“Friend Request” is a train wreck of a motion picture, every bit as stupid and borderline offensive as a movie with the tagline “Evil is trending” is expected to be. The trio sitting behind me in the theater apparently caught on early, and after ten minutes, they left, whispering, “If we leave now we can make the next showing of ‘It.’” If I’d had any idea what was about to ensue, I would have followed them.
The film tells the story of Laura (Alycia Debnam-Carey, “Fear the Walking Dead”), a pretty, popular, perfect college student who adds a shy girl from one of her classes, Marina (Liesl Ahlers, “Inside Job”), as a friend online. However, after Marina begins to exhibit strange behavior, Laura unfriends her, leading Marina to take her own life. Soon people start dying, and it becomes apparent that some remnant of Marina is still terrorizing Laura. But that isn’t the worst part. As people start dying, Laura starts losing friends online. Can she and her friends stop this malevolent force before more people die? And can they do it before, unthinkably, her friend count hits zero?
On the most basic level possible, “Friend Request” is a monumentally ill-advised movie. People die frequently and horribly, yet the main characters are continually interested in how this is affecting their social media image instead. The film features several cutaways showing the friend count of the main character dropping closer and closer to zero, and it treats this with the gravest importance.
In a smarter movie, this might have been played as an intentional joke, a satire of our increasingly social media obsessed society. Unfortunately, despite attempts at ham-fisted messaging about internet addiction – there are moments the screenwriter may as well grab you by the throat and scream in your face, “SEE! THE INTERNET IS EVIL!” for all the subtlety on display – nothing ever comes of it, and it just seems in bad taste. Of course, in a story that demonizes those with mental illness and valorizes the people who on more than one occasion call the target of their ridicule a “bitch,” that’s about par for the course.
That leads into the biggest problems of “Friend Request,” the characters, who are easily organizable into two camps. There is Laura, who is perfect and popular and never does anything wrong and is the most boring member of the ensemble as a result. Then there’s everyone else, who spend their time riddling off relevant exposition and heroically insulting a suicide victim. In fact, the most sympathetic character of the whole ordeal is Melanie herself, who is given a tragic backstory that means her actions, if not condonable, are at least understandable.
The horror is riddled with the same kind of brainless jump scares that always populate this sort of flick. Every other scene, a character wanders off on their own, and something jumps out at them and screams, and because humanity has a fight-or-flight reflex, we scream, too. It’s lazy and predictable, but again, it’s par for the course. And of course, the whole thing wraps up with one last scare that makes no sense, but as a horror movie in 2017, is required to give it the illusion of weight. Likeable characters, a well thought out plot, and competent scares might have done the same thing, but that would apparently be asking just too darn much.
It’s hard to articulate how much I hated “Friend Request.” I hated the way it vilifies those with mental illness and implicitly advocates avoiding them at all cost. I hated that it treats the people who ridicule them as some sort of heroes. I hated the characters. I hated the story. Most of all, I hated that just two weeks after “It” showed us what an incredible cinematic experience the horror genre is capable of delivering, “Friend Request” is here to remind us of the predictable, boring, insipid drivel it usually is.