Deadstream (2022)

Deadstream had its world première at SXSW 2022. First published by Little White Lies.

“I’m Shawn Ruddy – and I’m a piece of trash!”, says a chirpy young bearded man, who is played by Joseph Winter, the co-writer, co-director, co-producer and co-editor of Deadstream along with his wife Vanessa. Shawn’s words are as good an introduction as any to this online influencer who, after seven years of facing his fears for the entertainment of his followers on the live-stream channel Wrath of Shawn, has recently seen his accounts suspended and his sponsors fleeing after he carried out some attention-seeking stunts of highly questionable taste and morality. For all his wide-eyed, child-like charm, Shawn is a piece of trash – a craven, shameless self-promoter who will do anything for hits, even at the callous expense of others. Now that this minor internet celebrity is making a comeback, he knows that he has to do something big (within his limited means) to win back his fanbase. So tonight he will face his greatest fear – ghosts – by staying alone overnight in a remote abandoned house with a history of strange deaths and documented hauntings. Everything will be live-streamed with a multitude of cameras for an easily bored audience and their chorus of online commentary.

“In October of 2022, a beloved internet personality disappeared in a house near Payson, Utah while broadcasting a live event. A year later this footage was found.” So reads text that begins the live feed, only for the camera to pull away and reveal that the words are written on a T-shirt that Shawn is trying to flog on-air as merchandise. Which is to say that while Deadstream, with its intradiegetic camerawork and its incursions of a local legend on reality, openly acknowledges its debt to Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez‘s The Blair Witch Project (1999), it also declares from early on its knowing, irreverent approach to the whole ‘found footage’ movement, while updating the shakicam format to the era of monetised YouTube personalities like PewDiePie (duly name-checked here).

Shawn is self-consciously fashioning his webcast as a horror feature (“No one,” he boasts, “offers you a more cinematic experience in live streaming”), and has even recorded onto tape cassette his own accompanying synth score (“Shawn Carpenter’s Halloween”) for the occasion which he plays at dramatic moments (and which was actually composed by Joseph Winter). All of this ensures that there is an ongoing element of reflexivity to the Winters’ film, which, like Shawn’s, is a low-budget attention-grabber shot in an actual abandoned Utah house said to be haunted. This couple’s feature debut is its own, supposedly real-time making-of movie – a poioumenon whose very artifice is repeatedly called out by a hilarious stream of online commenters who heckle, advise and cajole Shawn into becoming the star, victim or ‘final girl’ of his own sinisterly unfolding narrative. As Shawn himself puts it, “I’m thinking about producing a film starring me – you know, I actually think I’m good enough.”

Once Shawn has entered ‘Death Manor’ – believed to be haunted by its first resident, Mildred Pratt, a lovesick poetaster who hanged herself there in the nineteenth century, and by various subsequent occupants – he will quickly discover that he is not alone, and is right to be scared. For this cabin in the woods is full of wayward spirits who want to swallow his soul – or at least to pick his nose. What follows is a relentless onslaught of laughs and frights, both perfectly pitched to amplify one another’s effect. The key reference point here – for the location, for the inventive practical effects, and for several specific plot beats – is Sam Raimi’s Evll Dead II (1987), with Shawn reprising the rôle of Ash – except that our protagonist is less hammy-and-cheesy matinee idol throwback than modern digicam-wielding narcissistic nebbish. For all his immersion in the technology of the digital age, Shawn will discover that this house’s resident evil, though from an earlier era, is as keen on building an audience as he is.

Deadstream is smart, sophisticated comedy horror that finds new ways – and new media – for resurrecting old ghost stories. This is a long dark night of the soul for Shawn, sending the improbable hero through a punishing ordeal of guilt and torment where he must face demons not just from the house, but from his past. It is also funny as hell. The Winters have come. 

strap: Joseph & Vanessa Winter’s comedy horror sends a live-streaming influencer into a haunted house for a long dark night of the soul

© Anton Bitel