Followers (2021)

Followers has its world première at FrightFest 2021

Writer/director Marcus Harben’s Followers opens with the sense of an ending, as Zauna (Loreece Harrison) speaks – significantly in the past tense – of ‘infamous social media influencer’ Jonty Craig. “He was a fool, a liar and a cheat,” she says, as though delivering a eulogy, “but most of all, he was my friend.”

Her words are heard over a montage that first shows Jonty (Harry Jarvis) presenting, preening and partying on camera, and then shifts to news reports of a student house conflagration at St Anne’s University, and the mysterious disappearance of raw footage from the night of the so-called ‘cassette’ murders, as one of Jonty’s millions of followers is shown wondering if his internet idol might in fact be a killer. Finally an injured Zauna stares gravely into the camera, declaring: “This is the truth – share it.” This is a ‘found footage’ story doomed from the start to end in several deaths – and although it will be pieced together from different audiovisual sources and multiple media, the version that we are ultimately seeing is Zauna’s, compiled and edited after the event. 

Rewind to 50 days earlier, and after being publicly disgraced on a Made In Chelsea-style ‘structured reality’ TV show called Brats of Belgravia, fame-obsessed ‘posh twat’ Jonty is looking to rebuild his online following by recording and uploading a flattering, somewhat fictionalised version of his life as a fresher. Seeing an opportunity to advance her own aspirations as a documentary filmmaker, Zauna agrees to help shoot Jonty’s vlog, while also piecing together her own more truthful version of events. Coming with mental health officer Becky Dubar (Nina Wadia) in tow, unstable, attention-seeking Amber (Erin Austen) is also happy to occupy centre screen at Jonty’s side, and is soon fuelling a will-they-won’t-they narrative that proves popular with Jonty’s gradually growing followers. Only angry, alcoholic Scottish house mate Pete (Daniel Cahill) is reluctant to play along with Jonty’s narcissistic games, but sticks around out of respect for Zauna.

At first Followers plays out like television’s Fresh Meat, or perhaps even an updated The Young Ones, tracking the semi-comic escapades of four dysfunctional student housemates. Yet both the prologue and the constant intradiegetic camerawork serve as signifiers of horror to come, and as is the way with genre, these fresh young things will soon discover that they are not alone in their new home. There is the sound of Nineties dance music constantly leaking through the walls, there is a ‘schizophrenic’ junkie (Dom Watters) squatting in the basement, and there is, maybe, a young woman’s ghost (Jessica Webber) trying to make her presence felt in all the footage being shot. As Jonty realises that the supernatural is a real draw for his vlog’s numbers, and as sponsors notice too, seemingly everyone wants in on the influencer’s success – be it the ambitious Zauna, the hippy-dippy counsellor Becky (who has her own much less successful website), the online medium Ilana Clark (Tanya Burr) or TV paranormal investigator Edward Lee (Orion Lee). Yet with so many parties trying to manipulate events and control the story, it becomes increasingly difficult to know where the truth lies.

Like Caryn Waechter’s DeadCon (2019), Followers locates a haunted space between real and online worlds, where communications are remote, where image is empty, and where the fragile and the forgotten can readily be ghosted. Marcus Harben’s feature debut is, ultimately, a ghost story in which lost souls keep trying to maintain their mediated ‘influence’ from beyond the grave. In March 2021, Harben himself died shortly after finishing production, so that the footage of his final film also serves as his own digital epitaph, encoding the sense of more than one ending.

strap: (G)irl interrupted: in Marcus Harben’s found-footage feature, a narcissistic online influencer and his student house mates upgrade an analogue ghost story to digital

© Anton Bitel