The internet is full of horrors, but there’s a unique grotesquery in the Youtube prankster. Desperate for followers, this reckless fool refuses to take anything seriously or consider anything sacred — except for their sponsorship deals. Inevitably, their quest to shock and awe audiences will go too far, drawing the attention of more than their fans. A wider world disgusted by their ruthless idea of humor could spark so-called cancellation, costing them access to monetized media platforms.
Now, imagine such a clown tossed into a haunted house, where he might face a grim comeuppance. This is the mercilessly clever setup of the SXSW premiere Deadstream, a wickedly fun found-footage horror movie that offers scorching commentary on internet fame.
In a frenzied opening, audiences are given a crash course on internet personality Shawn Ruddy (Joseph Winter), star of the prank video series “Wrath of Shawn.” Once a sensation, Shawn has been disgraced over some scandal he won’t address directly, but he has a plan for internet redemption. He will livestream a late-night tour of a supposedly haunted house. And to up the ante (and keep his only remaining sponsor happy), he’ll run toward any danger and purposely provoke any grisly ghost he can. Naturally, his predilection for provocation will throw this joker into a night from hell, complete with paranormal activity fearsome and funny.
There’s a dark joy to watching Shawn be tormented by the spirits he dared trifle with. When something goes bump in the night, his boyish bravado vanishes into cowardly squeals, which are hilarious. As he races through the rundown house, trapped and terrified, the shaky-cam cinematography combines with a frantic physicality that is knowingly played for laughs. Best of all, the perturbing poltergeists are turning the tables on the internet prankster, making him their punchline with probing fingers and gleeful jump scares. Still, even at a lean 87 minutes, this premise could have run out of steam if it weren’t for a mindful infusion of schadenfreude.
The filmmakers behind Deadstream had to make Shawn annoying enough that we relish seeing him in peril, but not so annoying that we’d rather just switch off this movie altogether. They make this delicate balance look easy, but there are a lot of moving parts to it. While Shawn is evocative of a special kind of self-aggrandizing troll, he’s constantly taken down a peg, not only by the haunted house’s spooky residents, but also by the commenters on his livestream, who openly mock him. So, we’re never tempted to take him too seriously. By keeping his scandal a mystery for most of the movie, Deadstream‘s writing/directing team prevent us from making a judgment call on this character out of the gate. And even if he is an obnoxious oaf, Shawn’s got a scrappy charm, whether he’s cracking dumb jokes or slap-fighting for his life.
This approach to their protagonist is all the more impressive because Shawn is played by Joseph Winter, who co-wrote and co-directed the film with his partner in life and filmmaking, Vanessa Winter. Too often, actor/writer/directors overestimate how charming they actually are as leads. But rather than making himself the adorkable hero or the beloved boy wonder, Joseph served himself up as a quivering, caterwauling joke. His fearlessness in playing the fool follows in the footsteps of iconic horror-comedy actor Bruce Campbell, which sets up the film for some more splendid similarities to Evil Dead II.
While Deadstream drops allusions to some classic horror movie moments — including parodying the ominous opening title card of The Blair Witch Project — its connection to Sam Raimi’s brand of horror-comedy runs deep. Beyond the “trapped in a cabin possessed by evil dead” plotline, Deadstream also offers a wildly manic protagonist and practical effects that favor the gross and outlandish over the realistic. Admittedly, this last bit is probably partially due to the confines of a low budget. But lingering shots on ghoulish faces that are clearly rubber masks tell us the filmmakers aren’t hiding the seams of their effects; instead, they’re embracing the nostalgic appeal of real goo and goofy gore. This embrace of sometimes cheesy practical effects gives Deadstream a deliciously Midnight Movie aesthetic that’s true to its feral and funny soul. It’s just a blast to watch. More than that, it’s a surprisingly smartly structured found-footage movie, which is an increasingly rare feat!
Frequently with found footage (or mockumentary), filmmakers will come up with all kinds of cheats to get better cinematography and camera coverage than their concept would allow. Just don’t think about why the characters are filming where they’re going as they run. Don’t worry about how we somehow got a reaction shot to the camera carrier in this sequence. Look over there! A jump scare! Well, Deadstream doesn’t cut corners.
At the start of his livestream, Shawn lays out his multi-camera system, made up of motion-detecting security cameras and a phone camera rigged selfie-stick-style in front of his face, which has a wrist-watch switch to toggle between front and back lenses. So, when the cut leaps from his face to where he’s looking, it makes sense! Better yet, the security cameras automatically cutting to motion means the audience sometimes catches sight of something Shawn was too distracted to notice in his playback. In this way, Winter and Winter turn Deadstream into an interactive thrill, where you might well be hollering at the camera as if this were a real livestream gone horrendously awry.
This is precisely the kind of movie you hope to find in the Midnighters section of a film festival like SXSW. Full of sick thrills and dark humor, it feels like a real find. It doesn’t need a big budget, an established horror franchise, or big names to stand out. Briskly paced, wildly fun, and surprisingly smart, Deadstream is a bloody terrific good time. So, keep an eye out for it.
Deadstream was reviewed out of its World Premiere at SXSW 2022. The film is now streaming on Shudder.
UPDATE: Oct. 6, 2022, 11:18 a.m. EDT This review was initially published out of the film’s SXSW debut in March of 2022. It’s been republished in honor of Deadstream’s Shudder debut.