Friend Request is the goofiest internet horror story I’ve ever seen
This fall, The Verge is making a choice. The choice is fear! We’ve decided to embrace the season by taking in as many new horror movies as possible and reporting back on which ones are worth your time. We’re calling this series Hold My Hand, as we look at films you might want to watch with a supportive viewing partner. Get comfortable, put the kettle on, check the closet for ghosts, then find a hand to squeeze until the bones pop.
The most interesting thing about any teen movie is what it assumes about the world teenagers live in. Friend Request, a new horror film from German director Simon Verhoeven, assumes that they use Facebook.
Not only do they use it, they’re addicted to it, in the words of their professors and parents. Their lives take shape through photo tags and Messenger texts (no iMessage at all), and only beautiful, charming people have friend counts that approach 1,000. So, in a way, though no one ever says so, this movie takes place in 2009.
Friend Request follows a college sophomore named Laura, played by The 100’s Alycia Debnam-Carey, who has a great group of gal pals, a kind surfer boyfriend (William Moseley), and a moody hacker buddy named Kobe who’s not-so-secretly in love with her. (He is played by Connor Paolo, who you probably know as Gossip Girl’s Eric van der Woodsen.) In this movie, he has large swathes of binary code tattooed on both of his arms. He also wears the sort of leather jacket that has the hood of a sweatshirt sewn into it, one of many jackets in the film that suggest maybe it isa period piece.
Laura is popular, pretty, athletic, and smart, and she takes pity on a loner named Marina (Liesl Ahlers), who sits in the back of her psych class and sends Laura a request to be her very first Facebook friend. Marina’s timeline is covered in haunted houses, witches, and ghosts, but Laura — whose defining trait is being so nice — says, “I like it” and hits “Accept.” One friend for Marina. It’s only a matter of minutes before this spins out of control, with Marina stalking Laura, calling her constantly, freaking out over every missed message, confronting her with a screaming fit in the dining hall, then lighting herself on fire in front of a web cam. Soon, the nicest girl in school has lost control of her Facebook account: A mysterious demon is posting the footage of Marina’s suicide to it over and over, tagging hundreds of people, and her friend count is ticking steadily down. Laura, everyone decides, is a sick freak.
Of course, there will soon be blood and gore too, and Marina’s ghost isn’t vague about her intentions. She sends Laura a Facebook message!
“u will know how it feels to be lonely : )”
IS IT SCARY?
Friend Request has a lot of good, goofy jump scares, but it’s less scary than it is funny, and the theater that I was in cracked up over everything. The hacker boy played by Eric van der Woodsen has dozens of incredible punch lines that are probably not intended to be punch lines, like when he opens up the source code for Marina’s Facebook page, revealing rows of green, glowing hieroglyphics dancing all over the screen and remarks, “That’s not code.” Later, Laura hands him a photo of a building and asks him if he can figure out where it is. He sighs deeply before saying, as if it causes him great physical pain to take on such an unimaginably arduous task, “If it’s ever been online… yeah.” These kids don’t know how to do a Google Image search!
Bafflingly, Friend Request imagines a version of Facebook that is identical to the real Facebook in every single way except, in the place of “Like,” “Comment,” “Share,” it reads “Thumbs-Up,” “Comment,” “Spread.” It feels good to laugh so hard at something so casually dumb.
WILL I CARE ABOUT THE CHARACTERS?
Absolutely not, except for Kobe because he’s played by Eric van der Woodsen. Everyone in this movie is a slim stereotype of a horror movie regular — the blonde friend who is literally called a “drunk floozie” by another character, the funny friend with bangs and a penchant for cursing, the non-white boy who dies first, the brown-haired heroine with a heart of gold. Laura has no personality beyond being so nice, having a boyfriend who is in medical school, and wearing architecturally improbable jean jackets over all of her dresses.
If this movie made me care about anyone, it was the group of girls I watched bad scary movies with in high school, primarily as an excuse to hit each other with things and binge-eat s’mores-flavored Goldfish. If you’re currently at the age where sleepovers and Goldfish happen, this movie is nice for you. Ask your mom if you can rent it on-demand and get pizza.
IS IT VISUALLY IMPRESSIVE?
Actually, it is at times. We’re pulled into a few of the hand-drawn videos from Marina’s timeline and they’re lovely. Though Friend Request gets almost nothing right about how anyone has ever used the internet, these clips will look familiar to people who have spent any time in scary story forums or the moodier corners of Tumblr. I don’t know that I’ve seen another teen horror movie incorporate animation in this way.
Beyond that, it’s your basic array of headless dolls and moon-faced child ghosts. There is an obscene shot involving a pair of tweezers, which I can’t describe to you because I had no choice but to cover my eyes.
WHAT’S LURKING BENEATH THE SURFACE?
Almost nothing. Plenty of characters say the words “internet addiction” in this movie, but internet addiction is not what causes any of its terrible events and nobody seems to be actually addicted to the internet.
Friend Request takes good ideas from a recent technology-obsessed teen horror film — Levan Gabriadze’s Unfriended — and twists them until they’re stupid. Rather than taking the time to build the internet up as a familiar world we genuinely spend the bulk of our time in, Friend Request treats it as a dark hole full of weirdos and suggests you simply crawl out. But Unfriended was an effective horror movie almost solely because of its claustrophobia. All of the action took place on the screen of a MacBook — in iMessage, Chatroulette, Skype, and Facebook — and there was no imaginable off-screen solution to the characters’ problems.
The Verge’s Emily Yoshida praised Unfriended for narrowing the gap between art and life, writing after its release in 2015, “There’s a fictional, cinematic world where the bulk of the developments in our daily lives happen in physical spaces, face to face with other people; and our real lives, where more and more of the defining moments in our lives happen on a screen… This is the one resounding success of Unfriended, an otherwise rote teen horror film. It actually looks like our lives, for better or worse.”
Friend Request borrows the Facebook gimmick and the tech-savvy ghost, but strips away the rest. Kobe looks up a “b1ack m1rr0r” ritual on a web page that looks like it was designed in 1997, and Laura mournfully watches her Facebook friend count tick steadily down, but otherwise they don’t even use phones or computers for much. It’s just a formulaic story of teens getting picked off one by one, in steadily showier displays of gore, and for no real reason.
That said, you can do worse than a movie that gives you plenty of opportunity to make loud interjections and laugh yourself silly.
HOW CAN I WATCH IT?
Friend Request opens in wide release on September 22nd. You can watch it anywhere, but I suggest watching it in the biggest, fullest theater possible. You need at least one loud-ish woman to announce, at the start of every scene, “Oh no, that’s Marina!”
IS THIS A HAND-HOLDING MOVIE?
I don’t know why I decided to include this metric, as I only go to the movies alone. However, I sat next to two gal pals who clutched each other a few times during jump scares. Their friendship really must be rock-solid, to glob onto each other during a movie about a violent hell witch trying to ruin your life. Maybe it’s not a hand-holding movie, maybe it’s just a “clutch your trusted friends” movie.