Original review here at SlashFilm. Words by Rafael Motamayor.
Though not nearly as omnipresent as it was during the heyday of The Blair Witch Project, [REC] and the Paranormal Activity franchise, the found-footage sub-genre has never gone away. After all, it allows filmmakers without a huge budget to be inventive and go nuts with a high-concept horror movie. But like the zombie genre, there are far too many found-footage movies and not all of them are good. This is to say: it is a thrill when you find an innovative and fresh movie that takes elements from found-footage movies to make something new. One such film is Graham Hughes’ Death of a Vlogger.
Presenting itself as more of a mockumentary with found-footage elements, Death of a Vlogger tells the story of Graham (Graham Hughes) a YouTube vlogger whose comedy sketches have found limited success. And then there’s his sudden rise to fame after a live stream he broadcasts while blindfolded seemingly captures a supernatural incident. Though he says he’s terrified of staying at his place, Graham films again with his friend Erin (Annabel Logan) and gets even stranger and more menacing incidents in the flat – which prompts him to join forces with paranormal vlogger Steve (Paddy Kondracki) to get some answers. Or perhaps he just wants more clicks. The mockumentary then uses Graham’s video diaries, as well as interviews with Erin, Steven and other vloggers, to explore Graham’s rise to fame and the pressure he feels to keep providing some real evidence, and the efforts of Alice (Joma West), a journalist determined to expose Graham as a fraud.
Graham Hughes wears many hats in Death of a Vlogger, and the writer/director/producer/editor and main actor does not anything slip up through the cracks. Due to the video-dairy nature of the plot, he’s mostly alone in front of the camera anyway, allowing Graham to create a real relationship with the camera and be as personal and vulnerable as he wants. Like another FrightFest selection, Spiral, Graham’s journey has him question his own sanity and beliefs as the incidents occur more frequently – while at the same time he’s forced to confront the fickleness of fame and the audience and his own obsession with social media – and Hughes’ performance captures all of that pressure and self-doubt.
Death of a Vlogger would be a good movie if it was released 10 years ago, but in 2019 the format and commentary is both fresh and absolutely on-point, making for a near-perfect encapsulation of social media and vlogging culture in our time. The video that launched Graham to stardom was made just as he was coming home from an eye surgery gone bad, which left him blind for a day. Alone in his apartment, Graham starts to livestream his experience, until a door suddenly closes itself, followed by a cup moving on its own a couple of times. It’s nothing audiences haven’t seen before in any of the Paranormal Activity movies, but the livestream aspect adds a fascinating new element to the conversation around found-footage. For one, it gives an explanation for the ‘why are they still filming?’ question often posed in the genre, as Graham isn’t technically holding a camera all the time but simply leaves one standing on a tripod recording all the time, with some occasional handheld moments when something big happens.
It also makes it easier for the people inside the film’s universe to believe what is going on. The documentary shows a few reaction videos (of course they’d explore reaction videos) and testimonials from fans who watched the YouTube livestream, and how many of them doubted the validity of the haunting at first, but were quickly persuaded by the fact that it was a livestream and how you couldn’t fake that with a live audience and no team behind you. Death of a Vlogger plays not only with the idea of “post-truth” and how easy people are persuaded by personalities rather than facts – “seeing is believing” may not be true anymore. This is aided by Graham Hughes’ own experience being a vlogger himself, which makes it hard not to see the film as a sort of reflexive commentary on Hughes’ own work and use of social media. At one point, a social psychiatrist is interviewed in the documentary and he discusses how receiving notifications on your phone releases endorphins, which creates an addiction on the user. The problem is when those comments become extremely negative, but the user is still compelled to check the notifications.
Of course, this is still a horror movie, and Death of a Vlogger gets intensely scary. Even though I saw it on a screener in broad daylight, the excellent pacing and timing of the film made the scares gruesomely effective. Even something as simple as a moving sheet in the background can send chills down your spine. That being said, the banter between the characters and the social media satire also make for a surprisingly funny movie that will make you laugh nervously at your own guilt of being as obsessed with social media as the characters in the film.
A twisted story of warped perceptions, megalomania, the victims in the middle of media manipulation and our own obsession with online cruelty that results in a breath of fresh air in an overcrowded genre. Death of a Vlogger may very well be the Paranormal Activity of the YouTube generation.
/Film Rating: 9 out of 10