – but expect more, and better, horror films to follow down this path. It’s a sign of the times.
FRIEND REQUEST **
DIRECTED BY Simon Verhoeven
STARRING Alycia Debnam-Carey, William Moseley, Connor Paolo
Germany 2016 92 mins.