Because I’m such a glutton for screenlife horror films, my expectations when approaching each new entry in the genre are pitifully low. For every genius laptop-POV thriller out there like Unfriended, Host, and Spree, there’s ten times as many dull, uninventive imitators like Searching, Safer at Home, and Untitled Horror Movie. Screenlife filmmaking is such an easily affordable, attention-grabbing gimmick that the genre has become overcrowded to the point where it’s no more of a novelty than carbon, oxygen, or tap water. I’m still always thirsty for more found footage chillers about cursed internet broadcasts, though, so I couldn’t resist the unassuming haunted house horror comedy Deadstream when I saw it on the program for this year’s Overlook Film Fest. I went into the movie expecting more post-Unfriended mediocrity, which is likely why I found it such a constantly surprising delight. It got huge laughs in a way that transported me back to Overlook’s joyous screenings of One Cut of the Dead the last time the festival was staged in-person in 2019. It’s easy to roll your eyes at the simplicity & tardiness of its premise in a market overcrowded with so much screenlife #content, but Deadstream is a verified crowdpleaser.
Deadstream essentially does for Blair Witch what Host did for Unfriended: borrowing its basic outline to stage a chaotic assemblage of over-the-top, technically impressive scare gags. A found-footage horror comedy about an obnoxious social media influencer getting his cosmic comeuppance while livestreaming his overnight tour of a haunted house, it also functions as a kind of internet-era tech update for the vintage media nostalgia of the WNUF Halloween Special. The influencer in question is a smartass YouTuber with a popular channel named Wrath of Shawn and a sub-Ryan Reynolds sense of humor. He’s occasionally funny but relentlessly grating, not to mention casually sexist, racist, and classist. Hot off six months of “cancellation” for an “insensitive” YouTube stunt he’s reluctant to sincerely discuss, he attempts to earn back his audience & sponsors with a night spent in the aforementioned haunted house. There, he runs afoul the ghost of “Odd Duck Mildred”, a Mormon-raised poet and victim of suicide who violently hijacks his livestream to promote her own poetry. Even while being supernaturally tortured for his sins against humanity & good taste, Shawn remains brand-conscious in his self-referential catchphrases and shameless audience engagement tactics – a true heel to the end.
The shitheel YouTuber’s way of delivering frat boy one-liners in a Steve from Blue’s Clues voice is dead-on in its parody of social media celebrity. He’s so heavily weighed down by his camera equipment & brand-awareness duty to his sponsors that it’s impossible to get him to interact with the world outside his tablet screen with any semblance of sincerity. Thankfully, Mildred is there to slap him around as an undead audience surrogate, throwing exponentially absurd, gross-out scares in his path until the entire house is crawling with spooks & ghouls who’ve joined her cause. The movie itself never feels like a mess, though, despite its potential to devolve into the found-footage equivalent of Spookies. It’s very careful to explain the camera angles, editing tech, and audience input that makes its live-feed broadcast plausible, down to Shawn visibly pressing play on his Walkman’s pre-loaded “Shawn Carpenter” soundtrack to build tension. There’s an ambition in thoroughness & scale here that represents the very best of what the screenlife format can do for filmmakers with little funds but plenty imagination. Deadstream is an excellent argument that the genre is still thriving even as it’s become more pedestrian. More importantly, it’s a very funny, effectively scary horror comedy where the worst things happen to the worst kind of person.