Wednesday, January 17, 2018

On Blu-ray/DVD: HAPPY DEATH DAY (2017) and FRIEND REQUEST (2017)

(US - 2017)

A sleeper hit from the Blumhouse assembly line, HAPPY DEATH DAY is essentially a slasher spin on GROUNDHOG DAY with elements of MEAN GIRLS and, to a certain extent, Lucio Fulci's THE PSYCHIC. Bitchy, self-absorbed sorority girl Tree (Jessica Rothe) wakes up hungover in the dorm of nice guy Carter (Israel Broussard) after a night of partying, only to go about her day and be killed by a masked maniac on the way to the party her sorority sisters are throwing for her. She relives the time loop day after day and initially can't even, but she eventually uses the repetition and the learned responses to team with Carter--who never remembers the events of the last time loop--to figure out the identity and motive of her killer. There's no shortage of suspects since Tree is a truly horrible person--she's completely dismissive of her nice roommate Lori (Ruby Modine, Matthew's daughter), slept with sorority sister Danielle's (Rachel Matthews) douchebag boyfriend (Blaine Kern III), and is having a casual fling with a married professor (Charles Aitken). She's also been distant toward her concerned dad (Jason Bayle) since her mom's death on her birthday three years earlier. Directed by PARANORMAL ACTIVITY vet Christopher Landon, HAPPY DEATH DAY was stuck in development hell for a decade, originally given the green light back in 2007 with Megan Fox in the lead. Uncanny X-Men comic book scribe Scott Lobdell is the credited screenwriter, though Landon did an almost complete overhaul of the original script. It's got some clever ideas and a few scattered bits of sharp humor, and though some of its twists are a little hokey, it's entertaining and better than it has any business being. A lot of this is due to a terrific performance by Rothe, who's very believable handling Tree's gradual transformation from a cruel, cold-hearted bitch to a sympathetic heroine forced to relive various methods of being murdered at the end of every day and using it to make herself a better person. Budgeted at just $4 million, HAPPY DEATH DAY opened big but took a tumble its second week, still far surpassing its cost and probably on its way to being another Blumhouse franchise. It's no classic by any means, but there's some effective chills throughout, particularly the unnerving mask worn by the very driven killer, and the versatile, appealing Rothe (who had a supporting role as one of Emma Stone's friends in LA LA LAND) definitely has some star potential. (PG-13, 96 mins)

(Germany/South Africa - 2017)

2015's real-time social media/Skypesploitation horror film UNFRIENDED was no masterpiece, but it was surprisingly compelling and managed to stick to its gimmicky conceit without blowing it. The similarly social media-based FRIEND REQUEST, on the other hand, is a tired and uninspired mess that's more or less a Facebook version of THE RING. Shot in 2014 under the title UNFRIEND, the German/South African co-production FRIEND REQUEST was released by Warner Bros in Europe in 2016, but they wisely declined to distribute it in the US. They instead pawned it off on the lowly Freestyle Releasing, who had a trailer in theaters a couple of years ago and then...nothing. Freestyle ended up being acquired by comedian and former talk show host Byron Allen's upstart Entertainment Studios, who enjoyed an unexpected sleeper summer hit after picking up the Weinstein castoff 47 METERS DOWN. Blind luck isn't a reliable sales model, and lightning failed to strike twice. Audiences flatly rejected FRIEND REQUEST, which Allen hubristically rolled out on almost 2600 screens even though it had been readily available on torrent sites for over a year. It promptly crashed and burned with what's presently the ninth-worst wide release opening ever. Shot in South Africa but set in an anonymous American college town, FRIEND REQUEST has social media-addicted student Laura (FEAR THE WALKING DEAD's Alycia Debnam-Carey) getting a friend request from Marina (Lisel Ahlers), a quiet, goth outcast who sits in the back corner of her psych class. Marina is shy and has no friends, and Laura doesn't see the harm in being friendly acquaintances with her. Of course, Marina immediately bombards Laura with posts, messages, and texts, and Marina loses it when she isn't invited with Laura's other friends to a birthday dinner being thrown by her boyfriend Tyler (William Moseley from the CHRONICLES OF NARNIA movies). A physical confrontation in the dining hall ultimately leads to Marina committing suicide by simultaneously hanging herself and setting herself on fire and posting the video on Facebook. The university removes the suicide video but it keeps reposting on Laura's timeline and any attempts to delete it only get a prompt reading "Unknown Error," which may have been a better title for the script.

Needless to say, Marina's vengeful ghost is haunting Laura via Facebook, also posting the video on the timelines of all of her friends and making it impossible to delete it or their accounts. Marina's ghost starts spontaneously friending all of Laura's friends, which leads to their grisly deaths--by throat slashing, CGI wasp attack, and random Blumhouse ripoff jump scares. Even as people start turning up dead, Tyler's biggest concern is how much time Laura's spending with her platonic friend and computer whiz/code expert Kobe (Connor Paolo) as they try to figure out how Marina is haunting their social media feeds. Directed and co-written by Simon Verhoeven (no relation to Paul but the son of THE NASTY GIRL director Michael Verhoeven and 1960s actress Senta Berger), FRIEND REQUEST is a boring and brazenly idiotic snoozer filled with vacuous characters and almost every post-RINGU/JU-ON cliche imaginable (consider it a small victory that Marina doesn't manifest herself doing the herky-jerky J-Horror shuffle). The door is inevitably left open for a sequel, but you'd be wise to ignore, delete, and block anything related to FRIEND REQUEST. (R, 92 mins)

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