Follow Her had its UK première at FrightFest 2022
Sylvia Caminer’s feature debut Follow Her begins with dark, ominous music, and a crack opening in the darkness, as we see, from the point of view of a bound man (Brian Vincent) peeking out of the chest freezer in which he is trapped, a woman holding an axe, who tells him in her heavy Eastern European accent, “Did I say you could speak, weasel?”
What seems like a basement hellhole scenario born out of pure torture porn cliché quickly turns out to be a classic horror fakeout. In fact, more than one fakeout. For the woman is aspiring actress Jess Peters (Dani Barker), who has answered a classified ad and is now serving as this man’s dominatrix for much-needed cash. And while the man is a willing, indeed enthusiastic participant in this private arrangement, unbeknownst to him Jess is filming the exchange. For like the heroine of Patrick Bryce’s Creep 2 (2017), Jess answers the classified ads of male strangers and secretly films the fetishistic weirdness that almost always ensues, exploiting her exploiters and uploading the (mostly) anonymised footage to her channel on the streaming service Live Hive. There, under the handle J-Peeps, she is a rising star, edging ever closer to the kinds of hits and likes and follows that equate to big money. With her acting career going nowhere, and her dad (Mark Moses) no longer willing to support her expensive New York City lifestyle, Jess has decided to capitalise on, and along the way to humiliate and ridicule, the Man that keeps holding her back. It is a moral minefield, endlessly confronting Jess with ethical conundrums – e.g., should she take down one of her more popular videos after discovering that in it the scrambled face of a man (Justin L. Wilson) is briefly exposed and identifiable? – but hey, a girl’s gotta pay the bills, right, especially in this economy.
Ever the actress, Jess constantly engages in other kinds of fakery and masquerade. Her Russian accent was put on. The blonde locks that she so often conceals with extravagant wigs are themselves a (dyed) interweaving of her own hair and extensions – a lot of fiction mixed in with a little truth. And for the next classified ad that she answers, calling for her to help a man finish writing an “erotic screenplay in the vein of Hitchcock”, Jess adopts the pseudonym Lucy Byers. Upstate she meets the screenwriter Tom Brady (Luke Cook), who is disarmingly cute and charming, not at all like the pathetic parade of men whom Jess normally meets, and who also, importantly, pays the $100 advance upfront. Unsure whether this is legitimate work or a ‘date’, Jess as ever embraces all the red flags and follows Tom to his opulent home – a refurbished barn – in the middle of nowhere, only to find that the two-handed screenplay on which she is collaborating, entitled Classified Killer, appears to be unfolding in real time, with herself cast as either its final girl, or its ultimate victim.
This is a poioumenon, in which Barker, the actual screenwriter of Follow Her as well as its lead, plays an actress character who is also engaged both in writing a screenplay, and in an uneasy live improv to hammer out a satisfying ending for a character modelled closely on herself. Uncertain whether she is being courted, framed or set up for a grisly demise, Jess pursues all the eros and thrills that the script demands, even as her verbal sparring with Tom over what motivates the female protagonist of Classified Killer (expressly named ‘Jess’), comes to resemble the online commentary in the sidebar of one of her livestreams – a sometimes approving, sometimes deeply critical deconstruction of her person. Soon we are as confused as Jess about where, in all these layers of play-acting and metafiction, the truth – and the real Jess – lie.
Caminer’s disorienting, often very funny dissection of online identity, imposture and irresponsibility plays out like David Fincher’s The Game (1997) for the social media age. While it constantly shows Jess being judged for her actions and choices, it ends by presenting us with a dilemma very much like all the others that she has faced, and leaving us to weigh up its difficult ramifications and symmetries for ourselves. Of course, no matter which way Jess goes, you will still want to follow her…
strap: Sylvia Caminer’s sophisticated feature debut is a two-handed, double-edged erotic thriller exposing the moral pitfalls of online celebrity
© Anton Bitel