The premise of Influencer, Kurtis David Harder’s highly-anticipated follow-up to his chilling queer horror Spiral, will make you think twice about sharing photos of your face online. Hell, it might scare you off posting anything ever again. As the title suggests, this is the story of an excruciatingly online young woman whose hubris comes back to bite her in the ass. But whether the woman in question–who gives the film that tantalizing title–is Madison (Emily Tennant), the Instagram-famous bore who gets scammed, or the mysterious CW (Cassandra Naud), who steals her life, will be up to personal interpretation.
Influencer opens, as so many horror movies do, with a shot of an unconscious woman lying face down in an isolated location. In this case, it’s a tropical beach somewhere in Thailand, where Madison is spending a glamorous working week all expenses paid. Of course, although Madison is posting plenty of content about how amazing and life-changing the trip is–she notably adopts an entirely different, falsely peppy voice when addressing her thousands of followers. Madison hasn’t strayed beyond the confines of the luxury resort in which she’s staying. Likewise, she has her phone sounds on, solidifying how oblivious she is. It’s the perfect opportunity for CW to swoop in and lure her away, particularly after Madison is accosted by a creepy older man in the hotel bar.
The Instagram star has no real friends, as evidenced by the bitchy gay who can’t even bring himself to pretend that he cares about her when they’re on FaceTime, and Madison’s boyfriend ditching her last minute. The idea of an aspirational travelogue is ruthlessly turned on its head as Avery Kentis’ ominous score clues us in to the fact that all is not as it seems, despite the beautiful location. Typically, in these situations, it’s some creepy dude who can’t be trusted. Madison trusts CW without even thinking twice about it because she’s also a young woman out on her own, who’s presumably got a better handle on how Thailand works than she does. Crucially, when Madison’s room is broken into and her passport gets stolen, CW helps her lodge a complaint with the local police and explains how long it’s going to take to get a replacement. Soon, Madison is indebted to her new friend.
See Also: Spiral [Frightfest 2019 Review]
The credits for Influencer drop a good thirty-minutes into the movie, a bad ass move that wrong-foots us immediately. What seemed initially to be the entire premise of the film is only a precursor; the real horror story is about how easy it is for CW to impersonate Madison online. It’s a diabolical plan, and as Influencer unfolds it becomes clear that she’s done it countless times before. Although watching the deep-fake process is both satisfying and horrifying, not least because of how easy it is, and CW clearly has some tech skills, for the most part she’s just trading on how little people on the other side of the screen actually care about the woman whose life they’ve been following so closely. After leaving Madison to die, robbing her, using voice recordings, and setting up shop in the spacious rental home she’s supposed to be sharing with her boyfriend, CW turns her attention to another influencer, Sara Canning’s Jessica, so she can immediately start the process all over again.
Influencer is smart as hell, unravels with ease and really takes its time joining the dots. Part of the fun is wondering what CW is going to get away with next. There are tons of inventive shots and clever angles, including when the camera crawls along the sand towards a sleeping, blissfully unaware Madison before she wakes up and realizes she’s stranded in the middle of nowhere. The tight script, which Harder co-wrote with Tesh Guttikonda, consistently subverts the idea of being too online as a woman, especially as a solo traveler in a foreign land. Tennant, Naud, and Canning are all terrific in their respective roles, while Rory J. Saper is perfectly cast as Madison’s outwardly no-good boyfriend, Ryan, who secretly cares much more about her than he lets on. Ryan is so weedy and lame and British with his stupid little man-bun, but like Jessica, he gets a bad vibe from CW chiefly because they’re not as reliant on her. Jessica is slightly older and more experienced, while Ryan is suspicious that his girlfriend just upped and left, leaving a stranger to take her place.
Influencer gradually reveals its darker underbelly, with vicious, bloody murders interspersed throughout–including a truly gnarly death by high heel–and even a female-on-male sexual assault, which gives Saper the best line of the whole movie (“I never forget a shag”). In less assured hands, the story might have careened off the rails once things got violent, but Harder demonstrates impressive control over the material. Everything that happens is grounded in reality, which makes it that much scarier–consider that CW doesn’t even really have to try that hard to get rid of Madison and take over her life entirely. But, for the movie to work, it has to have a killer ending considering just how pacy and propulsive it is. Thankfully, Harder nails it by straddling the line between something just beyond the bounds of our imaginations while keeping it disturbingly realistic. It’s a sly wink, a knowing smile, and a suggestion that the story isn’t quite over yet.
Influencer was shot over three-months in Thailand, and David Schuurman’s gorgeously expansive cinematography captures the picturesque country in all its glory, emphasizing just how perfect it is for posting on social media. Likewise, the costumes are stunning, further emphasizing the aspirational slant. However, how warm and inviting Thailand looks onscreen, alongside the gorgeous characters, is another way in which the movie subverts our expectations. It’s almost as though we’re watching an Instagram post come to life, shifting and changing as we stare at it for too long until finally, it dissolves, and we see the ugliness that’s really behind it. This is a brutal and incisive look at social media addiction but the scariest thing about Influencer might just be how it reflects our own online obsession back at us.
WICKED RATING: 8/10
Director(s): Kurtis David Harder
Writer(s): Kurtis David Harder, Tesh Guttikonda
Stars: Sara Canning, Emily Tennant, Cassandra Naud, Rory J. Saper
Release date: 2023 (TBD)
Run Time: 92 minutes