“An unknown error has occurred. Please try again later.”
If you see these words flash across the screen once in Friend Request, you see them a dozen times. You probably also see them pretty regularly in your day-to-day life, depending on the level of your internet addiction. When you do, they probably inspire little more of a reaction than mild irritation, and that’s a reasonable summation of the central problem with this social media-centric tech-horror: amidst sporadic patches of suspense, it can’t wrench enough substance from its flimsy plot to truly engage far beyond the superficial.
Fear The Walking Dead‘s Alycia Debnam-Carey stars as Laura Woodson, a character whose busy social life and contented student existence are relayed to us initially through a montage of posts on her social media page. I say “social media” because Facebook is never explicitly referenced, and is replaced here with an apparently nameless replica. A few differences are telling: the “like” button becomes “thumbs up”, “share” becomes “spread” and – given the amount of uploaded videos of teenagers graphically mutilating themselves that go viral over the course of the film – “report inappropriate content” apparently disappears completely. For our purposes, let’s call it BookFace.
Laura receives the titular friend request from Marina (Liesl Ahlers), an introverted girl in one of her lectures. Examining her page, she finds a host of impressively dark Burtonesque animations, and also notices she has no friends. Overcome with pity, she accepts, and is immediately bombarded with over-friendly, obliviously intrusive messages from her new “friend”. After a couple of less-than-subtle attempts to remove her from her life, Marina gets the message. She flits between anger (providing the film with one of its more cringeworthy moments: a confrontation in the cafeteria where Marina cries in anguish “why did you accept my friendship?!”), reticence and frantic apology, before eventually taking her own life and uploading the video online. Shortly afterwards, the video appears on Laura’s BookFace timeline without her knowledge, and it’s apparent she is being haunted by Marina’s spirit, who vows to “make her know how it feels to be lonely”.
Despite the film’s more obviously supernatural leanings, what follows has more in common with the tropes of a slasher film. Laura’s friends are slaughtered one by one, all being “friended” by Marina on BookFace shortly beforehand. These moments are punctuated with classic 90s slasher nods: terrible impulse decisions when confronted with the killer (escaping via the elevator?!), poorly advised trips into the basement, willful ignorance of lightswitches, you name it. Amidst some pretty effective kills and a humorous element that’s balanced with suprising poise, the film mostly struggles to get out of first gear without ever being aggressively bad, and while the ending doesn’t descend as far into farce as it initially threatens to, it’s still riddled with logic flaws that will leave you asking all the wrong questions as the credits roll.
It’s not the worst horror film you’ll see in major cinemas this year (step forward, The Boy), but Friend Request‘s decision to pitch horror for the Facebook crowd ultimately does do more harm than good. Managing little more than ensuring the film ages poorly in years to come, reworking the same story without a technological leaning might have bred more interesting results. For a ghost-in-the-machine horror film, it’s not an unequivocal failure, but it doesn’t come near matching last year’s surprisingly effective Unfriended. Fitfully entertaining but erring too much on the side of blandness, this one never quite lands like it intends to.