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'Friend Request' is a creepy, clunky commentary on social media friendship

Posted September 22

"FRIEND REQUEST" — 2 stars — Alycia Debnam Carey, William Moseley, Connor Paolo, Brit Morgan, Brooke Markham; R (horror violence, disturbing images and language); in general release

Always screen your prospective Facebook friends for connections to black magic death cults. That seems to be the core message of “Friend Request,” a creepy but clunky horror film that is just scary enough for you to wish it were a better film.

“Friend Request” tells the story of a college sophomore who makes the mistake of befriending a creepy classmate online. Laura (“Fear the Walking Dead’s” Alycia Debnam-Carey) has more than 800 online friends and a core group of legitimate friends, and in recent weeks has picked up a handsome med student boyfriend named Tyler (William Moseley) as well. She’s the picture of social media perfection but has a kind heart, so when a pale, hoodie-wearing wraith of a classmate named Marina (Liesl Ahlers) tries to connect with her online, Laura pensively accepts.

It was a bad move. Marina’s obsessive stalker instinct goes from zero to 60 in about a minute’s worth of screen time, messaging her constantly and posting elaborate gothic animations that testify to their blossoming friendship. So when Laura neglects to invite Marina to her birthday dinner, the two have an ugly showdown in the school cafeteria that prompts Laura to cut their social media ties.

Marina’s reaction is to record a video of her burning Laura’s picture right before hanging herself on camera (she also catches fire, for good measure). But this ugly episode is only the beginning of trouble, as some mysterious entity begins running Laura’s Facebook page, reposting the suicide video and other disturbing content that the world assumes is coming from Laura.

From here, Marina’s disembodied cyber-ghost starts hunting down Laura’s real friends, usually accessing them through their personal electronics, quickly making it clear that she intends to make Laura as lonely as she was before she became a digital witch demon. All the while, a helpful countdown graphic offers updates on Laura’s shrinking Facebook friend list.

(It should be mentioned that “Friend Request” uses close-up editing angles and oblique dialogue to avoid mentioning Facebook specifically. But it’s fairly obvious what they’re referencing, and given the preponderance of current social media, the Facebook focus feels about five to 10 years too late.)

Eventually all of this leads to the obligatory exploration of Marina’s mysterious past, then Laura has to hunt down the creepy backwoods location that started all the trouble (we literally just did this very thing in “Rings” earlier this year). To keep things interesting — and provide for a fairly absurd third-act twist — Laura brings along a friend zoned tech-savvy buddy named Kobe (Connor Paolo), who spends just enough time with her throughout the film to create a love triangle with Tyler that director Simon Verhoeven keeps referencing at the strangest times.

There’s a lot of strangeness to this movie, honestly. All the adults in the film behave as if they’re members of a cult of their own, for one thing, which does make the youngsters’ performances more believable by comparison. But there’s just a lot of poor execution as well, and pieces with potential are often jammed together in a story that feels hurried when a little time to breathe might give “Friend Request” some genuine tension.

Consider a quick sequence when Kobe does a Google search to dig up information on Marina’s black magic background. These kinds of montages are common, but here the different headlines and screen shots zip across the screen so quickly it’s impossible to keep up with them. Often the movie feels assembled with the same haste.

There’s a decent horror movie lurking in the various bits and pieces of Verhoeven’s effort. “Friend Request” has a handful of good scares, some persistent creepiness and hints at a deeper metaphor about the darker side of social media in our lives that isn’t merely “social media plays a dark role in our lives.” But for all the good scares, there are just as many snickers, and some hammy execution suggests that Verhoeven’s film is a request that should probably be ignored.

"Friend Request" is rated R for horror violence, disturbing images and language; running time: 92 minutes.

Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photographer who also teaches English composition for Weber State University. You can also find him on <a href='https://www.youtube.com/moviereviewsbyjosh' target='_blank'>YouTube</a>.

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