Found-footage horror films come in a wide variety while still fitting into a fairly narrow format. Story details can vary, technology has progressed from handheld cameras and cell phones to GoPro units and drones, and tone can range from the deadly serious to the utterly ridiculous, but one constant remains — one or more fools have landed themselves in a world of hurt, and they’re intent on filming the whole damn thing. While some leave viewers questioning why they’re still filming, the best of them plug that hole with ingenuity, personality, and a wildly entertaining time. Deadstream sits very comfortably among the best of them.
Shawn Ruddy (Joseph Winter) hosts a popular livestream featuring all manner of stunts and pranks. Or at least, he did until one of his gags left a homeless man in the hospital. His apology tour sees him trying to up the stakes and build back his viewer base by spending the night in a house purported to be haunted by the ghost of a vengeful woman. He sets up cameras throughout the remote house, wears a GoPro on his forehead and a rig filming his face, and prepares for a spooky night. Things go bump almost immediately, and as live viewer comments nag him into investigating, he comes to realize a few things — he’s legit terrified of ghosts, these restless spirits are real, and he might not survive until morning.
First, a bit of semantics house-cleaning for the nerds. Deadstream might not fit a technical definition of found footage as it’s presented as a livestream. The footage wasn’t found some time later — although Shawn does make that very joke early on — and it’s simply a video stream that starts and ends. So call it desktop horror if you must, don’t you dare label it screenlife, and maybe just welcome it under the found-footage umbrella. Good? Good.
Regardless of what label you apply to Deadstream, the film still stands as a smart, spooky, and very funny ride for horror/comedy fans. Winter also co-writes/co-directs alongside his wife Vanessa Winters, and the duo create nothing short of a tech-savvy love letter to Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead films. The genre pull of a found-footage ghost movie quickly transitions into a night filled with malformed creatures, nose-picking ghouls, and a playful commentary on both social media stars and their fanbase.
At under ninety minutes, Deadstream moves with both creativity and energy. Downtime sees Shawn offering up exposition while setting up his gear and interacting with commenters, but where most found-footage movies are a slow build to third-act terrors, the creepy beats arrive pretty damn quickly here. Scares are played equally for laughs and jumps, and they land more often than not on both sides of that equation. Unsettling sounds and images transition into full-on physical presences prone to verbal harassment and shoving their nasty fingers up Shawn’s nose, and his jacked-up reactions only add to the fun.
This is mostly a one-man show onscreen as Shawn is front and center throughout, but while the character might be too much for some viewers, Winter does a fantastic job balancing the man’s charms and more irredeemable aspects. The terrors of the night force him to reveal his recent mea culpa as a sham of sorts, meaning he’s still a prick, but he lets glimpses eke out of a scared fool in over his head that leaves us rooting for him despite himself. Always the showman, he alternates between working the commenters and feeling legitimately unsafe, and by the time he realizes his priorities, it might be too late to change anything.
While Shawn is the main player here, we do get other faces throughout Deadstream in a variety of ways. A fan named Chrissy (Melanie Stone) crashes the livestream bringing her own chaos into the mix, commenters upload videos offering help along the way, and the house’s ghostly presences are also on tap with a snarl and smile. “Wait, are they ghosts or zombies?” asks a watcher at one point as if clarification is Shawn’s priority, and it’s just one of the beats that find real laughs in the scrolling feed of viewer comments taking him to task for past deeds and his current predicament.
There’s real ingenuity here on the technical front. Camera setups catch all the action, feeds are triggered by movement, and one of the undead even takes control of a camera at one point. There’s technically no score, but Shawn carries around a tape deck loaded with “Shawn Carpenter” music he composed himself (actually composed by Joseph Winter), and he presses play whenever he heads towards danger.
It’s a fun touch in a movie filled with them, and it’s only part of what makes Deadstream such a good time. The Winters have made shorts previously — and have a segment in the upcoming V/H/S/99 — and they’ve nailed their feature debut by delivering a spooky yet very funny ride through familiar horror territory. Catch this one when you can, at a fest or on Shudder later this year, and keep your eye on this filmmaking duo.
Related Topics: Fantasia Film Festival