by Paul Deeter
The allure of a late night horror feature is not an easy thing to resist, and its far tougher to no-show a free movie. Tuesday I had the pleasure to catch Joseph and Vanessa Winter's film debut Deadstream at the Music Box Theater in Chicago, two days before its Shudder release. This film is part of the "Scared Stupid" Event hosted by the theater which I intend to make as often as possible. The series features classics like Nosferatu mixed with weirdies like Gremlins 2 and even the terrible: I Know Who Killed Me. It's a strange mix of classic and fresh horror flicks, and Deadstream fit right into the roster as a perfect twist on the extremely overcooked found footage genre. To dial back, one of the reasons I had trouble resisting seeing this film was the fact that it was premiering on the big screen as a special release before the streaming launch on Shudder. But the other more alluring fact, and one that drew quite a crowd, was that the film was actually a member's free screening at the Music Box. If you are a Chicagoan, and I'm sure some of my readers are, let me take a minute not just to plug the film but also the theater's membership. For $60 dollars per person a year, you can join in the historic Music Box theater membership, and outside of many ticketed and concession-based discounts, you get the opportunity to catch free member screenings each month as well. Well, Deadstream was not just one of my most highly anticipated movies of the fest, it was also chosen as the freebie for the month. Let me say I don't for a minute regret catching what I think is maybe one of the best found-footage movies ever, and the best crowd-pleaser film I've had the privilege of catching this year.
Deadstream as I mentioned is a feature film debut by the husband and wife director duo Joseph and Vanessa Winters; Joseph of which would be the star of the film. It's been on a press and theater run quite successfully (with high audience reviews and 92% approval from Rotten Tomatoes), and is bound to be one of Shudder's most viral and talked about releases. If I could encourage readers to watch it, I'd go even farther to encourage them to seek it out at a theater if given the chance. Deadstream was the loudest I've ever heard an audience laugh and gasp at times, and received over a minute of standing ovation on top of multiple moments of reactionary applause during the film itself.
In the style that can be compared to 2020's Spree, this film follows a Youtuber dedicated to pleasing his fans and sponsors by doing so at whatever means necessary. Where Spree inspired a murderous rampage by the protagonist, in this film the lead is a goofy influencer named Shawn, who's actions prior have already led to a problematic image. Wrath of Shawn is the name of his channel, and in a not yet clarified controversy from a prior video or two, he's disgraced from his sponsors and supporters. Until this year, and this particular stream which is to be his comeback. See his style was to attempt challenges like 'the baby Moses challenge' which involved him rolling into rapids in a wooden box, or other insanely dumb challenges that would risk his skin for the sake of sponsorships. Multiple times the ultra-famous Youtuber: PewDiePie would be referenced, which is ironic considering his history of disgrace via racially insensitive comments on live stream as well. Whether condemning or jokingly poking fun at said Youtuber is intended here, the comparison is timely and grounds this film into a sense of realism and relevance to today's Internet and its oft-criticized 'Cancel Culture'. The setup for Shawn's disgrace is glossed over however, to be revealed in later details near the film's climax, and they're unfortunately kind of disappointing compared to the rest of the film's well earned shocks. But with that being my only big issue with Deadstream let me dive into what works so, so well.
The journey of Shawn starts so damning at an early point when he chooses to lock himself in a "famous but not too famous to name-drop" haunted house, going so far as removing the spark plugs from his car and throwing them into the woods. Yep, he's going to confine himself to the horrors (of which he doesn't take too seriously) of the haunted house and the dreaded curse of Mildred, a young woman who hung herself in the house ages ago. Again, he's not taking anything really seriously here. He sees the façade that comes into scaring a modern of all ages audience and the silliness of some of these haunted shows. It reminds me of Grave Encounters (2011) which involved a 'professional' paranormal team in the style of the Ghost Adventures crew, touring a haunted house for monetary viewership gain, until they realize oh wait ghosts are real?! The premise is similar here, Shawn may have joked in the past about his challenges but the fear doesn't really set in here, its mostly for show. That is until the noises begin. And the apparitions start to appear. Maybe Wrath of Shawn is streaming its final episode?
Shawn's antics and overall annoyingness (which at times is admittingly cute) is played up just by the ridiculousness of his decisions in this film. He breaks a piece of wood that's protecting the house from a curse. He's tricked into reciting damning incantations out loud in the house. It's just so funny how much he screws himself here, and that adds to the level of enjoyment we get at his expense. Shawn is not a good person, he isn't terrible but he's disgraced and foolish enough that he kind of gets what's coming to him here. And oh boy, do things get ugly. Not just ugly but disgusting too.
Rotten fingers lodge themselves into noses, ghosts heads explode in goo and there are lots of moments of (is that wound infected? It definitely is infected). My audience screamed and ewwwed out loud so much I thought I was in a fourth grade frog dissection class. I joined in the raucous laughter at Shawn's expense as he did such things as labeling his cameras with ridiculous names (a camera attached to a beef stick to lure out a demon is titled: beef cam) along with doing as much as possible to utilize the usefulness of duct tape as possible. You can't help but yelp when Shawn puts hand-sanitizer directly on his open wound! But the jokes never quite fall flat, at least enough of them stick that you'll never get bored.
I am a bit worried that viewers won't quite get the same effect at home, on streaming while watching this film. It's such a cult-potential crowd friendly flick, that I'd almost discourage watching at home. At least gather up your least squeamish friends and family. Shawn may not be having a good time here, but guarantee you'll like and subscribe to these directors for more fresh content down the road.