If you know me, you know I’m usually down for a horror movie. It doesn’t matter to me if it’s supposed to be good or not; I’m willing to give it a shot. Sometimes expectations are high. And sometimes not. Sometimes it pays off. And sometimes not. But one never really knows without seeing it. Back in 2014, I expected virtually nothing from a little film called Unfriended and it ended up being a sharp, original, clever, effective, memorable, and surprisingly poignant little thriller. The title of this particular film, Friend Request, is certainly evocative of that 2014 gem, which gave me high hopes, though perhaps illogically so. Also in its favor is that it stars Alycia Debnam-Carey, who has been a standout on AMC’s Fear the Walking Dead. She’s becoming a modern scream queen, starring in a handful of low-budget horror-thrillers, though this is probably the highest-profile of the bunch, so far. She has a lot of potential, so I looked forward to seeing her in the film.
Despite the apparent similarities between this film and Unfriended, I really didn’t have a sense for what Friend Request was actually about. I feel like saying virtually anything regarding the plot is a spoiler, so I’ll refrain as much as possible on behalf of those who wish to go in as squeaky clean as I did. In an effort to say at least something, however, I’ll peg the narrative as largely a hybrid of Unfriended and The Ring.
I suppose The Ring was more of an influence on the scares and Unfriended on the story, though both films can be felt throughout the duration of the movie. Still, the influence of The Ring is mostly superficial. The structure and execution of the film is much closer to Unfriended, but that doesn’t mean the two films are identical. Yes, they both obviously deal with . . . cyberhauntings? Is that a word? Can I coin that, right here, right now? Cyberhauntings. You heard it here, first.
But, despite being haunted through Facebook-but-not-called-Facebook (with some similar scares) the themes of the two films aren’t exactly the same. Unfriended (rather brilliantly) dealt with cyberbullying and the harmful consequences. It also had a fresh and inventive presentation. Friend Request takes a traditional filmmaking approach and features themes surrounding social outcasts and modern society’s propensity for defining their worth entirely by their social media popularity and presence. The two themes are tangential, but not synonymous.
In Unfriended, the supernatural force was unquestionably the victim of her targets, as she enacted revenge on people who had callously used and embarrassed her in order to boost their own social status, eventually leading to her death. With Friend Request, the deadly entity begins as a somewhat sympathetic figure, but quickly reveals their own inability to co-exist with and relate to others in a nonthreatening fashion. This is the type of person one might expect to become an active shooter on a college campus, somewhere. There is no question that they are not the protagonist. There are no shades of gray. And this character essentially goes that maniacal route, but in an exaggerated and ghostly way, rather than a real-world way that simply wouldn’t be any fun to watch.
Still, despite those differences, throughout most of the film I couldn’t help but feel like I was watching that amalgamation of The Ring and Unfriended that I was describing, earlier. And I hate to constantly describe a movie by comparing it to another movie, but that’s what I was noticing, for the most part. Although it was a fun amalgamation, I wasn’t seeing much of anything new that helped me to understand why the movie had been produced. And then . . . there was a pleasant surprise.
Eventually, the events in the film take . . . I’ll say . . . an unexpected turn. Describing it as a twist wouldn’t truly be accurate. It’s not really a “twist”. But it’s a surprising and sensible payoff to a seemingly-minor subplot that I honestly didn’t believe would get any sort of satisfying resolution. I was wrong. I didn’t see it coming, but the hints were there, all along. I tip my hat to director/co-writer Simon Verhoeven and his other co-writers Matthew Ballen and Philip Koch for that one. I honestly think this plot point was what got the movie made. And I don’t want to build it up too much to the point where anyone watches it and thinks, “That’s it?!” Don’t let me do that. All I’m saying is that it surprised me even though it happened organically and it set the film apart from the others to which I had been comparing it, up to that point.
On one final note, Debnam-Carey doesn’t get much to do on paper, but she makes the most of what she does have, adding a tenderness to the role in a film that otherwise lacks subtlety. I feel like I’ve said it a million times, but any professional actor can handle the big, dramatic moments with relative ease. True talent is in the smaller moments and making those feel genuine. She does that with regularity and – though no one in the film is in any way bad – it sets her head-and-shoulders above her fellow castmates. I hope she gets bigger and more varied roles in the future because I think she’s capable of great things.
All in all, Friend Request isn’t the most original film anyone will see, this year, but it’s never boring, always entertaining, provides plenty of effective visuals and jump scares, and puts the talented Alycia Debnam-Carey front and center, where she belongs. And then, at the end, it surprises. Anyone with the ability to perceive the subtleties that do ultimately set this film apart from others in its field should have a good enough time. It’s still going to get swallowed up by It, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a worthy destination for fans of the genre.
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