The horror-comedy “Deadstream” feels like ’80s Sam Raimi traveled forward in time, became obsessed with streaming culture, and turned Ash Williams into the dumbest possible stunt streamer. And it rules. With stunning creature effects, a great balance between laughs and scares, and one of the best uses of the Screenlife format, this is a film that could easily become a Halloween tradition alongside “Evil Dead II” or “Hell House LLC.”
Joseph Winter pulls what is mostly a one-man show as Shawn Ruddy, a popular yet toxic YouTube vlogger who was canceled after one of his stunts went too far and left someone in the hospital. After switching platforms to Twitch knockoff Livvid, Shawn decides to reclaim his influencer status and monetize his fans by conquering his biggest fear and surviving an entire night at a haunted house. The problem is, Shawn is an absolute idiot. He opens the stream with a found footage “this is the last anyone heard of this guy” introduction, he purposely breaks his car, locks the house and throws away the key to save himself from the temptation to run away. If that’s not enough, he sees a strange ritualistic symbol in the only room that has never had any paranormal activity and breaks it — all in order to increase viewership. In other words, we as an audience know he’s a lost cause from the beginning.
Co-directors/writers Joseph and Vanessa Winter understand, much like Sam Raimi, the universal appeal of watching an absolute moron trapped in a horror scenario. As Shawn, Winter captures the larger-than-life personality that drives the Twitch and YouTube algorithms (his beef with PewDiePie adds a layer of verisimilitude to the film), as well as the toxic, egocentric, irresponsible behavior and personality that can often be found among vloggers. Our first introduction to Shawn is as a lovable idiot who puts himself in dangerous situations for our entertainment, like shouting at cops or eating gross things, but it is quickly made clear that the look for more viewers and subscriptions blinds Shawn of everything, including the problematic angle of exploiting the border crisis for a new prank.
For every dumb but charismatic thing Shawn does, like walking around the haunted house with a self-recorded “Shawn Carpenter’s Halloween” soundtrack, there is something offensive or insensitive he does that puts you at arm’s rest. Despite it being on the periphery of the story, “Deadstream” does offer some poignant commentary on cancel culture on YouTube, the speed to which online fame can appear and disappear, and the desperation to reclaim it. The mention of Shawn’s shallow apology video after being suspended and losing his sponsors gets a quick mention that doesn’t add much to the actual plot, but it does wonders to assure that “Deadstream” understands this particular moment in online celebrity history. The result is a horror movie where you know the victim is getting what’s coming to him, and you root for karma to do its thing, but you still can’t help but feel a bit bad for him.
And make no mistake, this is a horror movie. Sure, hardcore fans expecting a new “The Blair Witch Project” or “Paranormal Activity” may be disappointed, but “Deadstream” still knows when to quickly switch from a joke at Shawn’s expense to something legitimately suspenseful or scary. This is in no small part due to the film’s excellent use of practical effects for its creatures. They may lack the budget of a James Wan flick, but still impress with how impactful they can be when Shawn encounters a new ghoul creeping out of a bathtub or the forest. Placing cameras all around the house for the live-stream, “Deadstream” has a great sense of geography that resembles the kind of video game that would become viral on Twitch. Indeed, every room in the house feels like a new level, complete with its own story and ghost that haunts it, as well as tricks to avoid them. Of course, a good haunted house movie needs some good mythology, and “Dreadstream” manages to create a compelling story of a poet who committed suicide and started building a following beyond the grave.
The biggest accomplishment of “Deadstream,” however, is the way it uses the Screenlife format to build something new and of the moment. While the setup is no different from your run-of-the-mill found footage movie, with Shawn using a POV camera and one pointed at his face at all times, the film constantly cuts away to the live-stream broadcast of the events. Every so often, Shawn pulls the iPad from where he controls the stream and the cameras, and a flood of comments invade the stream, both toxic, angry, or just plain funny, like they were actually written by 12-year-olds online. The back-and-forth between Shawn and the commenters, who also provide clues and help figure out how to deal with the horrors of the house, is an absolute delight to watch. Additionally, it does a good job of portraying the parasitic parasocial relationship between streamer and audience.
“Deadstream” may not bring about the start of a horror livestream trend, but it shows that there is more to the Screenlife format than Skype or Zoom calls. With a sharp script brought to life by a fantastic actor, and deliciously gross creature effects, this is one horror-comedy you want in your annual Halloween rotation.
“Deadstream” premiered at the 2022 SXSW Film Festival. Shudder acquired the film, but no release date has been announced.