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SXSW 2022 ‘Deadstream’ Review: A Horrifying Delight Perfect for Our Times

SXSW
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It seems altogether too easy to parody found-footage horrors, with so many formulaic iterations floating about. Ranging from the newly-discovered, dusty tapes (take the Hell House LLC trilogy for example, or the endlessly-mineable and somehow still-thriving Paranormal Activity franchise) camp to the inexplicably-recorded computer-screen horrors (Unfriended and its ilk), one wonders whether all these slapdash stories with sequel upon sequel could work harder at seeming less obvious in their cash-grabbiness. On another seemingly unrelated note, it’s nigh impossible to take YouTube influencers — existing as they do on a seemingly superfluous plane, receiving great rewards for doing apparently very little and who take themselves needlessly too seriously — genuinely seriously. 

But what happens when you drop an influencer into a found-footage horror? This is a question Deadstream writer-director duo Joseph Winter and Vanessa Winter ask, with the resulting answer being: simultaneously hilarious and terrifying things! Deadstream is an endlessly entertaining gem about an influencer live-streaming a night spent in a decrepit and decaying and notoriously haunted house, and the film is able to deliver genuinely terrifying thrills through deft storytelling and stunning SFX. Upturning the classic haunted-house tale, the film flexes its self-awareness as yet another found-footage film through technical and ironic turns that amazingly work to not only read influencer culture to filth, but also to humanize its protagonist  — ultimately showing us that there is still new ground to be covered by this genre. 

The film begins with an apology: YouTuber Shawn Ruddy (Joseph Winter), who performs stunts for his millions of online followers, is returning from an imposed hiatus. Shawn was canceled socially and lost the backing of sponsors for performing various insensitive, borderline racist stunts — one wherein he verbally antagonized cops and got away with hardly a smack on the wrist, and another where had himself smuggled into the U.S. from Mexico. In an attempt to win back his followers after being demonetized, Shawn plans on spending a night in a haunted house and live-streaming the whole event. Armed with a backpack full of GoPros he sprinkles across the house, and a selfie cam, along with various iPads he uses to monitor his viewership and their comments, Shawn locks himself into the house and throws away the key. Unfortunately for Shawn, though, it eventually emerges that a despondent ghost in the house strives to make visitors as miserable as she was. Shawn is unexpectedly joined by a creepy and mysterious fan Chrissy (Melanie Stone) and together they attempt to figure out how to escape, as each attempt is foiled by the various spirits trapped within the haunted house.  

The film traipses through curious ground when it comes to self-awareness. Through the comments section of Shawn’s live-stream, Shawn’s viewers seem to echo any qualms, questions, apprehensions, and criticisms that we, the film’s viewers, might have as we watch — it’s weirdly validating. The film seems to say that it recognizes Shawn’s unwarranted hubris, which for long has been raging unchecked along with the voices of so many other white men online. Finally, Deadstream seems to expose how hilarious it is for a person to have as much freedom in the world as white men seem to have, and it does this through the cacophony of voices in Shawn’s comments section sounding off simultaneously, all as he pees in buckets, has his nose picked by a ghost, and as he cowers beneath sheets in a closet. 

In other words, this quasi-breaking of the fourth wall doesn’t seem to stall the film in a swamp of uncertainty, with so many voices Shawn cannot decide what to do. Rather, the Winters coalesce the commenters’ voices into a singular one that seems to hold a mirror up to Shawn, to open his small world up and say that there is a reality out there that he is not privy to, that he is not welcome in. This latter aspect is evidenced by how Shawn trips and stumbles and falls and flails through a house that wants to eat him alive, and by how he cracks terrible jokes in that ineffable, almost campy way that men do when they staunchly maintain a belief that they will win despite all evidence saying otherwise. 

A reason why this meta, ironic wink at the audience works in Deadstream is that it’s genuinely entertaining, the story is well wrought and compelling and Shawn is a super well-developed character. Shawn possesses the unearned confidence that so many men who have power possess, but being a child of the internet, he also has the wry and endearing sense of self-deprecating humor that only memes could cultivate. Even though he has been canceled for being a general asshole, Shawn still is able to come back to a platform backed by sponsors and given space to continue doing his shitty stunts — but this time around, he is very much aware of the power he has and how easy it is for him to lose it; time and again he apologizes to his sponsors for accidentally swearing, begging them to not demonetize him. This is the apprehensive but not satisfactory mindset Shawn has when Deadstream offers him up on a silver platter to the haunted house to be humbled, to further realize his fallibility, to learn what it really means to be alive, to find hardship where he never found it before. 

Joseph Winter does an excellent job of portraying Shawn, making him human through shrieks and tears: he makes a generally gross guy actually likable to the extent you find yourself rooting for him even as you laugh at him. Stone as Chrissy is a wondrous delight whose performance it’s difficult to talk about without giving away spoilers (just trust me when I say, she is a force to behold! Mikaela Kester does the SFX make-up in Deadstream and it is brilliant). Kester is able to give each of the house’s spirits a sumptuous physicality we don’t often see ghosts possessing. The haunts here disorient, condemn, break down doors, and ooze bloody gore, spewing bile onto Shawn and forcing him to eat eyeballs. 

Ultimately, with Deadstream, the Winters have created a great work of horror that is deliciously meta and bloody frightening in turn. You can’t miss this campy delight. 

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