Friend Request (Simon Verhoeven, 2016) 1 out of 4 stars.
When the best thing about your movie is its unfamiliar location, you know you have a problem. Then again, at least Friend Request has something to show for itself. An otherwise dismal and listless affair, the movie offers one the not entirely unpleasant sensation of watching a story ostensibly set in California (according to everyone’s accents and the license plates on the cars) that looks and feels nothing like it. As a matter of fact, director Simon Verhoeven (Men in the City) has shot the movie in South Africa, and I say, “Why not?” I entertained myself for quite a while trying to guess where we were (I imagined Vancouver, instead). So there’s that.
Some members of the cast are not unwatchable. Alycia Debnam-Carey (Lexa on the CW’s The 100), as Laura, the protagonist, convincingly portrays a variety of emotions from joy to terror to oh-my-god-that-hurts-so-much, which is exactly what we need in a horror thriller. Her mostly pretty co-stars keep up with her, though poor Liesl Ahlers (an actual South African, whose theatrical-feature debut this is), as Marina, the sick and twisted killer, is given zero opportunity for character growth beyond the cheek spasm and lip tremble. But, you know, she’s evil, so who needs dimensions.
Which is funny, because Marina (or Ma Rina, as she writes her social-media profile name) spends most of the film in another dimension (do you really want to know?). We’re at a nondescript coastal college, where partying and Facebooking rule the day. Laura’s got it all: friends, lover, and a cool new apartment into which she has just moved with her two besties. But then this goth weirdo shows up in one of her classes, eyeballs the back of her head, and before you know it, sends Laura a friend request. Out of pity (Ma Rina has zero friends, highlighted by repeated close-ups of her profile status), Laura accepts, and then the stalking begins. Later, there will be blood, but we know this, since all manner of future atrocities are telegraphed through the music, Ma Rina’s lack of color, and those indicative facial ticks.
To be fair, there are a few narrative surprises amidst the unintentional, awkward hilarity of the thing, and if one likes the campy pleasures of horror for their own sake, then give it a whirl … when it arrives for home viewing, free of charge. But beyond those few dollops of whoop-de-do, Friend Request fails in its most basic duty to entertain. Nothing makes even a modicum of sense, so it’s usually impossible to enjoy the silliness of it. Dumb is not the same as dumb fun. The film’s original title was Unfriend (see poster, below). Whoever made the change probably understood how off-putting that sounds, choosing, instead, to beg for your love. Follow the lead of that first appellation … and beg off.