September 25, 2023

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A Hectic Haunted House Comedy For the YouTube Era

When “The Blair Witch Project” got the found-footage horror subgenre properly started in 1999, it was already asking for trouble that the protagonists were film students pointing their cameras where they shouldn’t. These days, prospective victims in such movies are likely to make us feel they deserve their fate by being professional self-promoters with such widely despised job titles as “influencer,” “YouTube personality” or “reality TV star.” Sharp objects may also be involved, but in horror cinema, few things prove more reliably fatal than narcissism.

So we know the goose of bearded thirtysomething Shawn Ruddy (Joseph Winter) is cooked right away in “Deadstream,” because he’s introduced in a bombastic montage of clips from the streaming series of which he’s the star and entire crew. He self-identifies as “the world’s biggest wuss — facing my fears one dumb-ass challenge at a time.” The latest such fear: a solo overnight stay at “the most haunted house in the United States.” One can safely guess that this “Wrath of Shawn” episode will probably be his last.

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A feature debut for married multihyphenates Vanessa and Joseph Winter following several shorts, “Deadstream” is a fun comedy-horror ride both driven and limited by the noxious onscreen character of its co-director/writer/producer/editor. Neither he nor the movie want for invention or energy. At the same time, both basically hit one manic note for an hour and a half that might have been reduced to punchier effect. Nonetheless, this official opener to SXSW’s Midnighter section is a cut above most indie exercises of its type — comedic or straight-faced — and should do well with genre fans as a streaming item. Shudder picked up rights for North America, the U.K., Ireland, Australia and New Zealand just before the film’s Austin premiere.

Shawn’s prior stunts have been of a general “Jackass”-y ilk, putting himself in slapstick peril. Claiming to be genuinely afraid of ghosts, he’s saved this spookier endeavor for what is a sort of public comeback, as he got “canceled” from a platform and lost sponsorship as a result of a prank gone wrong. That belatedly explained incident provides the Winters opportunity to satirize the poor judgment and dubious repentances of disgraced YouTube celebrities like Logan Paul.

Ergo his traipsing at night, alone albeit with a whole lotta hardware, to a Utah house in the woods abandoned 75 years ago, after eleven people reportedly died within. The first was one Mildred Pratt, an eccentric spinster poet for whom it was built by her Mormon father in 1880. When her hopes of both romantic fulfillment and literary fame hit a dead end, she committed suicide. Subsequent residents suffered more mysterious deaths, including several children, legend now decreeing that their spirits remain trapped within the decrepit structure’s walls.

In addition to the ones he’s wearing, Shawn plants cameras on the building’s periphery outside, as well as in nearly every room, monitoring their feeds on his laptop. While it takes a crowbar to get into the boarded-up joint, graffiti and IV needles scattered inside suggest he’s hardly the sole recent trespasser. Still, it is a duly creepy place, where inexplicable noises make him jump on cue — even if it’s hard to tell the difference between real fear and play-acting with this hammy host.

He’s both flattered and annoyed at first to realize his solitary scare-dare has been invaded by Chrissy (Melanie Stone), a professed fan who says she couldn’t resist the urge to track him down. The surge in “likes” that a cute young woman’s presence draws from Shawn’s alternately hectoring and supportive viewers (their comments frequently scrolling onscreen) prevents him from kicking her out. But Chrissy turns out to be a prankster, too. Then, unsurprisingly, a little more than that.

“Deadstream” avoids the hand-held aesthetic monotony of many found-footage horrors by mixing in faux archival footage and other elements, all nimbly shot by DP Jared Cook. There are also eventual practical-effects monsters (designed by Troy Larson), and a retro-synth score ostensibly composed by Shawn (in reality by Winter himself) that the self-conscious hero plays on a tape deck to heighten his own soon-to-be-regretted dramatics. The pace is certainly lively, and the setting unsettling enough as dressed by production designer Amy Leah Nelson Smith and art director Meg Cabell.

What keeps the film from being anything more than an enterprising but minor diversion is that, with Shawn being is such a loud comic character from the get-go, scares and laughs alike don’t have much space to build. Winter gives his all, entertainingly so. But the performance is also dialed too high, too soon, its ultimate payoff diminished because we’ve already had so much of this protagonist screaming, bragging and sniveling.

Even Bob Hope, a prior generation’s embodiment of the scaredy-cat snarkster, knew to cushion that persona with an array of sidekicks and adversaries in his haunted-house comedies. It’s funny when Shawn reaches a personal apex of horror in exclaiming, “I don’t even know if I’m still streaming!” But it would be funnier if we hadn’t been fully aware he’s that type of self-absorbed exhibitionist for seventy minutes or so already. Such is the inherent rub with social media personalities: Even when they’re being parodied, they tend to grow tiresome fast.

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