When “The Blair Witch Project” properly launched the found footage horror subgenre in 1999, it was already asking for trouble that the protagonists were film students pointing their cameras where they shouldn’t. These days, the potential victims of these movies are likely to make us feel like they deserve their fate by being professional self-promoters with job titles as widely despised as “influencer”, “YouTube personality” or “video star”. reality TV”. Sharp objects can also be involved, but in horror cinema, few things prove more deadly than narcissism.
So we know bearded 30-something Shawn Ruddy’s (Joseph Winter) goose is instantly cooked in “Deadstream,” as he’s featured in an explosive montage of clips from the streaming series of which he stars and all the team. He identifies himself as “the greatest wuss in the world – facing my fears, one stupid challenge at a time”. The latest of these fears: a solo night in “the most haunted house in the United States”. We can safely guess that this episode “Wrath of Shawn” will probably be his last.
A feature debut for married multi-hyphenates Vanessa and Joseph Winter after several shorts, “Deadstream” is a fun horror-comedy both driven and limited by its co-director/ writer/producer/editor. Neither he nor the film lacks invention or energy. At the same time, the two basically hit a manic note for an hour and a half that could have been scaled down to a punchier effect. Still, this official SXSW Midnighter section opener is a cut above most indie exercises of its kind – comedic or deadpan – and should be fine for fans of the genre as a streaming item. Shudder secured the rights for North America, the UK, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand just before the film premiered in Austin.
Shawn’s previous stunts have been of a general “Jackass” ilk, putting himself in slapstick peril. Claiming to be really scared of ghosts, he saved this scarier business for what is some sort of public comeback, as he was ‘cancelled’ from a platform and lost his sponsorship following a prank that went wrong. This belatedly explained incident provides the Winters with an opportunity to satirize the poor judgment and questionable repentance of disgraced YouTube celebrities like Logan Paul.
Consequently, he was walking around at night, alone but with all the gear, in a Utah house in the woods abandoned 75 years ago, after eleven people died inside. The first was a Mildred Pratt, an eccentric spinster poet for whom it was built by her Mormon father in 1880. When her hopes for romantic fulfillment and literary fame hit a dead end, she committed suicide. Subsequent residents suffered more mysterious deaths, including several children, with legend now holding that their spirits remain trapped within the walls of the decrepit structure.
In addition to the ones he wears, Shawn places cameras around the periphery of the building outside, as well as in almost every room, monitoring their feeds on his laptop. Although it takes a crowbar to break into the joint, graffiti and IV needles strewn inside suggest he’s not the only recent intruder. Still, it’s an appropriately spooky place, where inexplicable noises startle him — though it’s hard to tell the difference between real fear and acting with this hammy host.
He’s both flattered and annoyed at first to realize that his lonely fear has been taken over by Chrissy (Melanie Stone), an outspoken fan who says she couldn’t resist the urge to find him. The surge in likes that the presence of a pretty young woman draws viewers alternately hectoring and supportive of Shawn (their comments frequently scroll across the screen) keep him from kicking her out. But Chrissy also turns out to be a prankster. Then, unsurprisingly, a bit more than that.
“Deadstream” avoids the freehand aesthetic monotony of many found horrors by mixing in fake stock footage and other elements, all filmed with agility by DP Jared Cook. There are also possible practical effects monsters (designed by Troy Larson), and a retro synthesizer score ostensibly composed by Shawn (actually by Winter himself) that the self-aware hero plays on a tape recorder to enhance his soon-to-be-missed dramatic. The pacing is definitely lively and the set quite unsettling, dressed by set designer Amy Leah Nelson Smith and art director Meg Cabell.
What keeps the movie from being anything more than an enterprising but minor diversion is that, with Shawn being such a loud comic book character from the start, fear and laughs don’t have much room to to construct. Winter gives itself thoroughly, in an entertaining way. But the performance is also dialed in too high, too soon, its ultimate payoff diminished because we’ve already had so much of this screaming, bragging, and whining protagonist.
Even Bob Hope, an earlier generation’s embodiment of the scaredy-cat snarkster, was able to cushion this persona with an array of sidekicks and adversaries in his haunted house comedies. It’s funny when Shawn reaches a personal horror climax exclaiming, “I don’t even know if I’m still streaming!” But it would be funnier if we hadn’t been fully aware that he’s been this type of self-absorbed exhibitionist for about seventy minutes. This is the inherent catch with social media personas: even when parodied, they tend to get boring fast.
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