It’s a great time to be a fan of horror movies. The past five years have seen mainstream hits like The Conjuring franchise that has combined critical and commercial success, along with smaller, high-quality thrillers like The Babadook or The Witch. And it would be remiss not to mention the smash-hit Get Out, which combined biting social commentary with humor and scares, and It, which broke box office records thanks to a strong set of characters. With all this in mind, it’s tedious to sit through a horror film such as Friend Request, which possesses none of the relevance of Get Out and none of the heart of It. Instead, the film is an exercise in the unoriginality that befalls so many low-budget cash-grab horror films.
The social media-centric premise of the film is similar to 2015’s Unfriended. Unfortunately, where Unfriended’s central gimmick of telling the story entirely through computer screens and video chats had enough momentum to carry the film for its brief runtime, Friend Request has no such draw at its core. Instead, the film plays out in a painfully conventional manner.
The premise is laughable: a generic, popular female college student befriends an outcast in one of her classes who, like your typical loner, is possessed by an evil spirit. She also has no Facebook friends. An average viewer may look at those two facts together and scoff at their juxtaposition, but the film actually presents them as dramatic beats. The loner ends up committing suicide and filming it, and her spirit begins haunting the protagonist.
It’s an undeniably silly premise that the film takes completely seriously, which earns it some credit. However, the issue lies in the fact that the social-media-centric aspects of the film aren’t used in any original way. Where Unfriended took full advantage of its millennial-technology-gone-wrong premise to tell a familiar story in an interesting way, Friend Request asks the viewer to gasp in fear as the protagonist checks her Facebook profile to see that her number of friends is dropping precipitously (mind you, this is supposed to be a disturbing scene). If you remove the social media gimmick, Friend Request is painfully conventional and unmemorable.
The film relies heavily on jump-scares, the classic tried-and-true method of most low-budget horror films. There are some of tension that build to effective startling moments, but the movie is rarely able to maintain the terror for more than a few moments. Director Simon Verhoeven (no relation to Paul) does a good job of using unsettling imagery to unnerve the viewer, but that imagery is usually undercut by the use of a jump scare. Verhoeven isn’t particularly creative with how he crafts these scares. There’s the typical use of silence interspersed with loud noises combined with scary images which serve to startle as opposed to terrify.
None of the characters are particularly memorable either. The mostly-unknown cast members don’t do much to distinguish themselves from each other. Filming evidently took place in South Africa, which precluded any recognizable stars from the production (although given the genericness of the direction, it’s impossible to tell where the movie is set from context alone). The protagonist Laura, portrayed by Alycia Debnam-Carey, is as cookie-cutter a horror movie victim as possible, and her cohort of one-dimensional friends and flings are killed off one by one without much audience concern or fanfare. Liesl Ahlers plays the sinister social-reject Marina, but her performance borders more on parody than seriousness.
The cast isn’t entirely at fault here, though. It would be possible to get a halfway-enjoyable horror film out of a premise like Friend Request’s. Unfortunately, the film’s lack of humor or multi-dimensional characters make for a forgettable at best, irritating at worst experience. As the plot moves towards its climax, the ending becomes painfully obvious, and Verhoeven seems to drag the third act out for as long as possible. The running time is a hair over an hour and a half, but that even feels excruciatingly long. The best advice I can offer potential viewers is to cheer for the demonic entity—at least it’ll make the various murders more enjoyable.
In a time when horror movies are becoming defined by their ability to innovate within the genre, Friend Request sticks out like a sore thumb. Its tiredly familiar story and myriad of derivative scares make for an utter waste of a cinematic experience. 2017 was a banner year for horror, making this film all the more bland. Friend Request is better off deleted.