Friend Request review

Social media and horror cinema meet again, in Friend Request. Here's our review...

It is my understanding that young people today think Facebook is rubbish and favour apps like Snapchat to exchange misspelled insults and pictures of their sexual organs, so here’s a timely bit of techno-horror to crack the ‘millennial’ market. In fairness, Friend Request doesn’t mention Facebook once, but it does use every bit of terminology we associate with it, along with its fonts, layout and colour scheme. This illustrates just how embedded into everyday life Facebook’s verbal and visual grammar is, and Friend Request even finds time to be a bit scary every now and then.

There’s still a part of me that can’t watch characters using the internet or smartphones on film without wincing a little. It still feels like a cheat to me when used as a plot device, and requires a lot of screenwriters to either set their stories in the 1970s or 80s (ie pre-technological but not so long ago you need to spend a lot extra on wardrobe) or write in frequent explanations (“I’ll call for help … argh, no signal!”). This is of course nonsense: my problem is I lived through Hollywood’s first faltering attempts to deal with what it’s now stopped referring to as “cyberspace” – The Net, anyone? – so even the most innocuous mention seems like “Hey, we’re with it!” flagging to me. Even Mr Robot feels like You’ve Got Mail.

Friend Request, though: different kettle of fish. Without going so far as last year’s Unfriended, which took place entirely on a Macbook screen, it plays on the danger of the virtual social circle overlapping with the real one, and uses the second-nature learned behaviours of online life as its sandbox. All this is pleasing, but its skeleton is a who’s-next supernatural horror by numbers that never quite creaks into life.

Laura is a popular college student who befriends Marina, a misfit emo type in her class. After Marina gets clingy and bombards her with Facebook messages, Laura eventually unfriends her, leading to a viral-video suicide and some spooky post-mortem goings-on. Laura’s friends start dying in nasty ways and videos of their murders are somehow shared on her profile.

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There are nice touches. Illustrating text and online chats by superimposing them on the screen in bubbles is the visual shorthand the movies have by now settled on, so much so that you barely think of it as stylised. Best of all is how Laura’s friend count – 800 or so to begin with – steadily decreases in the corner of the screen every time one of the snuff films appears on her timeline and people unfriend her in disgust. When you live a life online and your popularity is measured in numerical terms, this sort of rapid decline is its own horror.

For its simple structure, the story is thorough and well thought out. Laura takes the time to investigate Marina’s childhood, where we encounter a couple of freaky apparitions with scarred faces who are used very effectively, hanging around silently in the dark rather than being used for jump scares (the jumps are standard: I can’t put my finger on what makes a good or bad one but by now they’re such a familiar part of the horror cinema experience I find myself bracing for their impact when I know one’s coming, and none here took me by surprise).

What you never get, though, is a sense of why Laura deserves any of this. One reading would be that she and her generation are being punished for their narcissism and devalued notion of friendship, but if that’s the case they could’ve been far more negatively portrayed for emphasis. She is thoughtful, befriending Marina despite her social circle wanting nothing to do with her, and her cutting off ties is sensitive and not unreasonable once it all gets weird (the final straw is her gently making up a reason why Marina can’t come to her birthday, a gaff blown by her friends sharing pictures of the party; not Laura’s fault). It’s a skewed idea of punishment fitting crime; the hinge on which horror’s door usually creaks, and it leaves you with a trail of death without much of a reason backing it up. So just about enough here for a Like, but probably not quite a Share.

Friend Request is in cinemas now.

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3 out of 5