Friend Request is very much the bad movie everyone conjured in their heads when they first heard about Unfriended. Remember Unfriended? It was that horror film from a few years ago that unfolded entirely from the vantage of a teenage girl’s laptop screen. Even if you could barely stomach its shrilly vapid characters—each squashed into their own video chat window—it was hard to deny how ingeniously the movie exploited its gimmick, turning all the basics of graphical user interface into tools of suspense. Friend Request, a German horror movie shot in South Africa but seemingly set in America, also involves a group of young people being terrorized by the ghost of a classmate who committed suicide. (It was even called Unfriend in Germany, where Unfriended went by Unknown User. Got all that?) But there’s nothing remotely clever about this web-based fright flick, visually or conceptually. It’s flimsy genre junk of the most generic variety, just with a really groan-worthy Facebook spin.
Out of some mixture of pity, basic decency, and what’s-the-harm acquiescence, college sophomore Laura (Alycia Debnam-Carey) accepts the friend request of Marina (Liesl Ahlers), the strange goth girl who sits in the back of her psychology class, picking at her hair. Laura’s just being polite, but Marina, who has no other friends (Facebook or otherwise), mistakes the casual act of kindness for an invitation to go all Single White Female, forcing a freaked-out Laura to eventually walk back her social-media charity. What she doesn’t know is that Marina is not just a tortured graphic designer (her wall is nothing but a string of Hot Topic-grade storybook flash animations and black-and-white videos of people stomping on dolls), but also basically a university-aged Samara. And it’s when the jilted witch commits suicide that the nightmare really begins, Marina haunting Laura and her friends with swarms of black wasps, faceless child minions, and, uh, printers that activate on their own.
As staged by director Simon Verhoeven (who, unfortunately for us and him, is no relation to Paul), the jump scares are serviceable. Which is to say, Friend Request is at its least laughable when trotting out the standard spooky-faces-emerging-from-the-dark nonsense. But then there’s the whole goofy Facebook angle. Every time one of Laura’s IRL friends bites it, a video of the apparent suicide pops up on her wall, causing a mass hemorrhaging of FB friends; instead of a Ring-style countdown clock to doom, the movie tracks her dwindling popularity, like a deadly-serious version of that South Park episode. A more wickedly intelligent movie might suggest that Laura’s anxiety about her fading social-media fortune outweighs her concerns for her real friends’ lives. But no: She literally can’t delete her account, and neither can her expendable roommates, as we learn during a montage of everyone scowling at a supernatural error message. This does, however, lead to the movie’s scariest scene: Laura being forced to call into Facebook customer service.
It’s funny to imagine how baffling and dated all of this will play to future audiences—or, if reports that teenagers don’t really use Facebook are to be believed, the current target demographic. But there’s at least one unsavory way in which the movie feels timeless, and that’s its demonizing of—and total lack of empathy for—life’s social (and Social) misfits. If Stephen King’s Carrie warned audiences about what can happen when you push that quiet, shy classmate too far, here’s a cautionary tale that advises against paying her even the smallest modicum of attention in the first place, lest the weirdo get the wrong idea. For Laura, the message is clear: You should have rejected that friend request. Prospective viewers should just reject this one.