I loved Deadstream.
I expected I’d at least enjoy it, since its premise is entirely my kind of thing: a “found footage” movie in which a disgraced internet personality known for tasteless, extreme stunts tries to restore his name (and monetization) by locking himself into the most haunted house in the world and live-streaming everything that happens inside. What I hadn’t expected was that it would be hilarious and genuinely scary and relentlessly imaginative and clever.
Based on the core gimmick, I expected it to be similar to other “found footage” horror movies like Paranormal Activity, which always struck me as low-effort, to be honest. (Plus I didn’t think it was scary in the slightest, which is damning because I’m about the easiest person in the world to scare). Or, it’d be like Host, which I haven’t seen, but gave me the impression that it relied heavily on its premise for its scares.
Instead, Deadstream feels more like the filmmakers — Vanessa and Joseph Winter — chose to make a horror comedy in the style of Evil Dead 2, while also making it immensely harder for themselves by committing 500% to their gimmick. The entire hour and a half is presented as if it were one continuous take being broadcast in real time, with every edit, every camera angle, every cut-away for exposition, and every piece of music being given an in-world explanation.
It must’ve required a ton of precision and planning, and little of that planning is evident until the movie is over, since it all feels like a sloppy, spontaneous, one-man DIY production. But as you think back over the movie, you quickly realize that almost no detail is left without explanation or hand-waved away. In an interview with Slashfilm, the Winters talk about the production design and all the precision required to make the details work, and the thing that surprised me the most was the mention that scenes required “tons of takes.” Completely obvious in retrospect, but it hadn’t even occurred to me since everything felt genuinely organic and spur-of-the-moment. (Making me wonder how the hell Joseph Winter kept up the kind of energy for that kind of screaming after so many takes).
One thing that struck me about Deadstream is that the premise isn’t just a gimmick. For one thing, it’s incorporated into the movie’s central theme of a person who has a kind of primal need to be seen. (Deadstream would’ve been excellent as just a fun, scary, silly movie, but they had to take it a step farther and actually give it some thematic weight). But more than that, it takes the reality of most media in the 21st century — where we’re often simultaneously watching a movie while looking up stuff on our phones — and uses it to deliver laughs and scares across multiple channels simultaneously.
For instance: much of the movie shows the main character Shawn interacting with an on-screen chat log from people watching the stream. It’s the source of most of the movie’s dialogue — Shawn isn’t just talking to the camera the entire time, but answering questions from silent viewers — but also provides some of the best laugh-out-loud gags, dramatic irony as the audience sees things that Shawn doesn’t, exposition as the audience explains clues that Shawn missed, or tension as they make vile comments that push him to make even worse decisions.1They also frequently complain that what they’re seeing is “fake,” which is a brilliant touch.
And the chat log is just one of the ideas that Deadstream introduces, and then keeps introducing new twists or clever uses. Since Shawn is getting multiple camera angles by duct-taping GoPros to things, how many different ways can we use that idea? Since Shawn provides all the music via a cassette tape of music he recorded himself2And Joseph Winter, Shawn’s actor, recorded himself, how can we play with that idea? Deadstream even manages to get a laugh from how Shawn titles his different video feeds, typing in what he thinks is a sick burn in the middle of what should be an otherwise tense and terrifying moment.
Another thing that surprised me in that Slashfilm interview was the mention that they’d originally imagined that the main character “was just a guy that was really scared and that was his thing and there were no teeth to it.” That surprised me, because pushing Shawn farther into Logan Paul territory is what makes so much of it work at all. He’s got to be sympathetic and charismatic enough that he’s entertaining to watch for an hour and a half, and also so that there’s some tension, so that the audience isn’t simply waiting and hoping for the bad stuff that will inevitably happen to him. But he can’t be entirely sympathetic; he’s also got to be arrogant and desperate enough to keep driving everything forward. Horror movies depend on their characters making bad decisions3Except for Barbarian, which depends on a character who insists on doing the “right” thing, and I’ve seen too many that either give no justification for those decisions, or try too hard to make it seem like those decisions are more than just plot contrivances. In Deadstream, the bad choices fit Shawn’s character perfectly.
Early on, Shawn does several things that you know are just plain idiotic to do in a horror movie, and which you know are going to play into the plot later on. But instead of feeling like frustrating cop-outs, they feel like the setup to a joke, and you know the punchline will be delivered at some point in the next hour. Chekhov’s spark plugs. So much of Deadstream has that feeling of being well-thought-out and deliberate.
Another example of that kind of deliberate planning: a lot of the movie is filmed from a camera attached to Shawn’s head, and like most POV sequences, they tend to be shaky and disorienting, as if the cinematographer has given up control in favor of verisimilitude. But there’s one shot where Shawn sees the face of a terrifying creature in the woods, and it’s so perfectly timed: you only see it for what seems like a fraction of a second, just long enough to register in your mind, but not long enough to verify what you think you just saw.
The thing that’s so appealing to me about horror movies is that feeling of back-and-forth between the audience and the filmmakers: the audience is rarely passively watching, but actively second-guessing what they’re seeing and making predictions about what’s going to happen next. Really good horror movies are adept at manipulating that back-and-forth, accepting that the audience is “meta-gaming” the movie, and thinking of clever ways to subvert or challenge those expectations. And the best horror movies make that back-and-forth a core part of the experience, giving you the feeling that they’re right there in the audience with you, enjoying what you’re seeing and eager to show you their next idea. Deadstream never stops feeling like they want you to be part of all this ridiculous fun.
- 1They also frequently complain that what they’re seeing is “fake,” which is a brilliant touch.
- 2And Joseph Winter, Shawn’s actor, recorded himself
- 3Except for Barbarian, which depends on a character who insists on doing the “right” thing