Internet horror is big business right now, but for every Unfriended: Dark Web there’s a…Smiley. Death of a Vlogger, the third feature from Scottish writer-director (and star, editor, and producer — well, you get the picture) Graham Hughes, falls somewhere in the middle. Its low budget limitations are sometimes a little too obvious, but for the most part this is a lively, and often very scary, exercise in effectively sustained tension with a smart, and sharp, through-line about the dangers of social media addiction.
Hughes himself is Graham, a YouTuber desperate to go viral who’s introduced sitting in his apartment, talking directly to camera (do people really watch Scottish vloggers?), and telling a spooky story about a friend who discovered some supposed apparitions in the background of his photographs. These pics, we learn, only stopped when this poor lad got offline. Although the story doesn’t really feed into the rest of the film, it sets the creepy tone for what’s to come as well as establishing the theme of dangers lurking online.
Death of a Vlogger is an interesting mix of found footage and mockumentary, presented as a project detailing the demise of its protagonist and subject (that’s not a spoiler since it’s in the bleedin’ title). Through interviews with his ex-girlfriend, friends, and colleagues, we learn Graham would do anything for a laugh, including planking, which he tried in another desperate attempt to gain viral fame. The latest attempt, the one this mockumentary is concerned with, revolves around an alleged haunting.
The first video, which shows Graham, eyes covered due to a botched laser eye surgery procedure, sitting around his flat while inanimate objects move seemingly of their own volition, is genuinely creepy. Cleverly, however, the film then introduces a skeptic and investigative journalist, Alice (Joma West, impressively assured in her first ever onscreen role), who tears it apart by pointing out, quite literally, where the strings are. Death of a Vlogger wrong-foots the audience like this consistently, so it’s never clear what’s real and what isn’t.
Presumably trying to prove there really is something spooky going on in his flat, Graham teams up with a hilariously earnest paranormal investigator named Steve (a totally game Paddy Kondracki) and, along with long-suffering girlfriend Erin (Annabel Logan), the trio conduct a seance during which a familiar-looking figure shows up seemingly showcasing the veracity of their claims. However, the naysayers continue to circle and soon Graham is the victim of an intense online bullying campaign set to expose him.
Death of a Vlogger is a scrappy little feature, shot predominately in Hughes’ own apartment, presumably with his friends and family lending a hand wherever necessary. And yet, it doesn’t feel like a small movie. It’s shot handsomely, even in the requisite found footage portions, and the performances are strong across the board with the exception of Logan who, although hugely likeable, overplays it ever so slightly (though this could be a scripting issue, to be fair to her).
The talking heads, often an irritation elsewhere, are brilliantly employed here, in particular snooty Gabrielle (Josie Rogers) who proclaims early footage to be real as she’s seen Graham’s acting and it wasn’t any good. Steve, who takes himself entirely too seriously, is gifted many of the film’s funniest lines but it’s in his tussles with Hughes’s Graham that the two really shine. Their dynamic is built on mutual distrust, but whether they’re both swindlers desperate for notoriety or true believers is left tantalizingly unclear.
Whether the haunting is real or not is also left up to us to decide, pretty much right up until the very end. The film does acknowledge that the apartment is a new build, at least, which makes it slightly easier to swallow (my apartment is also new and very haunted). Usually, these things happen in creaky old houses so watching spooky goings on unfolding in a modern environment is disconcerting at first. There are some great gags with the clean white walls, however, that could only work in a newer place.
Hughes clearly knows his way around a scare, particularly of the found footage variety, and most of the jumpier moments work well here. However, there were a couple times I was reminded of Irish found footage horror In A Stranger’s House, from last year, which had a similar vibe but was subtler in building the tension. Having said that, this is an Internet horror movie during which one character declares “It’s on camera” and another reasons “That doesn’t mean anything,” so subtlety arguably isn’t key here.
Where Death of a Vlogger really excels is in its dissection of greater Internet culture, and the danger of getting addicted to Likes, RTs, etc. A psychologist is brought on to examine how Graham may have become too reliant on the endorphin rush of attention from commenters who write things like “give up and die mate.” In one desperate moment, he scrawls all of the negative feedback on one of those white walls (this forms the basis of the film’s clever poster, too) and sits there, surrounded by hatred.
It’s a great way to place all of these seemingly meaningless words, which are expelled into cyberspace and then forgotten about, in the physical world where they have a very real impact on the recipient. Graham’s sad fate could be seen to be as a result of this virulent campaign against him rather than anything paranormal (though this, too, is left purposely vague). Or maybe it’s his own fault for being so damn thirsty. Death of a Vlogger doesn’t judge him, or any of its colorful characters, but it does force us to ask ourselves some difficult questions.
WICKED RATING: 6/10
Director(s): Graham Hughes
Writer(s): Graham Hughes
Stars: Graham Hughes, Annabel Logan, Paddy Kondracki, Joma West
Release date: TBC
Studio/Production Company: Enlighted Monster Productions
Run Time: 88 minutes