We live in an era of second-screen-watching. It’s not just the theatrical experience that is being increasingly compromised by cell-phone addiction, but a majority of home viewers reportedly divide their attention between their TV screens, smartphones and laptops, too. It’s somewhat ironic, then, that Simon Verhoeven’s “Friend Request,” a disposable horror film destined to make more impact on recommendation algorithms and DVD bargain-buckets than the box office, purportedly cautions us against the evils of Facebook (or a Facebook-like site that remains unnamed for legal purposes) yet actually instills a longing for distraction, an urgent desire to share some funny cat memes with an old school friend. We might lament declining attention spans in general, but more chilling than anything in “Friend Request” is the idea that anyone’s whole attention could possibly be absorbed by so flimsy and forgettable a film, one that seems made with the sole aim of being perfectly adequate background noise for something else.
The story’s technophobic hook is mere window dressing to a curiously passé plot that feels like a throwback to the ’90s teen horror phenomenon, without ever reaching any of that category’s enjoyably trashy heights. Here, we meet Laura (the appealing Alycia Debnam-Carey from “Fear the Walking Dead”) a fresh-faced psychology major with a friend count in the 850+ range, and a close-knit set of IRL friends too, because she’s got her priorities straight. She even still hangs out with stalkery ex Kobe (Connor Paolo) despite having upgraded her boyfriend hardware to hunky med student Tyler (William Moseley from the Narnia films).
Indeed, the popular Laura’s wholesome, works-with-underprivileged-kids niceness, makes her almost as uni-dimensional a character as Marina (Liesl Ahlers), a glowering loner who posts hilariously literal Gothy animations of thorns, ravens, skulls and burning orphanages to her page (friend count: 0). If that weren’t warning enough, she also wears a hoodie.
Still, Laura’s so nice she’s got nice to spare so she accepts the friend request from Ma Rina (could that weird way of typing her name be indicative of some sort of inner brokenness, perhaps?). But when Laura is caught in a white lie she tells to avoid hanging out with Clingy Stranger on her birthday, Marina causes a scene and then goes off and kills herself. Yet online, she’s livelier than ever, taking over Laura’s account, vowing to let her know “how it feels to be lonely,” and with the inevitability of a “Final Destination” movie but none of the glee, offing her real-life friends, one by one.
This might all sound familiar because it’s the plot of about 75% of teen horror films. Or it might actually be familiar to anyone who saw Blumhouse’s 2015 “Unfriended,” which, in being entirely composed of computer screen images, at least had a conceptual hook that the resolutely generic “Friend Request” (original title: “Unfriend”) lacks.
There are some impressively gooey practical effects in addition to the more sterile CG scares. And if you worry that you might miss one of the grislier moments by checking your WhatsApp or whatever, never fear, because Gary Go and Martin Todsharow’s omnipresent score will let you know whenever anything cool, like someone slitting their own throat or bashing themselves to death inside an elevator, is about to happen.
The German Verhoeven, whose refugee comedy “Welcome to Germany” became the surprise breakout hit of 2016 in his homeland, is a capable, if thoroughly anonymous presence behind the camera, and the sunny Nowheresville setting (actually Cape Town doubling for Somewhere in America) and attractive English-speaking cast are perfectly pleasant to glance up at occasionally.
But if there’s one fatal missing link in “Friend Request,” it’s that it actually has so little to do with the technology that it ostensibly exists to critique. All the film has to offer on the subject is that it would be better if you didn’t ever run afoul of a supernatural internet-based witch thingy, which is probably not the number one issue facing today’s average online junkie.
Part of the demon’s m.o. is to post snuff videos from Laura’s account so that her online follower count ticks disgustedly downward even as her real-world tribe gets thinned, but the film is simply not as interested in what this loss of online clout might mean as it is in splattery old-school deaths in dank basements. So for every moment that has some relevance to the way we live our lives online today (Laura unsuccessfully trying to delete her demonically-possessed account may draw nods of recognition from anyone who’s tried to escape LinkedIn’s clutches, for example) there are a lot more that elicit no reaction other than a dull urge to find out what’s trending on Twitter or to finally beat level 689 of Candy Crush.