Anyone with a toe in the world of social media can tell you it’s rife with horror potential. Most of us follow at least someone on YouTube, Twitter, or Instagram. A few of us might even be fans of the storied group known as influencers. They’re an easy crowd to poke fun at — people who have made their fame and fortune from simply investing strangers in their lives. But it’s also an industry that carries a serious mental health toll on those involved. Social media fame is dependent on its stars sharing every moment of their existence, with no privacy or boundaries in sight. That, combined with the pressure to maintain a happy, perfect and manicured life at all times, is a recipe for some serious underlying darkness.
It’s this potential for darkness that is explored in Deadcon, the new horror film directed by Caryn Waecther from Gunpowder & Sky’s new horror branch Alter. The film had its world premiere at the 2019 Cinepocalypse Film Festival Saturday.
Deadcon opens in 1984, with a desperate programmer in his isolated hotel room. A mysterious message appears in his proto chat room creation, and as he tentatively begins communicating with the stranger, we are brought suddenly into the present. Thousands are descending on that same hotel for ViewCon, a thinly disguised take on real-life VidCon. Among the young and ravenous fans of YouTubers and Instagram, the stars are the influencers themselves. Ashley (played by real-life YouTuber Lauren Elizabeth) arrives with her ambitious manager, Kara (Mimi Gianopulos). Ashley is experiencing depression and burnout from her influencer life and wants to quit, but she’s so entrenched in her career of constant exposure that she can’t see a way out. To make matters worse, the hotel has double booked her. After Kara goes to bat with the manager, they give Ashley room 2210A, despite the reservations of much of the hotel staff.
Deadcon is a stylish ghost movie with a unique angle. The film is not by any means the first horror flick to tackle the dark side of technology and social media. But Deadcon boasts an on-point understanding of the bizarre world of YouTube fandom. The personalities of the various influencer characters are instantly recognizable to anyone who has spent any time on YouTube, and their young and impressionable fans, mostly children, are also very accurately depicted. While Deadcon is very critical of the social media influencer machine, it is rightfully sympathetic toward the young people who are its stars. It can be difficult to muster sympathy for wealthy twenty-somethings who have built their fame on the perceived vanity of the social media generation, but the reality is that many of these young people started out with a naive understanding of what they were getting themselves into. Now they have a difficult time coping with the pressures to constantly share their lives and are burnt out by the expectation to produce content 24/7 for their fans.
Lauren Elizabeth does a fine enough job of depicting this burnout, possibly based on her own personal experience. But her acting range is merely serviceable. She can believably play her upbeat YouTube persona and her dejected, depressing reality, but not much beyond that. At least as far as we see, since the script doesn’t allow her character anything else.
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Fellow YouTuber Claudia Sulewski has more story to work with as Megan, another influencer in the adjacent hotel room to Ashley. She is also struggling with the pressures of fame in the arena of her romantic life. She’s in a budding romance with Warren (Carl Gilliard), a gaming streamer, but can’t find the courage to break it off with her public boyfriend Ricky (Lukas Gage). When every development of your personal life is under public scrutiny, fear of judgment runs rampant. Sulewski plays her conflict and anxiety well, and while her more dramatic scenes are less subtle, they’re believable.
“When suspense is on the menu, [Deadcon] knocks it out of the park. It’s a ghost story, and haunted horror is all about the tension.”
All this personal drama leads to the core of Deadcon, the scares. As a horror film, Deadcon is a mixed bag. When suspense is on the menu, the film knocks it out of the park. It’s a ghost story, and haunted horror is all about the tension. The film is full of subtle scares placed in the corner of the viewer’s eye. Deadcon has a great visual style, and it’s packed with wonderfully uncanny and disturbing images. It’s also blissfully low on jump scares, with most of the horror playing out in slow sequences undisturbed by jump chords or other cheap techniques.
The mystery at the film’s core was undoubtedly my favorite part of Deadcon. It’s intriguing from the get-go, with disturbing layers and a slow, satisfying reveal. I appreciated that the history of the hotel and how it influences the events of the film is never fully explained. Instead, we are given the clues to piece the story together ourselves, with just enough ambiguity that the scares aren’t dampened by exposition.
The mystery kept me engrossed in Deadcon even as some of the character development fell by the wayside. Unfortunately, when the scares are actually revealed, they lose their punch. The buildup to the kills are great, but the deaths themselves, and there are several, are over too quickly or not shot in the most impactful way possible. Character threads that were given promising screen time at the outset of the film are dropped or underutilized, making us wonder why they were set up in the first place. The film could have dedicated at least an extra ten minutes to its climax, which felt rushed.
“As an influencer horror, [Deadcon] utilizes the potential of YouTuber pastimes like vlogging, live streams and video editing to great effect.”
Another shortcoming of Deadcon was an occasional high point for the film. As an influencer horror, it utilizes the potential of YouTuber pastimes like vlogging, live streams and video editing to great effect. Some of the best sequences are found footage style, with us in the position of the YouTube audience, noticing uncanny occurrences in the background of ongoing vlogs.
Seeing how well Deadcon utilized technology and found footage style sequences, I was left wondering why it didn’t commit to being found footage throughout. While I understand that it’s a challenging subgenre to tell an effective story in, the film successfully dips its toes in often enough that I was left wishing it had gone all the way. A found footage horror surrounding influencers is full of potential.
Still, Deadcon remains a fun and stylish chiller with enough original ideas to keep you interested. It boasts a great understanding of YouTube culture, keeping it feeling fresh and authentic. The understated scares are effective, the mystery is intriguing and unique, and the effects and aesthetic are wonderful. But just like the well-polished YouTube channels of the influencers it depicts, it leaves you wanting to dive a little deeper, unsure if you are really satisfied or just swept away by the glitz and gleam of it all.
Deadcon had its world premiere June 15th at the 2019 Cinepocalypse Film Festival and will tour festivals this summer and fall, with more dates to be announced. Let us know if you’re planning to check out Deadcon on Twitter, in the Nightmare on Film Street SubReddit, and on Facebook in the Horror Movie Fiend Club.