Daring to ponder the ramifications of a popular college student befriending a demon on Facebook, Friend Request pivots on a potentially good joke: Advertising only our life’s highlights on social media, we render ourselves human facsimiles who’re readymade for the horror-movie slaughter mill. Laura (Alycia Debnam-Carey) is the sort of dully perfect protagonist that Facebook conditions us to resent, and whose life appears to be composed entirely of parties with friends, meet-cutes with unmemorable hunks, and charity benefits that seem to exist to extoll the virtues of their participants. Meanwhile, Marina (Liesl Ahlers) is Laura’s social opposite, a goth cliché who offsets her pale complexion with an all-black wardrobe, suggesting the girl without the sexy dragon tattoo. When Marina arbitrarily fixates on Laura, a door to hell is opened, bringing two factions of femininity into stark conflict.
Director Simon Verhoeven has occasional fun imbuing certain Facebook tropes with hopped-up dread, such as the annoyingly vague message that pops up whenever the site jams: “An unknown error has occurred. Please try again later.” But the film’s whack priorities are indistinguishable from those of its characters. The deaths of Laura’s close compatriots are laughably accorded the same dramatic weight as the possibility that she might lose all her 800-plus friends on Facebook, which is the ultimate aim of Marina’s campaign of vengeance. Literally born alone, as revealed in a ridiculously miserable backstory, Marina renders herself an omniscient wraith, recognizing that online “friends” are truly what matters in the culture of the 21st century.
The viewer anticipates satire from such a sociologically loaded premise, but Verhoeven and co-writers Matthew Ballen and Philip Koch predictably utilize Facebook for the purpose of superficially spit-shining another wanly Americanized J-horror retread. Contemporary culture poses a variation of the problem of portraying the act of writing in cinema: Online usage isn’t so physically active, and films thrive on objects and figures in motion. Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse remains the great metaphorical social media film because it utilizes the still vacancy of people lost in screens, solving the problem of action by offering a ballad of inaction. And David Lynch’s Inland Empire and Twin Peaks: The Return suggest the internet in their obsession with worlds within worlds, in which deliberately flimsy effects are used to communicate the terrifying fragility of our consumable new reality.
There’s something passingly and promisingly Lynchian in the brief glimpses provided of Marina’s Facebook page, which is full of links that offer portals into her troubled psyche, but this possibility for irrational expressionism isn’t exploited. Instead, the filmmaker follows Laura and her friends as they navigate the usual funhouse hallways, which have dark nooks and crannies readymade for the springing of stock jump scares. After resolving Marina’s interminably derivative origin story, Friend Request eventually arrives at its inevitable and somewhat offensive punchline: No death or dank hallway can rival the existential terror of having lunch alone in a college campus.