Fear and Loathing on Facebook might have made a spiffier title for this ridiculous Lifetime movie disguised as an exercise in social media-savvy horror. The latest from German director Simon Verhoeven (100 Pro) — no relation to Paul, who's Dutch and competent — Friend Request achieves something I would have considered unimaginable: Replacing It as the summer's least accomplished work of cinema.
Remember 2014's Unfriended, in which a group of young people is terrorized by the ghost of a classmate who committed suicide? I didn't think so. Verhoeven sure hopes you don't. Because this is basically a less-clever version of the same movie.
The story unfolds at what appears to be a generic California university. Though this is a German production and that country contains any number of generic universities, the filmmakers journeyed all the way to South Africa to find a university generic enough to pass for one in California.
Which I mention solely to suggest the caliber of brainpower behind this project. That's money that could've gone toward frills like, oh, screenwriters who can actually write. As opposed to whatever you want to call what Matthew Ballen, Philip Koch and Verhoeven did here.
Alycia Debnam-Carey stars as a sophomore named Laura. She's attractive, dates a hunky med student and has lots of friends — both IRL and, more importantly for the purposes of this picture, on Facebook.
Or rather, a stand-in designed to protect the filmmakers from copyright infringement claims. If you look closely at characters' laptops (which is at least as entertaining as paying attention to the plot), you'll note that, for example, "share" has been changed to "spread" and "like" to "thumbs-up." Mark Zuckerberg must feel so outwitted.
Laura's idyllic existence goes sideways when a shunned goth student named Marina (Liesl Ahlers) sends her the eponymous message. Laura figures, What's the harm? and clicks "accept." The harm, it turns out, is that Marina proves a clingy, creepy stalker, and, when Laura's had enough and unfriends her, all CGI hell breaks loose.
Marina not only hangs herself but also sets herself on fire. At the same time, she somehow films the whole grisly business, then posts the video on Laura's wall. Say what you will about that supernatural wack job, the chick can multitask.
Here's the funny part: Marina's spirit or whatever possesses Laura's friends, forces them to kill themselves and posts videos of their deaths on her wall, as well. Touches such as cretinous jump scares, swarms of computer-generated bugs and printers that mysteriously turn themselves on (oh, no, ghost in the machine!) never quite get around to producing goose bumps.
Incredibly, the film's concern isn't these undeserved deaths but their impact on Laura's Facebook status. We're expected to find it frightening as her online friend count plummets, to watch in terror as the number updates, like a time bomb's clock counting down. This is a film in which a goth from beyond the grave exacts revenge by — are you sitting down? — making her victim less popular. The horror!
Not a second in Friend Request's 92 minutes makes a lick of sense, transcends formula trash or generates anything approaching genuine suspense or surprise. You've seen the same misfit-can't-hack-college-and-offs-herself routine rehashed on Lifetime for decades, albeit with fewer haunted HewlettPackard products.
And you've got to love the predictable tagline: "Evil Is Trending." I don't know about that, but one thing this bummer of a summer has proved when it comes to movies is that mediocrity sure as hell is.