SXSW Review: Horror Comedy ‘Deadstream’

 

The first film screened in this year’s SXSW Midnighters category, Deadstream is a boisterous horror comedy that mixes genres to satisfying effect.

Minor internet celeb Shawn Ruddy (Joseph Winter) has built his reputation on performing risky stunts in his “Wrath of Shawn” online series. He calls himself “the world’s biggest wuss — facing my fears one dumb-ass challenge at a time.” Like others of his ilk, Shawn is an obnoxious, over-the-top personality clamoring for attention.

However, one of his recent bad-taste stunt had gone awry, resulting in a loss of sponsorships and followers. Desperate to stage a big comeback, he announces that his latest stunt will be to spend to spend the night alone in Death Manor, “the most haunted house in the United States.” It’s a 75-year-old, tumbledown edifice nestled deep in the Utah woods (naturally).

There, a spinster named Mildred Pratt was said to have committed suicide as a result of unrequited love and failure as a poetess. Several other mysterious deaths followed, and the house was subsequently abandoned, but it is said that their spirits all still reside inside the house’s walls.

This is the creepy place in which Shawn has decided to go ghost-hunting — alone, save the impressive video hardware he wears to document the experience for his viewers. But soon his space is invaded by attractive uber-fan Chrissy (Melanie Stone), whose adoration for the star motivated her to seek him out in the woods. He’s ready to tell her to her get lost, but the steady stream of “likes” she is generating from his viewers convinces him to allow her to stay. Naturally, it turns out that she is more than just a pretty face.

With Deadstream, the co-directing/writing team of star Winter and wife Vanessa have produced a lively genre-blender that is sure to please the midnight movie circuit. Giving nods to such cult classics as Blair Witch Project and Evil Dead II, it’s fast-moving and funny, even as it descends into pure horror when Shawn becomes trapped in a nightmare of his own making.

The film looks great. DP Jared Cook’s cinematography captures Shawn’s misadventures Blair Witch-style, but it fortunately is sharper than those grainy Shaky-Cam films of the past. Creature designer Troy Larson wisely eschews digital for old-fashioned practical effects, placing the viewer firmly into Evil Dead territory. Production design by Amy Leah Nelson Smith and art direction by Meg Cabell greatly enhance the otherworldly atmosphere. Multi-hyphenate Winter supplies the synth score (which the egotistical Shawn entitles “Shawn Ruddy’s Halloween”).

With its cultural commentary and knowing nods to cult horrors, Deadstream is one of the more lively, crowd-pleasing Midnighters of recent years. Soon wider audiences will get a chance to see it, as it has been picked up by Shudder.

Feature photo: Joseph Winter portrays Shawn Ruddy, a washed-up influencer chasing social relevance, in the film Deadstream (Jared Cook).

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