#chadgetstheaxe had its international première at the Glasgow FrightFest 2023.
The title of Travis Bible’s #chadgetstheaxe both pinpoints and ambiguates what we are about to see. On the one hand, its lower-case, space-free hashtag formatting promises a film set in the online world of social media, YouTube influencers and vlogging – and sure enough, this is precisely a screen-life found-footage feature akin to Graham Hughes’ Death of a Vlogger (2019), Caryn Waechter’s Deadcon (2019), Brandon Christensen’s Superhost (2021), Rob Savage’s Dashcam (2021), Jeff Ryan’s Mean Spirited (2022), Sylvia Caminer’s Follow Her (2022) and especially Vanessa and Jospeh Winter’s Deadstream (2022). Yet the phrasing of this title is deeply equivocal, even mystifying. Does it mean that Chad is merely fired from his job, or that he takes up an actual wood-chopping implement, or that he will indeed himself be the victim of one – or perhaps all three of these? You’ll have to log on and click to find out.
Chad Ryan (Spencer Harrison Levinson) joins fellow vlogger Steve (Michael Bonini) and influencer couple Jennifer (Taneisha Figueroa) and Spencer (Cameron Vitosh) – inevitably, excruciatingly known collectively as ‘Spennifer’ – to spend a night live-streaming from the extremely remote Devil’s Manor, which once housed a murderous Satanic cult whose leader and members have since vanished. The foursome are barely friends – Steve and Chad are rivals in online dares, pranks and outrageous acts, Jennifer is a style icon while her boyfriend is a drippy musician, and they have all come together in a union of convenience, hoping to rack up some views, flog some merch and leech off each other’s very different appeals and fanbases.
At first Steve appears to be the main character here, and our cicerone into this strange world – less experienced than the others, and not yet quite fully embracing the endless fakery and performativity of an online persona. Jennifer too helps anchor this virtual life to something more real, her obvious intelligence contrasting with Spencer’s dimness, and her moral standards setting her apart from everyone else, at least for a time. And then there is Chad, always ‘on’, always ready to lower the tone, always stealing everyone else’s limelight, and always a larger-than-life, in-your-face arsehole. He is the kind of internet figure that everyone loves to hate: a monster of narcissism, unfiltered, shameless and utterly unscrupulous.
As #chadgetstheaxe cuts between the separate live feeds, text messages and web searches of these four, they gradually, amid all their paranoia about being punked by each other or by any of their competing influencers, realise that in this house and its adjacent swamp and woods they really are not alone, but are being stalked by someone or something who is following their feeds and has the jump on them – and while they may be scared of the very real danger facing them, they cannot resist the likes and follows. Soon Chad will find himself the improbable hero and final boy in a scenario that he has long since ceased to control. Meanwhile a constant scroll of viewers’ comments proves that his audience is quite capable of being as dispiritingly sociopathic as he is, and would no less happily see him die – and die horribly – than live for his next webcast.
So Bible’s film concerns itself not just with the outrages of a fanatical killer or killers, but with the equally callous, even psychotic behaviour of online influencers and their own devoted following. As awful as all these people are, do they really deserve the axe that they get? And what are the limits of our own complicity as we watch – and are entertained – from the sidelines? This cult movie – about more than one cult – ultimately finds both the seekers and givers of attention wanting. For as everybody is shown both exploiting and being exploited, the doomsday message of #chadgetstheaxe spreads into the ether’s void.
strap: In Travis Bible’s comic but dispiriting screen-life feature, narcissistic livestreamers meet their match in a real-world killer cult
© Anton Bitel