By RACHEL REEVES
In the new splatstick film DEADSTREAM, things get spicy when a formerly canceled vlog host encounters a vengeful ghost. Hot on the heels of its recent acquisition by Shudder, the film made its world premiere as part of the Midnighters section of this year’s SXSW Film Festival. Filmed early in the pandemic with a limited cast and crew, DEADSTREAM is an impressively clever feature film debut from husband-wife filmmaking duo, Joseph and Vanessa Winter.
Wearing multiple creative hats on the film, Joseph Winter also stars as Shawn Ruddy, a mega-popular internet livestreamer who has recently fallen from grace. Itching to make public amends for his reckless and insensitive behaviors (while also getting re-monetized, of course), Shawn stages a comeback of epic proportions. Best known for facing his fears live on the film’s fictional YouTube equivalent Livvid, Shawn commits to spending the night in a notoriously haunted house. While events unfold as one might expect in a common cinematic scenario like this, it is the tongue-in-cheek humor and earnest self-aware attitude that keeps DEADSTREAM from feeling dispensable or derivative.
For those acquainted with the world of YouTube, Twitch, TikTok, and the like, the concept of the obnoxious streamer will be familiar. Lively and speaking in a mixture of cliched catchphrases and internet lingo, this particular brand of internet personality can be found around every virtual corner. Intentionally embracing this stereotype, Winter delivers a tightrope walking performance that convincingly channels a high-level energy akin to that of a cable network kid’s show host while somehow remaining a lovable idiot. Clearly built on current trends and streamer culture, the Winter’s incredibly smart, razor-sharp writing keeps the film’s specific approach from ringing false.
By positioning Shawn as a disgraced internet personality, DEADSTREAM is able to use technology to its advantage while sassily commenting on modern internet culture. As a livestreamer, the found footage aspect of the film makes perfect sense. As a one-man operation, the excessive GoPros, tablets, and the ability to switch between them simultaneously for the fictional and real-world audience alike, fits. It also cleverly explains away typical breaks in logic and plays with horror tropes in a really brilliant way. Shawn can’t leave, because he promised the audience that he wouldn’t; he removes spark plugs from his car, locks himself in, and literally throws away the key. Even things like music and exposition dumps regarding the house’s dark history get explained away by the need to entertain and educate Shawn’s viewership.
This virtual audience also allows DEADSTREAM to expand its world far past the highly disgusting (and real) walls of the haunted house. Just like an authentic livestream situation, Shawn is able to interact with fans in real-time, take their advice, and react to their often amusing, sometimes helpful comments. They also hold him accountable, progress the story, and keep Shawn from bailing on the whole shebang. This is not just an incredibly smart way to add a sense of scope to a small production, but it also bolsters the humor and eventually carries even more weight when it comes to delivering actual terror.
While it’s spooky from the start, things begin to take a real turn when Chrissy (Melanie Stone), a determined and overeager fan, crashes Shawn’s stream. Seemingly motivated by no more than her perhaps unhealthy fandom and desire to help Shawn regain his virtual street cred, Chrissy’s presence injects the film with a healthy dose of energy at the exact moment it is needed. It also seems to kick the house’s haunted behavior into high gear. Just like their commitment to portraying Shawn as a believable streamer, the Winters take the horror part of their horror-comedy just as seriously.
Clearly familiar with the classics, the Winters pay loving tribute to the silly, scary, practical-effects laden, blood-soaked scarefests of yesteryear. Heck, there’s even a healthy batch of horror Easter eggs peppered throughout the film just to drive this point home even harder. Comparing it to films like Evil Dead 2, Blood Diner, Mausoleum, Return of the Living Dead, Rawhead Rex, etc. is not hyperbole. Utilizing an impressive amount of practical effects for a film of this size, DEADSTREAM keeps the scares old-school while modernizing the narrative material. They even throw in a few genuinely great jump scares and icky gross-out moments just to keep everyone on their toes.
Executing a film like DEADSTREAM is tricky and balancing tone, originality, horror, and humor is no easy feat. On top of that, for horror fans, any insincerity in the material or false understanding can instantly be felt and perceived. However, DEADSTREAM not only succeeds in achieving this delicate balance, but it also nails it to the creepy haunted house wall. An earnest testament to the power of passionate filmmaking, DEADSTREAM delivers an absurdly funny and bloody good time. Make sure to click that “like” button on Joseph and Vanessa Winter, because this is clearly only the beginning for this dynamic duo.