If there’s one thing this world doesn’t need more of, it’s cliché teen horror flicks, complete with forgettable characters, fresh-out-of-drama-school acting and the inevitable “the internet is bad and scary, serves those millennials right!” moral of the story.
Unfortunately, in “Friend Request,” directed by German filmmaker Simon Verhoeven, viewers will find all of the aforementioned tropes in the first five minutes. And while they can be seriously spooky at times, the special effects and jump scares do little to salvage what can only be described as yet another social media scary movie.
The movie opens, like most do, on the perfect life of that one teen girl everyone seems to love: Laura Woodson (Alycia Debnam-Carey), a skinny, pretty young college student in beautiful California with an attractive medical student boyfriend and 1,000+ Facebook friends to go along with her tight-knit real-life group.
One day, she accepts a friend request from Marina Mills (Liesl Ahlers), the school outcast from her psychology class.
Marina’s character, while obviously intended to be freaky and scary, mostly comes off as weird and sad. The obvious use of mental illness as a scare tactic is one of the less boring and more offensive aspects of the film.
Laura’s two best friends, Isabel (Brooke Markham) and Olivia (Brit Morgan), laugh and squeal over Marina’s unfortunate habit of compulsively pulling out her eyelashes, eyebrows and hair.
Laura helpfully points out that the real-life disorder is called trichotillomania, a hair-pulling disorder, but fails to defend it further, leaving the stigma of mental illness as a plot device smeared across the screen.
Stigmatizing mental illness even further than society as a whole already does is something all horror movies can learn to do without, and in “Friend Request,” it just comes off as mean-spirited rather than terrifying.
In fact, most of the movie doesn’t come off as scary as it’s intended.
The plot is achingly predictable: Marina becomes obsessed with Laura, Laura rebukes her, Marina vows revenge, everyone dies. And while being rote- and trope-filled to the max, it at the same time manages to be overly complex, trying to accomplish way too much and falling short.
After the whole obsession followed by rejection bit, in which Laura cruelly exposes Marina’s trich-afflicted scalp to the entire dining hall, Marina exacts her revenge by killing herself on camera and uploading it to the school website.
Marina ensures everyone knows it’s Laura’s fault by burning a picture of her on camera just before she dies. Typical teen horror movie trope, but wait — viewers later find out that Marina has a secret past chock full of overkill and forgettable horror tropes.
“Friend Request” tries hard to avoid becoming just another teen horror movie, but the excessive layers of Marina’s character don’t make her more memorable. Rather, Marina was just too complicated to take seriously and highlighted the lack of character development and weak acting in the rest of the cast.
And without spoiling the main twist and the ending, the plot is critically weak as well, built entirely on trope after trope after trope — there’s a designated chubby but funny guy, a friend-zoned best guy friend type, a blonde and a clueless boyfriend.
The inclusion of the “haunted internet trope,” in which Marina takes over everyone’s accounts with her black magic and evil HTML code, comes off as a warning for millennials about the perils of social media, but it is so tech-clueless that it lacks a lasting impact.
The plot is nothing sort of a list of givens. Of course, everyone blames Laura and unfriends her when Marina starts killing off her best friends, one by one, and — of course — it is up to her to stop it, which — of course — ends badly for everyone, leaving Laura by herself.
If a well-paced plot and strong characters don’t bear the same priority as creep factor and jump scares for viewers, they may want to consider “Friend Request.”
The special effects — especially the swarms of black wasps, which you can almost hear buzzing around long after the film is over — are seriously scary at times.
The monsters are well done and downright terrifying, and the jump scares are well-placed enough to not feel excessive. The use of animation and Facebook pop-ups flow smoothly into the screen, and the images on Marina’s page are enough to haunt your dreams for days.
When it comes down to it, “Friend Request” is nothing special — the all-too-predictable plot falls flat, the characters aren’t people you’re made to care for, and the social-media-will-kill-you moral is overdone. Frankly, it exudes a projection fabricated by adults who have no idea how to use the internet.
Horror movie veterans shouldn’t spend their money on this — it’s something better watched at a sleepover with friends for some light scares after it’s been on Netflix for a couple months.