FRIEND REQUEST

Producer: Max Wiedemann and Quirin Berg
Director: Simon Verhoeven
Writer: Matthew Ballen, Philip Koch and Simon Verhoeven
Stars: Alycia Debnam-Carey, William Moseley, Connor Paolo, Brit Morgan, Brooke Markham, Sean Marquette, Liesl Ahlers, Shasgawnee Hall and Nicholas Pauling
Studio: Freestyle Releasing

F

Simon Verhoeven’s horror movie starts out on the wrong foot, employing a social media device that already seems passé. Its premise is that today’s college students remain gaga over Facebook, obsessively using it practically every waking hour. Actually, acquaintance with them suggests that young people are jettisoning Facebook at a fairly rapid rate, leaving it to older folks who want to tell one another what they’ve had for lunch.

But that’s the least of the problems of “Friend Request” (a title changed from “Unfriend,” which was probably dumped because of similarity to the earlier “Unfriended”). Apart from using a generic Facebook imitation rather than the real thing—no doubt something mandated by copyright concerns—its dependence on the social media gimmick is merely a desperate attempt to breathe some life into a plot that’s about as hoary as it gets—desperate and unsuccessful.

The scenario is a simple one. Popular, ongoing collegian Laura (Alycia Debnam-Carey) has everything: a great apartment, supportive roomies Olivia and Isabel (Brit Morgan and Brooke Markham), hunky boyfriend (and med student) Tyler (William Moseley), a cool computer geek chum, Kobe (Connor Paolo) and—perhaps more important—well over eight hundred Facebook (sorry, Facebook imitation) friends.

Then disaster strikes. Laura acts pleasant to new student Marina (Liesl Ahlers), a gloomy Goth type who wears a hoodie and shows up in Laura’s Psych class. Marina follows up with a friend request and despite the fact that her profile is filled with unsettling photos and videos and shows her having zero friends, Laura accepts it. Marina immediately becomes a clingy stalker, and when Laura fails to invite her to her birthday party, she goes ballistic, causing a scene in the campus cafeteria. Shortly afterward she commits suicide in a video she sends to Laura and forwards to all her friends. Somehow the deceased also prevents Laura from deleting it or even closing down her account. (Every time she tries to do either, she gets that dreaded error message.) All of which makes Laura increasingly persona non grata not only to her online “friends” (who unfriend her, but apparently not until after watching the video, which they inform her is “disgusting”) but to the college administrators, who threaten to suspend her.

But Marina isn’t finished. Though dead, she announces that she’ll show Laura what it’s like to be lonely, and pledges to slaughter her pals seriatim, beginning with Isabel’s boyfriend (Sean Marquette), whom she films bashing himself to death in an elevator—a video she posts on Laura’s page, increasing the rage of her dwindling “friends.” Of course, she can’t delete it, either. The death also introduces a couple of blundering cops to the case, which is soon expanded as further “suicides” occur.

Trapped by the ethereal Marina, Laura investigates the girl’s past, and finds a horrible childhood in an orphanage, with more than a touch of witchery (as well as swarms of wasps) attached. Kobe reluctantly assists in her quest, which devolves toward the close into pretty standard damsel-in-distress formula as Laura is pursued through subterranean hallways not by a ghost but by someone with other motives.

“Friend Request” is obviously dumb, but it is also poorly produced. Apart from a succession of jump scares choreographed by Verhoeven and cinematographer Jo Heim (and telegraphed by Gary Go and Martin Todsharow’s score), the picture generates little suspense, and even the gory death scenes seem rote. The acting is indifferent across the board, with Debnam-Carey coming across as bland and Ahlers as faintly ridiculous.

The obvious response to a movie this bad is to press “Delete” and hope you don’t get an error message.