DEADSTREAM is a fantastic horror comedy. The film wants to be funny and it is. It’s also really scary. I previously said that DEADSTREAM did not scare me, but I must update this review to say that when I watched DEADSTREAM in a theatre, even though I knew damn well what was going to happen, I let out a very loud scream on at least two occasions.
Vanessa and Joseph Winter, I salute you. The film is now streaming on Shudder and you should go watch it right now.
The star and co-writer of the film, Joseph Winter (Diantha’s Crossing) as Shawn Ruddy, was so convincing as a cringe live streamer that I was unaware that the movie had started. DEADSTREAM was the first film that I streamed at SXSW virtually, so as far as I knew, this was some kind of pre-show to the actual film. Winter was fully committed to the bit. I bought it until I noticed that it had gone on longer than the usual pre-show offerings on a virtual festival site and said out loud, “Nice job.”
DEADSTREAM shows its intentions with the title and the goofy opening sequence where the host shouts “Hadouken!”. It’s pretty simple, but simplicity is often the best way to go about telling a story effectively. The Blair Witch Project was quite simple and to the point too and it's the high water mark of the genre.
Shawn Ruddy is an internet provocateur who makes his living from pulling outrageous stunts that feature him facing what he says are his worst fears. Everything is fairly typical until you see the footage of him taunting and fleeing from a cop. One or two unnamed stunts result in his stream being demonetized (and I didn’t notice how close the word demonetized is to demon until I just wrote it out) and suddenly he’s without income and more importantly, internet fame. He gets “canceled” for going too far. DEADSTREAM is the story of what happens when he gets his stream back after he issues the de rigeur non-apology-apology and decides to pull out all the stops by going to a haunted house and challenging a local ghost of legend.
The film is screen life found footage and its thrills have a wonderfully Sam Raimi in his Evil Dead phase horror comedy vibe. The evil ghost and/or the demons involved easily take possession of people and there’s some mythology about how a protection spell is involved, a hamsa, and how the ghost/demon got its powers that are delivered by helpful viewers of the Livestream. It’s an interesting and clever way to do an exposition dump to guide the story to its next horror using the very nature of the Livestream format. The co-writers and co-directors did a really good job of working with the format to craft their tale.
For my money, DEADSTREAM is more effective than HOST’s séance by ZOOM setup. I think DEADSTREAM will benefit from the acceptance brought to horror film audiences by HOST using a different setup as the backdrop for a variation on the found footage subgenre.
Both are clever, but DEADSTREAM has more believability, in my opinion, because of the feeling that the audience could be watching the events happen. You can go along with the idea that you’re watching a Livestream of a scared dude in an abandoned house. It’s more plausible than someone digging up someone else’s Zoom recording.
DEADSTREAM is mostly played for laughs but does have a couple of themes that muse on socially relevant issues. These are mainly concerned with the power of live streamers via their popularity and how that power is largely fleeting and based on their actions.
Audiences want to be shocked and they egg Ruddy on, but there’s always the possibility that he’s going to commit a faux pas that gets his money and channel pulled away from him at any time.
He’s being attacked and pursued by a demonic entity, but he still worries about using an expletive on the stream and tries to explain to sponsors and the Livestream company why he shouldn’t be punished for saying the word “shit” in an intense situation.
The film is largely ambivalent about the morality of Ruddy and live-streaming pranks. Maybe the biggest comment that the film can make about the amorality of this kind of monetized Internet geekdom is to not overtly comment on it’s morality at all.
I’m using the word geek in the old-time carnival sideshow sense because this type of thing isn’t that far from biting off the head of a chicken for a carnival audience’s entertainment.
The audience, including you, contributes to this by watching and pushing Ruddy to do things that could hurt him or others. Ruddy contributes by trying to please the audience no matter what his ethics are if he has any.
In a way, it’s kind of like the phenomenon that happens whenever nerdy guys get attention and fame. They go wild and sometimes commit heinous acts because they believe in their audience’s approval, an approval that they’ve never gotten before and in large, personality-deforming amounts, and, like a drug, it’s something that they now need to feel good about themselves.
Ruddy isn’t as far gone as people like the Paul Brothers, but you can see how the desperate desire for acceptance and approval can warp someone who is moderately moral, like Shawn Ruddy’s character, and how someone who doesn’t have a personal code of ethics or is actively evil could become even worse, like the ghostly poet of the house’s legend. How the desperate desire for fame and love can encourage you to do terrible things and entice you into active evil. DEADSTREAM is not the only film that plumbs this phenomenon at SXSW this year.
DEADSTREAM is funny, I laughed out loud, mildly gory and violent, with a bit of musing on the social consequences of the search for monetized acceptance. The make-up work is fully decent and the shocks tend to be of the jump scare variety, but there is a bit of dread brought on by plot mechanics with the judicious use of bringing Livestream fans to center stage to let you know exactly how badly Shawn Ruddy has messed things up.
The performances are really good and, in particular, Joseph Winter does a really solid job of making Ruddy somewhat more likable than you might first believe which sells the entire idea of the film.
You like him, even though he’s not a good person but you could see why he could be a popular Livestream host. He’s got a vulnerability that makes you sympathize with him but a mercenary streak that keeps you from sympathizing too much. It’s a performance that is precisely dialed in for maximum effectiveness.
The film wouldn’t work as well as it does without Winter’s central performance. Melanie Stone as Chrissy has just enough of a concerning intensity and a similar charm to make her character just likable enough. She’s just as entertaining as Shawn but there’s always just something about her that’s a little too intense which is hilarious.
The performances of the Livestream viewers who pop up as guests are surprisingly earnest as a refreshing counterpoint.
DEADSTREAM is fun and funny with enough haunted house horror to make it a worthy entry in the found footage subgenre that also expands what the genre can do. It’s clever and enjoyable with some ideas to boot. The little details like the ghost trying to stick a finger up his nose, which is wacky but disturbing, make it more entertaining. DEADSTREAM scores because it is entertaining and involving.