2017 | rated R | starring Alycia Debnam-Carey, Liesl Ailers, Brit Morgan | directed by Simon Verhoeven | 1hr 32mins |
Studio Pitch: The Ring on Facebook
Friend Request came along amid a glut of studio movies that tried to update the horror template for the social media generation and got lost among similar movies about college kids being wiped out by demons using technology. Unfriended, Polaroid, Smiley, The Den, One Missed Call and similarly The Bye Bye Man and Truth or Dare to name just the studio movies much less the indies. Cyber Horror is here. The general plot of Friend Request is even almost exactly like all of those other movies right down to the studio mandate to pull the cast from an array of young CW network TV stars. And yet, within that framework, against all odds, Friend Request is so much better than this genre ever requires. Much to my surprise, I kind of adored this movie.
Just to unpack that, this is absolutely a studio film. Nothing about Friend Request‘s story is original. It’s The Ring, almost to a T, right down to that film’s seemingly random VHS images that the heroes have to decipher to stay alive updated to seemingly random gothic gifs posted to a social media wall. The characters are all immature but well meaning college kids in an exclusionary clique that do something thoughtless and start dying one by one until the survivors solve the ghost’s mystery – which usually involves making a trip to the origin of their trauma (a hospital, boarding school, church or camp ground). Here is where I’m going to lose everyone, particularly on the internet where movies are gauged by plot and plot holes. Nothing about the framework here is really special – but director Simon Verhoeven treats it like it is. He treats it like it’s never been done before. He shoots and scores it like this is the only Cyber Horror movie you will ever need to see, approaching all of this stuff with a fresh eye and making no big changes to the format but a thousand little mechanical changes in how he presents the story. It is well paced, it is uncluttered and efficient, and even if it’s not scary, it frequently serves up nightmare imagery, R-rated kills and has a concern for atmosphere. It’s the old adage it isn’t what the movie is about but how it’s about it. In my particular taste, I enjoyed watching it navigate around the mistakes other movies like it make.
Right off the bat, the depth of the visuals and grit of the color pallet is stark. Friend Request looks like a movie; Not some slapped-together, colorfully-lit teenage Truth or Dare cash grab. The characters are thin, but also distinguished by their performances instead of single-note stereotypes. But the thing that really makes this movie work is that it doesn’t immediately jump into the supernatural stuff. Unlike the hauntings of Unfriended or The Ring, Request backs up and fleshes out it’s antagonist in a satisfying way that powers everything coming after. And she’s very sympathetic. Opening with a montage styled like a Google commercial, but scored with a hint of more substantive melancholy, we join the college life of Laura Woodson (Alycia Debnam-Carey, Fear the Walking Dead). She has over 800 friends on the film’s generic Facebook platform, a boyfriend and a techie who pines for her. Noticing the cool, gothic, drawings on the social media page of a girl in her class, Laura takes pity on the outcast and becomes her first and only friend on the site. The girl, Ma Rina (Liesl Ailers), becomes immediately obsessed with her new friend and Friend Request leans into a stalker film.
Usually these studio horrors have all sorts of tonal issues, trying to be everything to everyone, trying to be scary, provocative, sexy, funny and violent. Verhoeven plays this all straight and serious. Debnam-Carey is a solid lead, giving this nonsense a realism and setting the performance level that never gets too hysterical or campy. Often in a tonal conflict I come down on the side of indulging in self-referential cheese, but that Verhoeven picked a side – the more difficult side – and completely committed to it works for this film. Where this goes may be predictable, but the information is dolled out cleanly and sparingly.
He doesn’t play this as a satirical look at frivolous teenagers and social media (Laura doesn’t seem to value Facebook status that much at all), instead he plays social media as a sad, frustrating and overwhelming prison that took the desire to fit in or be popular and weaponized it. A ghostly revenge scheme plays out while Ma seems to be taking control of Laura’s account to ruin her life. When the tables turn and the film starts ticking down Laura’s friends, it isn’t treating this as a loss in itself, but counting down until the revenge gets to her and those closest to her. I actually kind of cared about what happened to these people, particularly Ma who is more tragic figure than demonic villain. Laura’s friends become collateral damage, but the movie is really a tale of these two girls.
I can’t help but wonder if the painfully generic title is the result of studios buying up the rights to a bunch of social media sound-alike phrases. “We bought ‘Friend Request’ – use it!”. Verhoeven tip toes around all sorts of pitfalls here and makes the right turn each way. For example, these movie’s use of real world social media sites usually go one of two ways: either they play like a transparent ad for a real social media company or they set up a bunch of fake sites that pull the audience out of the narrative. Friend Request threads a middle ground perfectly here, using the familiar image of Facebook’s design to set the stage, but not showing the logo or mentioning the site by name which keeps the movie from feeling like a commercial.
Is it the scariest thing? Nah, it’s a typical studio film scares, but it has a somber atmosphere and a few effective jump scares. Is it original? Not one bit – but don’t make the mistake of assuming that because another movie got there first that it is the genre authority. I refuse to hand over genre authority for the Haunted-Internet movie to garbage like Smiley. You have to journey deep down into the black hole of the cyber horror sub-genre to appreciate what Friend Request is doing so much better. I was totally compelled and entertained by it and couldn’t help but think of all the ways it would have (and has elsewhere) gone wrong. That Verhoeven took the rotten pieces of this formula, and crafted them into something with more style and that felt fresh again. It was refreshing to watch this type of movie chiseled down to it’s most efficient and not stumbling over itself trying to make sense of some convoluted haunted mythology. Friend Request really works when it shouldn’t. There is a surprising amount of style and care put into what is essentially just a Dead Teenager movie. If you want to see this type of Dead Teenager cyber horror film well made, this is the one.