Wednesday, 20 April 2016

RAW REVIEW: FRIEND REQUEST

One of the biggest shocks to me last year was the surprising greatness of Levan Gabriadze's Unfriended, a social media savvy horror flick that delivered a fresh take on familiar genre tropes.
Simon Verhoeven's latest effort, Friend Request attempts a similar feat, combining multiple subgenres into one teen friendly tale.
After I was fortunate enough to receive an invitation to a screening hosted by the good folks behind London's annual Film4 FrightFest, I eagerly headed to the new venue for this year's fest, the West 12 Vue in Shepherd's Bush (which looks like a superb choice for this summers premier UK horror event).

Was this a Friend Request I'd want to accept? Or would I soon be logging off?
Read on...


Friend Request (2016)
 

Dir: Simon Verhoeven
Starring: Alycia Debnam Carey, Liesl Ahlers, Brit Morgan, Brooke Markham, William Moseley, Connor Paolo, Sean Marquette,
Shashawnee Hall, Nicholas Pauling

SPEEDY SYNOPSIS: I'll try not to spoil too much here but continue at your own risk.

Laura (Carey) is a pretty, popular college student with a handsome medical student boyfriend, Tyler (Moseley), who seems to have life made. After drawing the attention of reclusive, artistic oddball Marina (Ahlers), she receives a social media friend request from her fellow student.
However, the intensity of Marina's infatuation causes Laura and her friends, including goodtime girl Olivia (Morgan), sensitive Isabel (Markham), loudmouthed funnyman Gus (Marquette) and lovestruck geek Kobe (Paolo) to grow wary of this clearly disturbed girl.
The situation eventually builds to a violent disagreement, following which Laura unfriends the desperately clingy Marina... who commits suicide, filming the whole thing on her webcam as she does so.
Consumed by guilt, Laura struggles to make sense of events, especially when she continues to receive updates from the dead girl's account. However, Marina's is not the last death close to Laura... and as she loses those she holds dearest Laura finds herself in a race against time to discover the horrifying truth.


THE BEST BITS (mild spoiler warning): With Friend Request, director Simon Verhoeven succeeds in creating a visually stunning, competent teen-friendly horror.
While it does not hit the heady heights of last year's Unfriended, it manages to combine a number of seemingly disparate subgenres, including pyschological stalker thrillers, J-Horror-esque techno hauntings and even good oldfashioned witchcraft, into one polished horror tale.
The shiny cast are every bit as easy on the eye as Verhoeven's slick visuals (even if a couple are clearly too old to portray college students), with the impressive Carey a real standout as a sympathetic lead. She reminds me a lot of Taissa Farmiga and I hope she stick with the genre for a while. She has the makings of an excellent scream queen. 
I also loved the work of the likeable Sean Marquette in a strong supporting role. His character, Gus, delivers some much needed levity during the film’s darker moments, as do character actors Shashawnee Hall (who horror fans may recognise from Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street) and Nicholas Pauling as a pair of comical police detectives who deliver all the movie's greatest lines.
At the other end of the scale, the very talented Ahlers and Connor Paolo deliver in their edgier parts.
Ahlers, channeling The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo's Noomi Rapace, is excellent, not overplaying a role that could easily have devolved into a cartoonish weirdo. She's at the heart of some of the more subtle unnerving moments and I shall keep an eye out for her in the future.
The wonderful flourishes of including her flash animations in the film ensures that it remains striking, all while ratcheting up the weird and unsettling tone.
As well as the visual side of things (enhanced no end by the skilled cinematography of Jo Heim), Verhoeven shows real flair as a horror storyteller. He crafts some sterling scares (bar a couple of mistimed jump attempts) and manages to do justice to each element of the story (written by Verhoeven along with collaborators Matthew Ballen and Philip Koch). As I wrote earlier, this is a storyline that combines several different threads and ideas, yet it never feels disjointed, instead organically incorporating each element into a simple, understandable plotline.
As well as the more obvious horrors (the black wasp motif, the grisly deaths and deeply disturbing imagery of Marina's haunting artwork, such as two mutilated young boys), there are several small details that rattle the nerves.
Laura's growing desperation and helplessness as she struggles to clear her name and protect the people she loves is palpable, while the slow loss of popularity (cleverly portrayed as a gradually dwindling 'Friend Count' onscreen) and friends is certainly sure to haunt youngsters watching the film.
Special praise must also go to the superb score by Gary Go, comprising of several moody techno infused tracks that don't just fit, but truly enhance the events occuring onscreen.
This is just one more stylish component in a film that really does ooze class in its production values.


THE WORST BITS (mild spoiler warning): One of the biggest problems with Friend Request is the focus on the film's Facebook-substitute (sure, it doesn't actually say that it is Facebook but the fonts, colourscheme, terminology and basic layout make it pretty clear where the inspiration lies) already feels dated. Teens have moved on from Mark Zuckerberg's creation some time ago, and its inclusion here feels a lot like an attempt by studio execs to relate to youngsters they've since lost touch with.
Another bugbear proves the number of rather lascivious times in which the camera seems to focus on Carey’s (admittedly shapely) behind. It feels gratuitous and more than a little bit lecherous. She's a talented actress, there's need to focus on her anatomy's assets to hold the attention.
What's more, as accomplished and proficient as Friend Request proves as a film-making exercise, it lacks that extra spark and moment of true brilliance to propel it into must-see territory, especially during its rather hackneyed conclusion. The film sort of fizzles out and the actual conclusion doesn't really make much sense in context to all the revelations of the plot prior to that point.
It's not that the film is bad, per se, so much as it doesn't do enough to distinguish itself as truly exceptional.







THE VERDICT: Despite some small flaws Friend Request is a fun and well-made film that looks to serve as a very strong introduction to some exciting young talents. It's visually stunning, gives us some decent frights and (a rarity among genre flicks), some characters who are actually worth caring about.

It's a proper popcorn crowd pleaser and is well worth your time. I for one look forward to seeing much more from the individuals involved. Check it out.

Friend Request is released in UK cinemas this week. Film4 FrightFest will be taking place in West 12 Vue on 25th-29th August. Visit the festival's web site here for more information.

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Until next time, I hope you enjoyed your stay. 

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