SXSW Review: DEADSTREAM

I love a good horror-comedy, but I rarely encounter one that hits that sweet spot of balancing both genres perfectly. My ideal horror-comedy is a film that will make me scream, jump out of my seat, and hide behind my hands just as much as it makes me laugh. Luckily for me, Deadstream hits that sweet spot. It’s the perfect blend of horror and comedy, channeling Evil Dead II and Night of the Demons by way of The Blair Witch Project, but still maintaining its own peculiar style and humor. Walking more than one tightrope along the way, Deadstream is a wild, hilarious, and bloody ride that stands out as one of the best horror-comedies in years.

Shawn Ruddy (Joseph Winter) is a disgraced YouTuber whose channel Wrath of Shawn features videos of him facing his fears. We see a few clips, including one of Shawn participating in the “Baby Moses Challenge,” in which he gets strapped into a basket and pushed down a river. Some of his videos are wildly offensive, and after one particularly terrible idea goes awry, Shawn loses his viewers and his sponsors. In an attempt to remonetize his channel and redeem himself in the eyes of his fans (“Wrathies,” as he calls them), he decides to film a livestream as he spends the night in a haunted house. Armed with motion-sensitive cameras, a spirit board, a head-cam, and a selfie-cam, Shawn enters the Pratt House to face off against the evil spirits rumored to dwell there. Of course, it doesn’t take long before Shawn realizes that the legends are real and that his cash grab may soon turn deadly.

Winter — who scored the film and also wrote, directed, and edited it alongside Vanessa Winter — plays Shawn with surgical precision. Shawn is engaging and funny as hell while still being just the right amount of off-putting; Winter (and the script) keep the viewer invested in what happens to Shawn inside the haunted house, while still reminding us that he is a clueless, privileged clod who only cares about himself. His frequent asides to the selfie-cam blur the line between genuine human emotion and social media performance — we’re never sure who Shawn really is, because he doesn’t seem to know who he really is without an audience watching and commenting on his every move. 

Those comments add tremendously to the film’s humor. Deadstream opens with Shawn’s teaser video for his haunted house livestream, and the graphics and sound effects are hilariously spot-on for this brand of YouTuber. The film soon transitions to the livestream, though, and Shawn periodically checks the comments to respond to viewers and encourage them to keep watching. My personal favorite comment comes when a superfan named Chrissy (Melanie Stone) crashes the livestream and a viewer responds to her jean jacket with, “Denim??” Deadstream manages to capture the current incarnation of Internet culture in an authentic way without veering into parody, maintaining a tight grip on its riotous, creepy tone.

The film makes fantastic use of its found footage concept, playing with viewer expectations and building tension with Shawn’s limited POV and well-timed cuts between his cameras. You keep expecting something, anything, to appear on-screen, and Deadstream knows just how long to make you wait for it. This is a legitimately frightening horror-comedy. The jump scares are impeccable, and the creature design (which, again, owes more than a little bit to Evil Dead II) is as hilariously disgusting as it is terrifying. The music walks that same line: Shawn composed his own theme music for the livestream, so he occasionally presses play on a small tape player as he walks through the haunted hallways. His music is so perfectly Carpenteresque (he even jokes that the music is by “Shawn Carpenter”) that it makes the film scarier and goofier at the same time. 

Deadstream is an absolute delight. A small cast and crew make this a cohesive and well-calibrated spook show that makes you laugh and scream in equal measure. With great creature effects, smart direction, a clever script, and committed performances, this movie hits all the right notes. Shawn is not someone you would ever want to spend time with in real life, but I can’t wait to spend these 87 minutes with him again and again. Deadstream is a breath of fresh air in the horror-comedy world: a movie that gets both genres perfectly right.

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