This review contains mild spoilers.
Not another ruddy found footage! It’s easy to be put off by the thought of another shaky cam, more vague snippets of spectres and people recording long after they should stop. Especially when it’s about a couple trying to prove or disprove their flat is haunted. Heck, if you can believe it, it was 13 years ago Paranormal Activity got made. And since then its story’s been done to death. As such I was pleasantly surprised to see this mockumentary from writer/ director/ star Graham Hughes – a grafter if ever there was one – is among the most innovative takes on this set-up I’ve seen in some time.
For the uninitiated, vloggers are like bloggers if bloggers made videos. In the fictional version of Graham’s case, these usually consist of clips of him arsing around, doing hi-jinks with his friends. Then one day he’s at home when a mug seemingly moves of its own accord. Part of him, his healthy side, is scared shitless. While another, the attention-junkie, can’t believe his luck. In days that follow he and his partner, Erin (Logan), come back to find their living room ransacked. Freaked out, but aware of the business opportunity, they go to meet a ghost hunter “extraordinaire”. Steve (Kondracki) is a follower-fiend who tells them the best way to get both results and revenue is by running the first-ever VR live-streamed séance. It’s an interesting set-piece, involving a small glass of whisky, which goes a little too well. Still, as things go from bad to worse at home, at least the Youtube clicks keep coming in. Enter Alice (West), a journalist intent on exposing him. It should be easy enough, though. Surely ghosts aren’t real, right?
Don’t expect easy answers. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Death of a Vlogger is it goes to great lengths to question what’s at the bottom of it all: malevolence, mental illness or money? In taking the time to essentially debunk itself, the film makes us ask if there’s a ghost messing with Graham, or if Graham is messing with us. Hey, it worked with the Warrens. It’s interesting that, for a made-up film, there’s still a discrepancy between what we take as real in that universe, and what we take as a lie. Hence depending on how we take things, Graham is either an actor portraying a real person or an actor portraying another actor. How we make sense of this distinction matters since it will go some way towards determining how much we sympathise with him. I want to believe. Moreover, given, by definition, the effects are faked then it’s interesting to see it draw attention to this in a way that makes us angry at the possibility that our fictional tale is about a fraud. A big theme of the film is how we’re sucked in by online personalities, and who says something over what they say, so maybe we’re falling for his trap. In short, is Graham Hughes playing Graham, the filmmaker, or Graham, the person with a ghost problem?
If all this sounds like a load of meta wank, don’t worry. Death of a Vlogger doesn’t take itself too seriously. Don’t get me wrong, it has real things to say about the nature of online abuse, internet anonymity bringing out the worst in us and even the science that underlies social media addiction. However, there is more than enough enthusiasm, wit, and good old Scottish gallows humour to keep it from getting sanctimonious. It also helps that Hughes is such a natural performer since the format necessitates we spend a lot of time with just him on his webcam. It’s an intimate connection we build: we see him at his most charming, joking around at the start, and his most vulnerable – when his mental health and online career simultaneously suffer. The other members of the core cast put up spirited performances too, with Logan injecting a lot of energy into her role, and Kondracki equally capturing the self-delusions and self-confidence of his. I particularly liked how all three never forget that they’re in front of the camera, regularly playing to their audience with winks, brave smiles and ‘I’m ok really’ faces.
If there’s a big issue, it’s that aside from a couple of well-timed jumps, the horror sequences tend to fall a little flat – something I suspect was partly to do with budgetary constraints. Regardless, scenes like the falling sheet act, along with the J-horror aesthetic of the possibly real/ possibly not ghost aren’t dissimilar to stuff we’ve seen many times before. The backing story we get, for what may be going on, is also underbaked. Thankfully the escalation is well done, with exemplary pacing and build up. Hughes’ careful balancing act also means he turns a potential weakness into a strength with the sometimes samey set-ups encouraging characters, and potentially viewers, to be sceptical. It all adds up to an exciting send-up of found footage films that mutually celebrates and mocks the usual hackneyed claims of “authenticity”. Plus by focusing on the self-perpetuating, addictive, allure of online fame it answers the usual question of why the bloody camera’s still on.
Death of a Vlogger showed at FrightFest Glasgow, although this review was based on a screener seen afterwards.