This is an awful lot of transnational effort to recreate a film that feels like a crummy '80s horror movie grafted to a crappy '00s J-horror knock-off, only not as good as I just made it sound. The film sets up shop at some small university, small enough to have the exact same social dynamic as high school, and here we meet popular psychology student Laura (Alycia Debnam-Carey). She has quite a substantial social media presence, but her closest friends, and the designated shooting gallery once the killing starts, consist of her roommates Olivia (Brit Morgan) and Isabel (Brooke Markham); Gustavo (Sean Marquette), who might be a roommate, or might just be Isabel's boyfriend, it's sort of fuzzy; her geek friend Kobe (Connor Paolo), who has a decidedly unhealthy crush on her; and her med student boyfriend Tyler (William Moseley).
One day, her very quiet, shy classmate Marina (Liesl Ahlers) asks to be added as a friend on the movie's nameless Facebook clone, and despite the warning signs (Marina has literally no other friends, online or off; her page is busily tricked out with animations and videos that circle around moody death imagery), she accepts. Apparently this is mostly or even solely because Marina's animations are incredibly accomplished, which I'll admit, seems like a good enough reason to me. The bad news is that this little gesture of kindness is misinterpreted by Marina as being a declaration of a much profounder friendship, and soon the odd young woman has gone full-on stalker on Laura. Desperate, Laura unfriends her, and only a couple of days later, the distraught Marina commits suicide in front of her webcam, as she hangs herself and sets herself on fire.
And with that, the movie starts. For real. Among the almost uncountable number of pointless little errors that Verhoeven and his co-writers Matthew Ballen & Philip Koch commit, they tart the film up with a needlessly little circular structure, starting the film on the day that Marina's suicide video shows up online, and flashing back as Laura recalls the horrible two weeks of ill-advised friendship that led to the other woman's death. It's not exactly bad to have done this thing, but it's pointless and messy, and in that respect it is the ideal stand-in for the whole movie.
So anyway, Marina turns out to have been a witch, and her death merely frees her up to destroy Laura's life by making her a social pariah. To achieve this, she, like, hypnotises all of Laura's friends into killing themselves in some horribly violent way, and then ghost-hacking into Laura's Facebook account to post the video of the death. This makes everybody who knows Laura so disgusted and mad that they unfriend her, which Verhoeven thrilling dramatises by showing her friend count as onscreen captions throughout the movie.
Perhaps the unbearable stupidity of Friend Request is really only a sign of the reality that social media isn't a good vehicle for a bog-standard "social outcast gets her paranormal revenge" plot. On the other hand, Unfriended wasn't anywhere close to this bad, in part because it actually uses social media. Friend Request, perhaps realising that Facebook doesn't work the way the scripts needs it to, simply gives Marina the ability to reprogram it, and also make that reprogramming invisible to Facebook customer support (there's a scene where Laura calls Facebook customer support. It's kind of hilariously pedestrian). Which feels like a cheat, if the point of the thing is to generate terror out of the way that actual college students use Facebook; then again, there's no indication in its depiction of a wholly inauthentic university environment, or its forced attempt to fathom how Kids Today might speak to each other, that Friend Request has the smallest clue how actual college students use anything at all.
The plot is exactly the same as every other "vengeful spirit" movie younger than The Ring, and the characters are stupid as shit in addition to feeling nothing like real life people, but here's the twist - a more surprising twist than Friend Request is able to produce - I didn't hate it. The film, it turns out, is actually kind of decent at staging a jump scare; the corpselike ugliness of the make-up design and the blue-black darkness of Jo Heim's cinematography work together to create a series of reasonably unpleasant, jarring shocks, and the filmmakers do a fine job of mixing up moments where we are certain that something's going to pop into a black empty space in the composition, and it does, with moments where it doesn't. And that at least manages to instill a sense of uncertainty as to when, exactly the film will jump out and say "boo!" And at least, twice, Verhoeven unshowily places a ghostly figure in the back of the frame where the characters don't see it, but we do, and it's creepy, and whatnot.
This is, of course, closer to the bare minimum that a horror film should accomplish, and jump scares are already the laziest imaginable form of scares available. But we must grade on a curve, and in 2017, the curve for terrible horror movies was set by The Bye Bye Man. Friend Request is bad, predictable, boring, and lazy, but it is not altogether incompetent, and that's better than nothing. It's all that it's better than, but we're still hovering at least an inch above the bottom of the barrel. Credit where credit's due.