Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

‘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.

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 On that score, it’s out of date.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 The alarm—which has nothing to do with Facebook’s controversial algorithms or alleged biases—seems a little outdated now.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.

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