‘Friend Request’ Tries to Facespook Audiences, But Datedness Gets in the Way

The social-media horror feels slightly behind the times, but it still has some new ideas.

Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

Good horror movies have a way of catching their moment in history, even if they don’t always intend to. Think about the signature films of two recently deceased horror masters, and the way they serve as black mirrors of their times: George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), which chews through the late ’60s with zombie-focused intensity, and Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), which conveys the disillusionment and homegrown violence of the immediate aftermath of the ’60s. Watch Night of the Living Dead today, and you’ll learn a lot more about the mood of 1968 than you will watching Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, despite the supernatural device.

We are knee-deep in horror right now. It, the latest adaptation of Stephen King’s plump novel, has rejuvenated a sluggish late-summer box office. I haven’t seen that one yet, but if it represents traditional horror, its opposite number opened a week later: Darren Aronofsky’s mother!, an art-horror extravaganza that seems determined to repel its audience with more than the usual shock effects (although it has a few of those, as though to parody conventional scary gotchas). Now, mother! is an example of a horror movie that absolutely intends to be a metaphor/allegory/whatever of its times, as Aronofsky ladles on the parallels to today’s headlines with dizzying speed. I think the film is often ridiculous, but it is one of those wildly ambitious projects that compel you to respect the sheer brazenness of the effort. It’s as crackpot as anything ever released wide at the nation’s unsuspecting multiplexes.

This week’s horror opening is far more mundane in its accomplishments, but it too wants to say something about the world we live in. On that score, it’s out of date. Friend Request is all about the dangers of Facebook and social media, so maybe it could have gotten a pass in 2011. The alarm—which has nothing to do with Facebook’s controversial algorithms or alleged biases—seems a little outdated now. Do college students still use Facebook? If so, they will find the sorts of lessons here that a 1959 movie might have noted about the barbaric allure of rock and roll.

At an average California university, Laura (Alycia Debnam-Carey, a Fear the Walking Dead cast member) is enviably popular—her Facebook friends number over 800. She’s not a mean girl, and her kindness leads her to accept a friend request from Marina (Liesl Ahlers), a spooky loner who posts violent videos and quickly becomes obsessed with Laura. This culminates in what should be a signature moment in any movie about Facebook: The fury of the FB Friend who sees posted photographs of a party to which she was not invited. Marina fakes her own suicide, then causes mischief that will make Laura’s friend tally drastically decline—a process we see onscreen, delivered with all the drama of the stock-market collapse of 1929.

Having noted the movie’s passé subject, we must also note that it is effectively made. The director, Simon Verhoeven, is German, the son of director Michael Verhoeven (who did the excellent The Nasty Girl) and veteran actress Senta Berger. If the story is standard teen-horror material, Verhoeven plays honestly by it, laying out the scares in crisp fashion and building a few genuinely WTF moments, if not much LOL. Will there be a scene in a ruined old building where one character turns to another and says, “Did you check the basement?” Of course there will. But certain conventions must be allowed.

Verhoeven even lands a few punches in the social-comment realm, including a scene in a school library—a place that used to be full of books, and is now lined with rows of computers—in which the monitors all go crazy at once. And there’s the shrewd linking of the ancient occult “black mirror” with current slang about the blank screen of the computer. Contrary to popular opinion, horror movies are never entirely out of ideas. As mother! and Friend Request demonstrate, it’s all in how you do it.

Friend Request, Rated R. Opens Fri., Sep. 22 at various theaters.

film@seattleweekly.com

More in Film

Kayla (Elsie Fisher) stays glued to her screens in ‘Eighth Grade.’ Photo by Linda Kallerus/A24
Embracing the Naturalistic Awkwardness of ‘Eighth Grade’

Writer/director Bo Burnham and star Elsie Fisher discuss making and living one of the year’s best films.

Golden Goal

On the Seventh Day takes an atypical sports movie approach while addressing immigrant issues.

‘The King’ explores the idea of Elvis as a symbol of America. Photo courtesy Oscilloscope Laboratories
‘The King’ of the U.S.A.

A new documentary on Elvis Presley tries to make the rock icon the embodiment of America.

Will (Ben Foster) and his teenage daughter, Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie), live outside of society 
in Leave No Trace. Image courtesy SIFF
Off the Grid

‘Leave No Trace’ weaves a poignant tale about a father running from society and a daughter who yearns for it.

Dino-Might

While peppier than its predecessor, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom still feels very calculated.

Image courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures
‘2001’ in 2018

As Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi masterpiece returns to theaters for its 50th anniversary, have moviegoers betrayed its legacy?

Through their partnership with Dandelion Africa, Extend the Day supplied solar lights to 9,000 children in Kenya. Photo courtesy of Extend the Day
‘Into the Light’ Cuts Through the Darkness

A documentary about local non-profit Extend the Day shows what it’s like for over 1.2 billion people throughout the world who lack electricity.

Evan Peters preps for a heist in American Animals. Image courtesy The Orchard
‘American Animals’ and How to Not Get Rich Quick

The heist film delivers on-screen thrills, and illustrates a potential future path for MoviePass.

Movies at Marymoor is just one of many local outdoor film offerings. Photo by Erinn J. Hale
Seattle Outdoor Movie Calendar 2018

Journey from Wakanda to a galaxy far, far away with this year’s summer film slate.

Get lost in the desert with ‘Little Tito and the Aliens.’ Photo courtesy SIFF
SIFF 2018 Picks: Final Week

From an isolated scientist to an always-connected teen, we highlight the fest’s offerings from June 4–10.

Lakeith Stanfield and Tessa Thompson star in SIFF’s Centerpiece film, <em>Sorry</em><em> to Bother </em><em>You</em>. Photo courtesy SIFF
SIFF 2018 Picks: Week 2

A wide variety of comedies highlight the fest’s offerings from May 29–June 3.

Han-deled Well

‘Solo: A Star Wars Story’ plays it pretty safe, but still manages to be a fun space adventure.