Mean Spirited had its world première at FrightFest 2022
On 6 October, 1999, Andy is behind the camera filming his best friend Bryce (Simon Val) door-knocking and pranking a cantankerous old man (Neville Archambault); Andy then continues filming as the man angrily drags Bryce into his home. This opening sequence in Jeff Ryan’s Mean Spirited is also a sort of primal scene for these two 12-year-olds: for not only does it establish rôles – Andy as videographer, Bryce as performer – which the boys will still be filling decades later, but it also presents a key mystery which will change both boys’ lives forever. Evidently neither of them speaks of what happened to Bryce, abandoned by his friend, in the old man’s house, but from that moment, on the cusp of adolescence, something in Bryce broke, leading ever so gradually to the end of his friendship with Andy.
Now in his thirties, Andy (Will Madden) works as a vlogger under the handle ‘the Amazing Andy’, still in Jersey, still living with his mother, and still shit-posting prank videos from his basement for meagre hits on the channel Mean Spirited that he had originally founded with Bryce. Meanwhile Bryce (played by Ryan) has moved to LA and become a celebrated actor in the rôle of television’s ‘Thunderman’, and has cut Andy and his other high school friends out of his life entirely for the last two years. So when Bryce suddenly reaches out, inviting Andy and his crew Joey (Maria DeCotis), Dew (Will Martin), Tom (Daniel Rashid) and Tom’s new girlfriend Nikki (Michelle Veintimilla), to his luxury home in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains, Andy smells opportunity. For Andy not only plans to capture in a ‘vlog-umentary’ a series of his usual pranks, as well as footage of a local abandoned hotel said to be haunted – but also hopes to get to the bottom of why Bryce turned his back on all his high school friends, while simultaneously leeching off Bryce’s celebrity and bringing him down a peg or two. Yet Bryce – now sporting a slick self-confidence, an intimidating, much-displayed six-pack and a bleached haircut (contrasting with Andy’s male pattern baldness) reminiscent of Julian Sands’ in Steve Miner’s Warlock (1989) – has plans of his own for the weekend party, and a new deal to make with his old friend.
Everything that we see here is sourced from diegetic cameras, whether those used by Andy and his crew, or CCTVs and dashcams, and much of it is tightly edited with the sort of graphics, effects and animated interventions that Andy adds in post to spice up his vlogs. This leaves us uncertain whether we are watching found footage, lost footage, part of someone’s private collection, or just another jokey-spooky vlog in a narrative where the camera plays a rôle in everything, including unholy rituals and even bloody murders. Andy is an inveterate prankster: he sets up elaborate stunts and scares to catch his crew out on camera, and he hires a local actor to turn up disguised as an exorcist. So as his propensity for provocative fakery is – or at least seems to be – taken over by something more genuinely supernatural and (arguably) more malicious, viewers are left to work out where exactly the artifice ends and the real devilry begins, and who is really directing the film-within-a-film (there is certainly an uncanny resonance to the fact that the director of Mean Spirited also plays the adult Bryce). Perhaps this vlog captures a genuine paranormal phenomenon that takes possession of all involved – or perhaps it is just two old friends’ best collaboration yet, and Andy’s passport to online superstardom.
No matter how this footage is interpreted, what remains clear is that Mean Spirited is a story of jealousy and rivalry between friends, and of the masks (sometimes literal, sometimes metaphorical) that we wear when appearing and performing online and on screen. Andy enters the weekend as something of a loser, and emerges – much as Bryce had emerged from the old man’s house, all those years ago – transformed into something more driven, more mesmerising and more repellent. For, seduced by the temptations of sex, riches and fame, these characters all learn that success comes at a price, requiring the sacrifice (to camera) of a certain humanity. Yet in all this, the Amazing Andy does manage to hold onto one aspect of his past self: from beginning to end, with or without Satanic influence, he remains an arsehole.
strap: In Jeff Ryan’s ‘found footage’, a weekend vlog-umentary might be capturing more than just frenemies reunited
© Anton Bitel