A Horror Movie Targeting the Ugliness of Influencer Culture
The new horror film ‘Shook,’ premiering on Shudder, attempts to expose the empty narcissism of influencers. But it mostly plays itself.
In what will come as a shock to no one, a good deal of what you see online isn’t real. That’s especially true when it comes to social media influencers, who create idealized—and desirable—personas on Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook, and then use their clout to hawk products for their own personal benefit. They’re the 21st century equivalent of paid infomercial actors and hosts, and their blather is about as trustworthy as anything else you hear from a corporation that’s trying to sell you the latest, greatest whatever that’ll help you win friends and influence people—not to mention increase your follower count.
Writer/director Jennifer Harrington wades into these digital waters with Shook, a thriller that’s heavy on censure and woefully light on scares. A Shudder exclusive premiering on the horror streaming platform on Feb. 18, its tale concerns Mia (Daisye Tutor), a young, pretty blonde influencer whose claim to fame are makeup videos for a cosmetics brand. The phoniness of Mia’s vocation is underscored by the film’s introductory scene, in which she and two other women—including “beauty influencer of the year” Genelle (Genelle Seldon)—pose for the paparazzi, only for Harrington to cut to a master shot of this newsworthy event, which is really just a staged red carpet that’s been constructed in an abandoned parking lot. This entire world’s phoniness is thus laid bare succinctly, and sharply.
That’s not the only pointed thing about Shook’s opening; when her dog pees all over her swanky dress, Genelle rushes off to a nearby bathroom, where she winds up getting stabbed through the chin with her designer high heel shoe. Subsequent headlines indicate that this slaying is related to a spate of recent Southern California attacks by a killer that primarily preys on dogs, and in the aftermath of her colleague’s demise, Mia takes to social media to proclaim, “I’m shook. Seriously.” Given that everything about these individuals is performative bullshit, shook she most certainly is not. In fact, she barely gives it another thought, instead turning her attention to her own dilemma: having to watch her sister Nicole’s (Emily Goss) dog Chico and, in the process, miss out on a big livestream with her boyfriend Santi (Octavius J. Johnson) and friends Lani (Nicola Posener) and Jade (Stephanie Simbari).
Mia’s predicament is hardly tragic, even if she treats it like her own personal Sophie’s Choice. Still, her circumstances do soon take a turn for the upsetting. When Chico goes missing, Mia begins searching her sibling’s home, which clues us into the fact that Nicole had been caring for their mother, who suffered from a made-up incurable brain disorder called “Livingston’s Disease,” and who appears to have passed it on to Nicole. Mia, however, never visited her ailing mom because, per her navel-gazing profession, she only cares about herself. Some of this is spelled out by Mia’s conversations with Nicole—who can see Mia via a security camera installed in their mother’s bedroom—and the rest comes via Mia’s chats with Kellan (Grant Rosenmeyer), a neighbor who gets in touch with Mia first as a friend, and then as a sinister tormentor.
Shook slowly develops into a wannabe-nightmare in which Mia is harassed by unbelievable threats from Kellan, who snatches Chico and then promises to kill her friends (and the pooch) if she doesn’t answer his questions and play his games. It’s When a Stranger Calls (or Scream) reimagined for the age of texting, voicemails and social media apps, except that the film’s characters are so one-dimensional and thoroughly obnoxious that it’s impossible to care about their safety. Harrington visualizes Mia’s digital interactions by projecting her laptop screen on walls, and by depicting her text-thread friends whispering in her ear. Unfortunately, such devices are handled as clunkily as the rest of the storytelling, which moves the plot forward through leaden exposition, and which primarily envisions Mia’s friends as braying faces in extreme selfie close-ups.
Things are not what they seem, but if you’re expecting the inevitable twists to be clever, have I got some miracle foundation and concealer to sell you. Given that the proceedings are populated by only a handful of characters, it’s not difficult to see the out-of-left-field turns on the horizon, although a lack of surprise is far from the film’s sole shortcoming. Shook takes place in the sort of sparsely furnished home that feels like a low-budget set, and Harrington’s decision to shroud her action in darkness—even when Mia asks an Alexa-like smart speaker to turn on the lights, they barely illuminate anything—only further contributes to the overarching chintzy atmosphere. At least the social media posts presented on screen look reasonably authentic, and consequently go some way toward conveying the way in which influencers (and everyday people) use phones and computers not only as their chief means of communication, but as the filter through which they process their every waking experience.
Shook’s revelations further underscore the disingenuousness of influencers—what they say, what they do, who they claim to be—and, by extension, everything seen and heard on Instagram et al. Yet in a 2021 grappling with a tidal wave of democracy-undermining disinformation, such notions come off as dully obvious. The cast’s performances are uniformly bland, and Harrington’s inability to bestow Mia or her cohorts with distinctive personalities turns them into mere vehicles for her material’s familiar message. Worse, however, is that the cat-and-mouse game which eventually kicks into gear is clumsily staged, its helter-skelter rhythm doing much to neuter any menace or peril. It’s also borderline illogical, hinging on incidents that make no sense regardless of the explanations provided by characters’ dialogue.
Why Shook—a movie about pulling the curtain back on social media influencers’ narcissism and insincerity—revolves around dog murders is anyone’s guess, but such randomness is in keeping with the endeavor’s general sloppiness. Devoid of suspense and, at times, basic narrative cohesion, it simply tells audiences what they already know—an approach that doesn’t leave one shook so much as bored.