By George Bate & Josh Reilly B.
The Blair Witch Project firmly asserted found footage as a novel subgenre of horror cinema, and the likes of Unfriended, The Visit, and Cloverfield have shown that, despite teetering on oversaturation, this subgenre can pack plenty of original scares in the right hands.
The subgenre finds itself in immensely capable hands in Deadstream, a Shudder original horror film that is receiving a physical release this July. Premiering at SXSW Film Festival in 2022, Deadstream is directed, written, produced, and edited by husband and wife team Joseph and Vanessa Winter. Joseph Winter, who also composed the film’s soundtrack, plays the lead character in the film, a disgraced YouTuber named Shawn. Known for his series of videos about overcoming his fears, Shawn attempts to overcome recent controversy and regain sponsors and followers by livestreaming himself spending the night at a haunted house.
The film’s opening scene unfolds like the sort of loud, quick-edited YouTube video that bewilderingly gets millions of views. This introduces Shawn’s prank series “Wrath of Shawn,” which sees the controversy-riddled YouTube personality come face-to-face with his fears in a series of ethically questionable stunts. After acts like purposefully being smuggled across the Mexico-U.S. border and some ambiguously described controversy led to his canceling, Shawn turns to the paranormal for redemption. Deadstream may be best described as a cross between Hell House LLC and Spree.
Much of the success of Deadstream can be attributed to its delicate balance of horror and humor. This balance is perhaps best videnced in an extremely clever first act that not only preempts many of the film’s scares, but also intelligently serves the story and offers some genuinely great laughs. Shawn’s YouTube series about overcoming fears serves as a logical foundation for why the character would want to spend a night in a haunted house in the first place. His desperate attempts to win back his sponsors and fanbase lead him to do some pretty inane things, such as remove the spark plugs from his car, lock himself in the house and throw the key down a vent, and even play a game called Wheel of Stupidity in which he spins a wheel to complete certain tasks like a seance or an exorcism. The Winters take their time carefully laying the framework for the horror to come with an intelligent, multipurpose set-up. There’s a morbid joy watching Shawn’s sheer stupidity on display while terrifyingly knowing that, as a horror film, things will inevitably go awry.
With this set-up, Shawn (and the audience) is ready to go. It takes quite a bit of time, relatively speaking given the film’s lean 87 minute runtime, for the spooks and thrills to come, but, when they do arrive, they don’t disappoint. Shawn’s array of stupid decisions earlier in the film come back to bite him (in some cases, literally). The directors employ terrific makeup work for creatures, which, coupled with a number of well-crafted jump scares, make for a frighteningly good time.
Adding to the film’s effectiveness as a horror film, the Winters build out a surprisingly interesting backstory for the haunted house and its cursed inhabitants. It’d be a stretch to say this establishes any kind of world-building, although there is certainly a historical context for the events that occur. This adds a weight to the film’s scares beyond merely a ghost popping up here and there. The scares are effective and supported by a solid story.
Featuring in virtually every shot of Deadstream is Joseph Winter, who commands the screen with a hilarious and nuanced performance. Winter evokes all of the stereotypical qualities of annoying YouTube personalities and is truly convincing as the disgraced influencer he is playing. Consistent with such YouTube personalities, Winter plays Shawn as purposefully over-the-top, exaggerating every little thing for his audience’s enjoyment. In this sense, this means Winter is playing Shawn as a man feigning fear…that is, until the horrors start and the actual fear kicks in. There are multiple layers to Winter’s performance, which collectively require a level of nuance and subtle complexity that is difficult to achieve.
The humor intrinsic to Winter’s performance as Shawn and Deadstream’s overarching fosters plenty of opportunities for commentary on accountability, social media, and the desperate lengths some will go for attention. Deadstream is a purposefully heavy-handed cautionary tale about the pursuit of fame, tailor made to fit right into contemporary culture.
Deadstream breathes terrifying new life into the found footage sub-genre of horror cinema. Perfectly striking a balance between humor and horror, the film excels with a cleverly constructed first act that sets up much of the laughs and thrills that follow. Joseph Winter, who also co-directed and wrote the film with his wife Vanessa, delivers a surprisingly nuanced performance as a disgraced YouTube personality that is essential to the film’s effectiveness. Nearly a quarter of a century since The Blair Witch Project and the found footage genre has, in many ways, become over-saturated, thus giving subsequent attempts in this sub-genre a difficult bar to reach to justify their existence. This bar is reached and even exceeded with Deadstream, a film that blends horror and comedy into a lean, contemporary movie that definitely deserves a watch.
Deadstream is now streaming on Shudder and will release on Blu-Ray and DVD (including a Walmart Exclusive Blu-Ray) on July 18.