by Bill Stamets

Descrying the designs of “Friend Request” and “Kingsman: The Golden Circle” (with a Digression on Scryers and Scrying)

Posted in Uncategorized by Bill Stamets on October 5, 2017

Badly conceived and crafted, “Friend Request” and “Kingsman: The Golden Circle” display odd choices by their respective filmmakers. Whether the genre is scary undergrad horror or jokey international action, we can at least wish for original designs in the supernatural backstory and cautionary moral, and the evil conspiracy and villain’s lair, respectively.

Arbitrary similarities between these two R-rated films opening on September 22: a woman makes extraordinary efforts to get attention, as women in smaller roles take recreational drugs– hypothetical or actual– that could kill them in awful ways. One woman tracking another on social media is a big part of “Friend Request,” although it’s only a momentary plot point in “Kingsman: The Golden Circle.”

“Kingsman: The Golden Circle” picks up near where “Kingsman: The Secret Service” left off in 2015. Both films come from the 2012 comic “The Secret Service” created by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons. Matthew Vaughn, the British director of the first two Kingsman films and two “Kick-Ass” films to boot, revealed last May that he’s readying a third one. The trilogy benefits from a more robust set-up than what we find in “Friend Request.”

Overstating its twist, the press kit for the first Kingsman film claims it “wryly subverts the conceits of the spy genre.” The press kit for the second film reiterates that hype: “it was a no-holds-barred, boundlessly inventive action film that played with and subverted the tropes established by a thousand spy movies before it.” Co-writers on both films– Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn– are not terribly savvy, naughty or cheeky. They do try. Vaughn directs both with juvenile distraction.

Colin Firth plays dapper operative Harry Hart, who lays out the backstory for a secret elite high-tech coterie of nongovernmental world-savers. They wear exquisitely tailored suits and uphold the 1519 credo “Manners maketh man” credited to an Eton School headmaster. The alliterative pronouncement is a tagline for the 2015 film and turns up in 2017 dialogue.

Here is Hart’s exposition, as posted at IMDb.com (International Movie Data Base, a site based in Seattle): “Since 1849, Kingsman Tailors have clothed the world’s most powerful individuals. In 1919, a great number of them had lost their heirs to World War I. That meant a lot of money going uninherited. And a lot of powerful men with the desire to preserve peace and protect life. Our founders realized that they could channel that wealth and influence for the greater good. And so began our adventure. An independent international intelligence agency operating at the highest level of discretion.”

Firth, out of character, is quoted in the 2015 press notes: “We’re living in an age in which we’re very suspicious of our institutions and our governments. Whatever trust we’ve once had has been undermined, so I think it’s interesting to explore the idea that there is an organization with pure motives. One not compromised by the politics and bureaucracy of these institutions. The Kingsmen are the modern-day Knights of the Round Table.”

In “Kingman: The Secret Service” Hart and Eggsy (Taron Egerton), the son of a KIA Kingsman, must save our species when a villain schemes to save the planet instead. Digital tech billionaire Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) tells Harry of getting nowhere with “climate change research, lobbying, billions of dollars.” Premise for plan B: “Global warming is the fever, mankind is the virus. We’re making our planet sick… The host kills the virus, or the virus kills the host.” Valentine kidnaps a climate prof who claims: “Humankind is the only virus cursed to live with the horrifying knowledge of its host’s fragile mortality.” Nitpicking virologists will note per “kill” that not only are viruses non-living things, but non-knowing ones. They can know nothing about this thing we call killing.

Valentine announces the best ever online plan: “As of tomorrow, every man, woman, and child can claim a free SIM card that’s compatible with any cell phone, any computer, and utilize my communications network for free. Free Calls. Free Internet. For Everyone. Forever.” He engineered cards with a short-range transmitter omitted from the Terms of Service Agreement. Distributed worldwide, that SIM freebie will relay via Valentine’s satellite “a neurological wave that triggers the centers of aggression and switches off inhibitors.” What is the ensuing mass slaughter good for? Eugenicist “culling” of the masses and the survival of a tiny elite pre-outfitted with signal-blocking cranial microchips. Unless Kingsmen save the day.

The cleverest scene rates as self-aware, but hardly genre-subverting. In the last reel Valentine schools Hart: “You know what this is like? It’s like those old movies we both love. Now, I’m going to tell you my whole plan, and then I’m going to come up with some absurd and convoluted way to kill you, and you’ll find an equally convoluted way to escape… Well, this ain’t that kind of movie.” And in a blink and bang, Hart takes a headshot. He survives with retrograde amnesia in the sequel. Bereft of his past as a Kingsman, he insists he’s the lepidopterist he once was before manners remade him.

“It’s really hard to come up with a villain plot that doesn’t seem silly,” relates Vaughn in the 20th Century Fox press notes for “Kingsman: The Golden Ring.” He is as much as admitting he failed on that score by conceiving Poppy Adams (Julianne Moore) as a global drug monopolist. Fox notes describing this villain get her endgame wrong: “a megalomaniacal, deluded villain with designs on taking over the world.”

The villainy is no less misanthropic this time. It’s just so odd. Poppy contaminates drugs instead of SIM cards, scaling her ploy smaller than Valentine’s. (I am assuming there are fewer users of illegal recreational substances than users of SIM card devices.) She adds “an enterovirus in all varieties of my product– cannabis, cocaine, heroin, opium, ecstasy and crystal meth.” Blue lines start appearing on the faces of infected customers. A terrible death comes in a matter of days. Unless they get the antidote, which Poppy has stockpiled aboard drones around the world. The logistics are laughable, of course, but that’s the point of this very small joke about the genre.

And what’s up for negotiation “in the largest scale hostage situation in history”? Poppy addresses the Oval Office, not the United Nations, despite the global distribution of her merchandise: “First, you agree to end the war on drugs once and for all. All classes of substances are legalized, paving way to a new market place in which sales are regulated and taxed as per alcohol. And second my colleagues and I receive full legal immunity.”

This Harvard Business School alum does not share market projections should the President of the United States indeed sign an “executive decree” to end what she calls a misguided “exercise in prohibition.” Poppy’s slogan is “Save lives, legalize.” If he does not sign, she kills off billions of customers and ends demand for product in her lifetime.

The president tells his inner circle, comprised of one general and one aid who needs drugs to maintain her punishing schedule: “We’re going to dance to this lady’s tune… Let the junkie scum go down in flames… No drug users, no drug trade. It’s a win-win situation. This presidency has just won the war on drugs.” Yet another dumbly designed plot turn .

The usual nemeses have the usual motives in these entertainments. Poppy, though, is a big exec with professional image and recognition issues. Is there a joke about glass ceilings? “Our profits were $250 billion last year,” she notes. “I’m the most successful businesswoman in the world. Nobody knows who I am.” Unlike Donald Trump, she has no framed magazine covers to show off in her untraditional office. Understandable if you hide atop a Cambodian mountain and plant land-mines in the surrounding jungle.

Poppy’s lair Poppyland is imagined as badly as her ploy and pay-off. Her executive workspace is an outsized diner and soda shop. Production designer Darren Gilford and art director Joe Howard confect a kitschy Americana set. A movie theater, bowling alley and beauty parlor figure in Poppy’s miniature ersatz Main Street accessorized with a kidnapped Elton John (Sir Elton John) supplying tunes on demand. Another headscratcher, design-wise.

“Kingsman: The Golden Circle” screenwriters Goldman and Vaughn extend the Kingsman brand by creating a Nashville “cousin” to the London organization hidden under a tailor shop. The newly disclosed one is hidden inside a Kentucky distillery. Again the press notes overstate their joint mission: “these two elite secret organizations band together to defeat a ruthless common enemy, in order to save the world.”

The challenge in “Friend Request” is not saving the recreational drug users of the world, let alone the whole world; just a handful of friends of Laura (Alycia Debnam-Carey), a sophomore psych major at Newkirk College. Set in California and shot in South Africa, this smaller budgeted German production has no U.S. stars, while Jeff Bridges, Channing Tatum and Halle Berry play supporting characters in “Kingsman: The Golden Circle.” Berry, as Ginger Ale, must locate the globe-trotting girlfriend of Polly’s top henchman. Instagram is her method.

Facebook is the social medium driving the narrative of Simon Verhoeven’s “Friend Request,” titled with a phrase that appears on your Facebook screen when someone asks you to click and accept their online Friendship. Laura accepts one such request from Marina (Liesl Ahlers), that weird, pale transfer student wearing a black hoodie who sits in the last row of Psychology 201.

Their prof debunks the trending diagnosis of Internet Addiction Disorder in the opening scene. That’s an early, if minor, glitched detail in the screenplay by Verhoeven, Matthew Ballen and Philip Koch. No character, on or off campus, suffers from any addiction, online or off. But Marina is demonstrably obsessed with her life-long isolation and abject lack of attention. Her quest to fix that will cost far fewer lives than unpopular Polly ever put at risk with her enterovirus to leverage attention in “Kingsman: The Golden Circle.”

Marina has a screen name of Ma Rina and has zero Friends on Facebook, where she has created and posted countless macabre videos, mostly grey-toned animated clips rife with nightmarish motifs. Laura, on the other hand, has 848 Friends, three roommates, a med student boyfriend, and a classmate with an unrequited crush who will undertake all the internet research to uncover the supernatural backstory Laura needs as much as the audience. All of Laura’s numbers will drop to zero before the end credits roll.

After exchanging a few words after class, Laura clicks on Marina’s Friend Request. Now Ma Rina has one Friend. Her first. “I was just trying to be nice,” Laura later tells her real life friends, who wonder if her kindness is more clinical at heart. Marina scrutinizes Laura’s Facebook page and sees her birthday is coming up. She expects to go. Laura lies that it’s just going to be her and her boyfriend. Marina sees party selfies posted by Laura’s real friends. She goes stand in the dark outside the restaurant. She turns on Laura. Laura unfriends her. Uh oh.

When the psych class meets next the prof announces Marina’s suicide. A ghastly black-and-white video posted online shows her hanging herself while on fire. No body is found. Yet Ma Rina– her malevolent avatar?– starts defriending (to re-prefix a Facebook verb) Laura by possessing her friends’ Facebook pages and their souls too. It’s impossible to delete videos this virtual and/or supernatural entity posts. No one can Unfriend her. One after another, Laura’s real life friends end up dead by their own hands with an assist from demonic wasps. “Is there some shitty new drug we don’t know about?” asks a local policeman.

Marina messages to Laura: “u will know how it feels to be lonely :)” which Laura’s `just-a-friend’ friend Kobe (Connor Paolo) decodes. “You’re going to be fine,” he assures Laura. “She said she wants to make you lonely. If that’s true then you are the only one who’s safe.” The rest of us are doomed, he figures. That Kobe is a clever one. The screenplay’s best twist is how that logic plays out: “I’m sorry,” he says, knife in hand. “She can’t make you lonely if you’re dead.”

Moralizing is obligatory in horror films with imperiled characters making damnable choices. Another Laura (Heather Sossaman) appears in a 2014 film titled “Unfriended” and directed by Levan Gabriadze from the Republic of Georgia. Shot and set in California, “Unfriended” shares with “Friend Request” cautionary social commentary on social media, an online suicide, and a terrifying string of related deaths. This earlier Laura– Marina’s counterpart– is a high school student who got wasted at a party and soiled herself. An unknown classmate uploads a cellphone video of the humiliating incident. Cyberbullying ensues. Laura commits suicide. One year later six classmates in a live video chat group are tormented by Laura’s vengeful internet-savvy spirit. Incidentally, “Friend Request” was titled “Unfriend” for its German release on January 7, 2016.

Laura’s birthday lie in “Friend Request” hardly merits the toll exacted by Marina, whose suffering began before birth. Kobe shows Laura old newspaper clippings about a literal witch hunt at “some weird commune.” There were flames. Severely burned and unconscious, Marina’s pregnant mother survived until doctors performed a C-section. “She was alone in the womb for months,” says Kobe. “Jesus, she was always alone,” says Laura.

True to horror tropes, Laura drives to an out-of-the-way orphanage to flesh out Marina’s case history. This unfortunate “ward of the state,” confides an administrator, “found some dark corners online, things no child should see. Sometimes she would just stare at the computer for hours. Nothing on the screen at all. Just her own reflection in the darkness. The kids became terrified of her. They said she gave them nightmares.” Two boys who tormented little Marina died by her alleged witchcraft. The soul ghouls of this duo, standing mutely side by side, pop up in the head spaces and crime scenes of Marina’s later victims. What they’re doing there is unclear.

A far more intriguing facet of the mise-en-scène is a motif prefigured in the black, blank laptop screen that preoccupied Marina at the orphanage. Credit Kobe with more ace research. He learns that Marina’s mother and others on the commune used “black mirrors” in evasive self-defense, explaining to Laura: “They’ve been used in the occult for thousands of years… And they say if you stare into it you can communicate with some other side. It’s called scrying. But sometimes these witches, if they were being hunted, if they didn’t have any other way out, they hang and burn themselves in front of a black mirror and become something else. Call it whatever you want. An evil spirit, a demon. The point is that’s how they got revenge on people. Possessing them and haunting them. Killing them.”

The 21st-century version of a black mirror that Marina used to turn herself into a demon who haunts and hacks Facebook profiles is her own laptop, the same one she set up to record and upload her suicide. Smashing that computer is the only way Laura can stop Marina’s super harsh online unfriending and lethal defriending.

This leads to overmuch digressing, for a look into black mirrors. In its production notes for reviewers, Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures, the U.S. distributor of “Friend Request,” refers to “occult lore” from the 15th-century Munich Manual of Demonic Magic (Liber incantationum, exorcismorum et fascinationum variarum). This may be the very volume consulted by Kobe when he discovers that Marina and her mother are scryers (from an Old French/ Middle English verb “descry”).

Excerpts from that anonymous compendium are translated by Richard Kieckhefer in “Forbidden Rites: A Necromancer’s Manual of the Fifteenth Century.” This Northwestern University medievalist, who did his dissertation research that Munich archive, speculates on the manual’s origins: “It may have been a pastime for underemployed clerics with time on their hands and a fondness for this quintessentially clerical form of dark and daring entertainment… Like the Ouija board in latter day culture, it may well have been… an amusement constantly in danger of becoming serious, dark and threatening.”

The Munich manual indexes “experiments”: “For obtaining information from a mirror,” “For obtaining information about a theft by gazing into a fingernail,” “For learning about any uncertain thing by gazing into a crystal,” and “Suffumigations for each day of the week.” Instructions are intricate. One formula starts with eviscerating a black cat born in March, cutting out its heart and eyes, inserting seeds, etc. Scryers availed themselves of diverse reflective surfaces such as the “oiled shoulder blade of a ram.” “The liver could be used for this purpose just as well as a hand painted with black soot and oil, as described in the Hebrew magical texts,” observes a 1917 article in the Journal of Biblical Literature.

Kieckhefer and other scholars cite penalties for possessing books about black mirrors and other bedeviled devices. Bernard Délicieux was imprisoned in 1319 for having a text on necromancy. Such tomes were put to the torch in exorcisms. On August 6, 1463 “a book of devilry” was itself put on trial, found guilty, and executed by burning in Dijon.

Second century Roman philosopher Apuleius defended himself against charges of owning a mirror and inflicting fits in a slave. He denied doing magic, arguing there was no proof he used his mirror unlawfully. He also claimed his alleged victim was a known epileptic.

As for specularii– users of mirrors, crystals, water bowls, etc. for supernatural ends– a 450 A.D. synod called by St. Patrick and St. Auxentius condemned those Christians believing mirrors could harbor unholy entities. English Bishop Baldock ordered “sorcerers and enchanters” not to access spirits “in fingernails, mirrors, stones and rings” in 1311.

In his 1326 letter Decretal super illius specula, Pope John XXII threatened to excommunicate Christians using mirrors this way: “With grief we discover, and the very thought of it wrings our soul with anguish, that there are many Christians only in name; many who turn away from the light which once was theirs, and allow their minds to be so clouded with the darkness of error as to enter into a league with death and a compact with hell. They sacrifice to demons and adore them, they make or cause to be made images, rings, mirrors, phials or some such things in which by the art of magic evil spirits are to be enclosed. From them they seek and receive replies, and ask aid in satisfying their evil desires. For a foul purpose they submit to the foulest slavery.”

Paris theologians criticized scrying in 1398. Jean-Baptiste Thiers applauded their stand, writing in his “Treatise on Superstitions” that “it is idolatry to invoke demons and lock them up in mirrors.” Spain’s King Juan II decreed the death penalty for mirror-diviners in 1410. This ruling was read aloud each month at marketplaces. Parisians burned a Norman sorcerer for making mirrors in 1609.

Before inventing his printing press, Johannes Gensfleish Gutenberg manufactured “holy mirrors” out of lead, tin and antimony in 1438. Pilgrims heading to Aachen thought that aiming one of these mirrors at relics in Aachen would capture emanations. Believers would cover the exposed surface, return home, uncover the mirror, and outflow beneficence would heal loved ones and livestock. The plague canceled travel that year, so business sucked.

That Munich handbook describes illusionist experiments,” including one “to make a dead person seem alive or vice versa.” Marina surely deploys this special effect with her online videos in “Friend Request.” An aide to Cardinal Campeggio– sent to England by Pope Clement VII to adjudicate Henry VIII’s annulment– wrote in 1532 about Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa demonstrating a special mirror wherein “the dead seemed alive.” One of this wizard’s English encounters is depicted in Lucy Madox Brown’s 1871 painting “The Fair Geraldine, or The Magic Mirror, Cornelius Agrippa showing the Fair Geraldine in a Magic Mirror to the Earl of Surrey.”

Nostradamos began his career as a scryer in 1547 by peering on the surface of water in bowls. One his lesser known specialties was interpreting moles of nobles.

John Dee– natural philosopher and court astrologer for Queen Elizabeth I– divined the Day of Judgment, vagaries of English diplomacy and other matters through his “shew-stone.” A black obsidian mirror in British Museum is uncertainly catalogued among Dee’s implements. Scryers served as Dee’s channels to angels and assorted spirits.

“His only (but great and dreadful) error being, that he mistook false lying Spirits for Angels of Light, the Divel of Hell (as we commonly term him) for the God of Heaven,” wrote Meric Casaubon in “A True & Faithful Relation of What passed for many Yeers Between Dr. John Dee (A Mathematician of Great Fame in Q. ELIZ. and King JAMES their Reignes) and some Spirits” in 1659.

Elias Ashmole proclaimed mirrors and the like that increased vision. In his 1652 text “Theatrum chemicum Britannicum, Containing severall poeticall pieces of our famous English philosophers, who have written the hermetique mysteries in their owne ancient language,” he rhapsodized: “By the Magicall or Prospective Stone it is possible to discover any Person in what part of the World soever, although never so secretly concealed or hid; in Chambers, Closets, or Cavernes of the Earth: For there it makes a strict Inquisition. In a Word, it fairely presents to your view even the whole World, wherein to behold, heare, or see your Desire. Nay more, It enables Man to understand the Lan∣guage of the Creatures, as the Chirping of Birds, Lowing of Beasts, &c. To Convey a Spirit into an Image, which by observing the Influence of Heavenly Bodies, shall become a true Oracle; And yet this as E. A. assures you, is not any wayes Necromanticall, or Devi∣lish; but easy, wonderous easy, Naturall and Honest.”

In the Americas, there was a long tradition of polishing obsidian and pyrite for mirroring. Sophisticated mirrors were found since the ninth century, according to contributing to the book “Manufactured Light: Mirrors in the Mesoamerican Realm.” Archaeologists and other academics variously discover “mirrors serve as cave-like passageways for supernatural beings. Much like Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass;” “mirrors, polished jade, and even dewdrops at dawn relate to the Mesoamerican concept of shining elements being windows or passageways for souls and gods;” and “Acting as cosmic portals or devices of divination, the king or shaman could use a mirror to conjure up gods and bring them into the human realm.” Huichol Indians of the Western Sierra Madre in Mexico “exercise their `gift of seeing’” via mirrors.

Nathaniel Hawthorne evokes the black mirror in his 1850 novel “The Scarlet Letter.” Hester Prynne recounts the perils of self-regard for her daughter Pearl: “Once, this freakish, elvish cast came into the child’s eyes, while Hester was looking at her own image in them, as mothers are fond of doing; and, suddenly,– for women in solitude, and with troubled hearts, are pestered with unaccountable delusions,– she fancied that she beheld, not her own miniature portrait, but another face in the small black mirror of Pearl’s eye. It was a face, fiend-like, full of smiling malice, yet bearing the semblance of features that she had known full well, though seldom with a smile, and never with malice, in them. It was as if an evil spirit possessed the child, and had just then peeped forth in mockery. Many a time afterwards had Hester been tortured, though less vividly, by the same illusion.”

Abraham Lincoln had his own encounters with mirrors that he confided to two intimates and his wife. On two occasions he reclined in sight of a large mirror. ”There, in the glass, he beheld a double image of his face, and one of the two faces was very pale, like a dead man’s,” wrote historian Richard Current in his 1958 book “The Lincoln Nobody Knows: A Portrait in Contrast of the Greatest American.”

Curiously, these uncanny incidents are cited in a study of 48 mental patients peering at mirrors for a half hour. Two St. Louis researchers published their findings in the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease in 1968.

Laura’s late father was a psychiatrist in “Friend Request.” Unfortunately, that offhand detail does as little for the plot as her psychology prof bringing up Internet Addiction Disorder.

The designers of “Kingsman: The Golden Circle” nod to spy and spy spoof genres. The minds behind “Friend Request” make an inspired choice of black mirrors, yet miss an opportunity to repurpose medieval magic for commentary on Facebook. At least “Unfriend” entertained a conceit about social media by framing the narrative via live cameras on characters’ laptops. Both horror films– spoiler alert– end with the identical cliche: a shock close-up of a demonized Laura lunging at us. Meta-mannerisms redeem none of these efforts.

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