‘Death of a Vlogger’ Finds Horror In a Post-Truth World
Mockumentaries are an acquired taste. As a sub-genre of found-footage, they are often a difficult method of storytelling. When told well, they are able to capture a sense of horror-realism that can scare like no other. You need look no further than Lake Mungo or The Poughkeepsie Tapes for examples of films packed with insidious, creeping dread that lingers long after the final credits roll. With Death of a Vlogger, director/writer/star Graham Hughes has crafted a tale that is peppered with well-placed scares while finding time to examine the dangers of the online experience.
Death of a Vlogger premiered at London FrightFest 2019, immediately generating great word of mouth buzz within the British horror community. But in the years since its release onto video on demand services, it seems to have been lost in the gargantuan amount of content hurled toward the public at large. But Death of a Vlogger deserves its place among its more well-known luminaries for being a consistently funny, intelligent, and unsettling story.
The film is positioned as a documentary about Graham (Graham Hughes), a talented Glaswegian Youtuber who accidentally captures a ghost on film. Thrilled by the attention and notoriety that the video brings him, Graham and his girlfriend Erin (Annabel Logan) chase the highs of online fame by uploading more videos of the entity living in Graham’s apartment. Enlisting the help of shoddy, amateur ghost hunter Steve (Paddy Kondracki), the trio capture more and more paranormal footage until questions begin to be asked by skeptical onlookers who find the team’s success a little too convenient.
Death of a Vlogger is not content with providing scares alone. Hughes, who had been making shorts for years before completing the film, had already become concerned with the culture of online fame and the inherent consequences. Death of a Vlogger picks at the scab of online notoriety, and in so doing creates a film packed with interesting questions and unsettling ambiguity. “I’d read Jon Ronson’s book, ‘So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed’, and that really influenced what I wanted to do,” Hughes explains. “Even now, I think the film still is applicable to social media today. And a lot of people will know the film’s message inside out, they’ll recognise it around them.”
From the opening scene, Death of a Vlogger plays with the idea of truth versus fiction. Graham tells a story of paratroopers in WW2 who would suffer horrendous injuries during the D-Day landings. Some of the troops, he explains, would land on nearby rooftops accidentally after missing their marks. Instead of climbing down, they would simply jump from the roof, their perspective so utterly skewed by dropping hundreds of feet, that the final drop to the ground looked safe and manageable. “The paratrooper story is one that my Dad used to tell me,” Hughes says. “He swears it’s true, but I’ve not ever been able to verify it. But that’s the thing with it, it really fits into the theme of the film either way. If it’s true; fine. If it’s not true? Even better.”
The film was released during the height of the rise of ‘Trumpism’ and seems to be commenting on the cultural impact that had across the world. Death of a Vlogger explores the idea that “views” and “clicks” are everything and that those website hits, for good or ill, have become more important than any quaint ideas of truth and honesty.
The various talking heads in the film — a smorgasbord of bloggers, journalists and psychologists — all vie for attention on the documentary portion; each positing that their opinion, their reading of the events are to be believed. This further compounds the ideas and themes of voices just wanting to be heard, regardless of their value or worth. Joma West shows up as uber-sceptical journalist Alice and gives a fantastically self-confident and smug performance. While ostensibly on the “right” side of the debate, she is a perfect snapshot of the glee and delight that the online world takes on the downfall of anyone for any reason.
There is a ramshackle and occasionally shaky feel to certain moments in Death of a Vlogger. Hughes filmed the movie on a shoestring budget over six months, enlisting help from his network of friends and contacts made while filming his shorts. In a traditional horror film, this would definitely be an issue – but oddly, when the film occasionally shows the limits of its budget, it actually adds to the story. While the scares almost always land, the slightly slapdash appearance of some of the apparitions only adds to the ambiguity of the story. “I figured that I’d tried the traditional approach a few times with mixed results, maybe this is something that can make the budget work to the aesthetic rather than the other way around,” Hughes explains.
The film never loses sight of that fact: at the end of the day, a horror film without horror always feels like something of a cheat. And Death of a Vlogger has several standout moments that are well crafted despite budgetary limitations. The original “ghost” video is creepy in all the right ways and establishes the rules of the film with a neat efficiency. Each video is preceded with a white flashcard, titling what you are about to see. With the arrival of each flashcard, the viewer becomes conditioned to be prepared for something unsettling and creepy. The film also makes good use of the whole frame during Graham’s direct to video addresses; while commanding the online audience our attention is drawn to shapes and shadows in the distance of the frame, of almost imperceptible movements that remain unseen by our host.
The film’s most unsettling sequence, where Graham desperately tries to escape his apartment only to find himself trapped in a loop that returns him to where he started, is fantastic in its execution. Watching his increasing desperation as he finds himself menaced by the entity is incredibly tense and the stuff of pure nightmare fodder. Amusingly, the scene was almost created out of necessity: “Everything came from a pragmatic viewpoint; what kind of effects could I pull off? It’s such an easy thing to shoot and it eats up a lot of screentime while still being effective (laughs).”
The screenplay’s mystery sustains itself until the final act of the documentary portion. And like all the best true-crime documentaries, the film saves a few investigative twists and turns for its final moments and delivers an ending without any definitive answers. Interestingly, Hughes has crafted it in such a way that most readings are justifiable given the evidence presented to the audience. “My mind changes on a weekly basis whenever I think about it,” he offers.
And just as we reach the end of the story, Death of a Vlogger has one final shock to send the audience home with a gnawing sense of unease that will only grow the longer it lingers in your mind. The film’s final moments really brings home viral internet themes and the desperate need for attention that afflicts many in our modern world with a sad and inescapable weariness. Graham Hughes has crafted a film that feels unique; as a debut feature, it is confident, scary and like the very best horror films, actually has something to say about the world as it is today.