This review originally ran as part of Paste’s SXSW 2022 coverage.
Found footage horror has been around since at least the 1980s, and since then, filmmakers have searched high and low for ways to innovate the subgenre and maximize its potential for terror. This doesn’t come without its own set of issues, though. How can one make a found footage film terrifying and plausible at the same time? While films like Cloverfield and Quarantine aren’t exactly lacking in the scary department, it does eventually become a little difficult to believe, for example, that if someone was being chased through New York by a giant bloodthirsty lizard, they wouldn’t ever be inclined to put their camera down. Deadstream solves that problem by getting creative with it—taking the found footage horror genre to the height of its powers.
Shawn Ruddy (Joseph Winter, who co-wrote and directed with his wife, Vanessa Winter), a recently disgraced and subsequently demonetized YouTuber decides to livestream his greatest fear in order to win back his fanbase: He’ll spend the night alone in a haunted house. The livestream format, in addition to solving the plausibility problem, manages to simultaneously intensify the film’s scariness.
Shawn brings with him all of the high-tech recording equipment that you’d expect a high-caliber internet personality to have: Multiple GoPros, a tablet where he can watch all of their streams and a laptop where he can watch his livestream, reading the comments as they pop up. Shawn’s status as an influencer and his hunger to get back into the upper echelons of internet stardom solves some of found footage’s main technical problems: How can you optimize the use of chilling footage without us wondering why it is so high quality and, perhaps more importantly, why the cameraman is still filming in the first place? The Winters don’t let any element of their beloved format go to waste. The comments on Shawn’s livestream are consistently laugh-out-loud funny, as are the labels Shawn puts on his GoPros (not least of which is the “Sausage Cam” AKA a camera duct-taped to a stick of beef jerky).
Deadstream’s cleverness extends to its storytelling too. The stakes are clear: If Shawn fails to spend the night surrounded by haunted spirits, his career won’t live to see another day. It helps that he is an easily likable character—once you get used to his hyper YouTube persona, that is. Shawn is a goofy scaredy-cat who screams at the top of his lungs every time the floorboards creak. It’s hard not to welcome a horror protagonist who is utterly terrified of the things that go bump in the night, and refuses to seek out bloodthirsty ghosts.
The Winters tease out the suspense of what might be lurking in the shadows throughout the entire first act, taunting the audience with fake-out jumpscares until our fragile little hearts can’t take it anymore. When the first jumpscare finally does arrive, it’s nothing short of gut-wrenching. Deadstream proves to be such a masterclass in suspense that, when we finally catch a glimpse of the entities that are haunting the house, it’s admittedly a little anticlimactic. But the monster’s visual effects—goopy, gory and rich with an Evil Dead-esque level of camp—are so impressive and entertaining that it’s hard not to forgive that. Still, a little less screentime with the monsters would have saved Deadstream from falling victim to an overlong and somewhat predictable bloodbath of a third act.
The good news is that the bad guys aren’t the only things that look good in Deadstream. The film, which mostly takes place within the haunted house, boasts impressive, innovative set design down to every last detail: Graffiti dicks on the wall, fluttering curtains, rotting floorboards. This, paired with the film’s unflinching flash photography, pushes an unsettling, atmospheric sense of realism.
When it comes to horror—and especially found-footage horror—so much relies on the medium. Amidst oozing monsters and eerie setpieces, this is where Deadstream excels the most, with no GoPro going unused. Despite its third act problems, it’s safe to say that Deadstream has done for YouTube/Twitch what Unfriended did for Skype, what Host did for Zoom and what Paranormal Activity did for home security footage.
Directors: Vanessa Winter, Joseph Winter
Writers: Vanessa Winter, Joseph Winter
Stars: Joseph Winter, Melanie Stone, Jason K. Wixom
Release Date: March 11, 2022 (SXSW)
Aurora Amidon is a film journalist and passionate defender of Hostel: Part II. Follow her on Twitter for her latest questionable culture takes.