Social media has become a window into modern lives, but not an unfiltered one; users curate the way they appear online, often with disingenuous results. It was only a matter of time before the darker side of social media — cyber-stalking, online bullying, and slut-shaming — worked its way into the horror genre. While 2015’s “Unfriended” playfully exposed the double-lives of teenagers (with the majority of the film taking place on a computer screen), “Friend Request” is like unofficial sequel that focuses on the same themes.
But while the film uses social media as a catalyst for murder when a social pariah commits suicide, it does so with much muddier results.
“Friend Request” limits the computer screen activity to an opening montage, which swims through Laura’s (Alycia Debnam-Carey) life via her Facebook feed: photos and videos of parties, dinners and drunken nights out with her friends, congratulatory posts about charity work, and a bittersweet post about Laura’s deceased father. The movie dispenses its exposition with the ease of a social media profile, revealing everything about Laura’s background and her group of friends in a matter of seconds.
Laura accepts the request of lonely Marina (Liesl Ahlers), a quiet girl in her psychology class who has no friends and is never seen without her hood pulled tightly around her face. Although Laura’s friend are amazed and weirded out that Marina has zero Facebook friends (something the audience at my screening kept laughing at when it was shown several times), Laura is happy to become her only friend — at first.
It seems innocent enough. Marina just transferred and doesn’t know anyone. She’s shy but grateful to have someone to talk to, especially someone as popular as Laura, who has over 800 friends on Facebook, who lives off-campus in an apartment with her friends, and who has an older med student boyfriend. But then Marina becomes obsessed with Laura, constantly messaging and calling her, posting on her Facebook wall multiple times a day, and even photoshopping herself into a photo with Laura. Best friends forever?
Marina commits the awkward social faux pas of commenting on all of Laura’s old posts, and then tries to invite herself to Laura’s big birthday dinner. Laura lies about the gathering but social media doesn’t, and Marina’s timeline is flooded with pictures of Laura and her friends at dinner. Upset, Marina angrily confronts Laura in the college dining hall for everyone to witness. Afterwards, Laura has had enough and finally unfriends her. The film then circles back to the opening scene where Laura learns that Marina has committed suicide, presumably due to Laura’s rejection.
After this, the film takes a gruesome (if predictable) turn. Marina has now taken over Laura’s Facebook profile, posting her own suicide video and tagging all of Laura’s Facebook friends. Thanks to a supernatural glitch, Laura can’t remove the video or delete her profile. From here, the story sags into formula: Laura’s popularity has made her a target, and naturally her close friends, the ones actually invited to her birthday dinner, have become targets for Marina. Laura is going to learn a lesson, and with each death, she gets closer to taking Marina’s place and becoming the new social pariah.
Though “Friend Request” borrows its main ideas from “Unfriended,” it wisely chooses to give an explanation to the supernatural elements by giving Marina a dark backstory, something for Laura and her friends to investigate as a means of stopping the awful events from unfolding. Perhaps taking a page from the wildly successful “Conjuring” universe, the film introduces elements of the occult and marries it to society’s obsession with our phone and computer screens in an unsettling way.
But while “Friend Request” dives deep into the darker side to social addiction, and how it transforms us as a society and as individuals, it’s too shallow of a film to have any true impact. It’s easy enough to disconnect from this message knowing that a Samara-like character won’t come climbing out of your screen if you stay up late scrolling on Twitter. Beyond this, the film relies entirely on jump scares and jarring noises to spook the audience, yielding a mixed bag of scares. Each time the film turns a corner, introducing a slight twist that could make it original and interesting, it deviates back to the expected formula.
“Friend Request” packs some fun scares and twists, but it’s a film best saved for a late-night Netflix binge when nothing better is on. As social media continues to dominate society’s documentation of even the most mundane everyday details, it seems inevitable that it will provide a new sub-genre for horror films. But going forward, these movies would be better served looking for ingenious ways to explore the dark effects of social media, as “Unfriended” did, rather than simply repeating the same trope of a social outcast seeking revenge.