When the dirt cheap supernatural slasher Friend Request was first released in its native country of Germany, it was originally titled Unfriend. To avoid confusion with the modern found footage classic Unfriended (known as Unknown User in Germany), the title was later switched to Friend Request in its move to the US. That marketing decision may have helped distinguish this film from assumptions that it belonged to the same franchise timeline as that Blumhouse production, in which a group of shithead high school teens are hunted by the ghost of a friend who committed suicide as a result of their bullying, a story told entirely through the POV of the Final Girl’s laptop. Comparisons in quality between the two films are inevitable, however, as Friend Request is also about a group of internet-addicted youngsters (this time college-age med students) who are hunted down by the vengeful spirit of a suicide victim; it’s just not framed as a found footage narrative. The comparison does Friend Request no favors, really, as it’s the Bucky Larson: Born to be a Porn Star to Unfriended’s Boogie Nights, the Corky Romano to its Goodfellas. As the sillier, more formulaic entry into the social media-age technophobic horror canon, the film only stands a chance to excel as a campy, over-the-top novelty. Thankfully, as an airheaded jump scare fest about a Faceboook witch, it delivers on that entertainment potential (in)competently. Friend Request may be the dumbest movie I’ve seen all year, but I’d be a liar if I said it wasn’t solidly entertaining.
A second year psychology student befriends a recent student transfer to her class, a gothy Nell type, out of pure social pity. She has enough empathy in her heart to throw this newbie weirdo a friend request on “Facebook” (or some generic equivalent), but not enough to actually hang out with her or invite her to parties. After a few overly-needy exchanges online, she wisely decides to back away from this social media “friendship,” knocking the new girl’s friend count back down to a near-impossible zero. Hurt, the goth kid kills herself and uploads the video of her death to social media from beyond the grave, haunting her former “friend” as vengeance for turning her back. That’s when the traditional ghost story plot kicks in. One by one, her closest friends are violently killed by this spurned goth ghost, each “friended” by her account immediately before their deaths, despite her own demise. Videos of their attacks are posted to the psych student’s account & timeline, so that her own friends list plummets with each post under the assumption that she’s a callous, heartless monster for sharing such content. The posts cannot be deleted. The account cannot be deactivated. She has no choice but to watch as her social life crumbles and she falls to the lowly societal status initially occupied by the hopelessly goth Nell who haunts her from the digital afterworld. To make things worse, the goth ghost is also revealed to be some kind of internet-age witch who can hack & weaponize all computer devices thanks to her command of demonic code that defies the rules of our puny 1’s & 0’s, placing all internet domains under her wicked dominion.
I’m a huge sucker for this kind of modern gimmickry, where of-the-moment technology is incorporated into the fabric of disposable genre films. Of course, I can think of better examples in the social media exploitation genre (Unfriended, Nerve, and #horror all immediately come to mind), but I believe Friend Request’s novelty as an over-the-top 2010s technophobic horror will only become more valuable over time. The film is deceptively generic in its (surprisingly effective) jump scares & general haunted house aesthetic, which incorporates imagery like baby doll parts, mirrors, and woodland settings so familiar you can see them all represented in Bray Wyatt’s pro wrestling promos. What will make it more valuable later on is the way it also documents what modern social media browsing, especially on Facebook, looks like. Before the individual kills line up for the camera, much of Friend Request’s story is told through Facebook timeline montage, depicting mundane functions on the site like cover photos, deleting posts, error messages, “friending” (duh), “liking,” etc. It takes cinema this trashy to bother with that kind of pedestrian detail, which is more of an accurate time capsule of life & communication in the 2010s than any classy indie drama or expensive superhero epic likely will be able to capture. I was also tickled by the film’s decision to make its ominous warnings about the pitfalls of Internet Addiction Disorder ludicrously literal in making the laptops & PCs themselves demonic objects that must be destroyed. The film’s Facebook witch uses laptops as the modern equivalent of black mirrors, making them the source of evil spells. This not only opens the film up to the interesting imagery like characters’ reflections in the screen being overlaid with timeline scrolls; it also leads to ridiculous line readings like, “Sometimes she would stare at the computer for hours, nothing on the screen at all, just her reflection in the dark.” That’s adorable.
Comparing Friend Request to Unfriended, the Citizen Kane of its micro-genre, can only weaken its cultural value. Considered on its own, it’s a fun, goofy-as-fuck horror with a direct-to-VOD feel in its production, but a strong enough gimmick & sense of violence to leave a lasting impression, however cheap. The movie often knows it’s having fun, too, making room for obvious punchlines like, “Unfriend the dead bitch!” whenever possible. I can only report my experience as a sucker for the social media-phobic horror as an artform (as well as other gimmicky genres of its ilk), but I found the film to be a total blast, one of the year’s more surprisingly delightful slices of schlock.