Shudder Secrets: Influencer Explained
If you look at horror as a genre that addresses our deep-seated fears and anxieties, then it only makes sense there’s been a wave of recent films about social media. Some of my personal favorites include Deadstream and Superhost, both on Shudder. The streaming service’s latest original, Influencer, is a sharp and funny thriller about a travel blogger who meets more than she can handle during a solo trip across Thailand.
Directed by Kurtis David Harder (Spiral), the film makes it very difficult to like any of the main characters. The two social media influencers are annoying as heck. Maybe that’s the whole point. That said, like Superhost especially, the film has a lot to say about the impact of social media, identity, and loneliness, and it’s not afraid to have a few laughs in the meantime. While the feature may feel too restrained and a little too safe at times, it’s still a solid and compelling work.
Influencer and the Total Absurdity of Travel Vlogging
Influencer begins with quite the opening. We see a woman laying face down in the sand, presumably dead. Minutes later, we learn that she’s social media guru Madison, played by Emily Tennant. The first 30 minutes sort of retrace her footsteps, specifically how she ended up stranded on that island we see in the opening. It’s an unexpected narrative set-up. In fact, the title card doesn’t even flash until about 30 minutes into the film, jolting expectations about whose story we’re actually going to witness here.
After this rather riveting opening, the audience has to endure the insufferable Madison and all of the various selfies she takes in Thailand. She unloads one shallow statement after the other to her countless followers. She talks about Thailand’s “rich history,” while also equating it with all of Asia, as if every Asian country is the same with a monolithic history. As she says that travel allows her to veer away from her comfort zone, she snaps another selfie and eats a massive cheeseburger at her huge and swanky hotel. She ain’t exactly roughing it, let alone venturing into town.
The set-up of Madison’s character is absolutely stellar, specifically the way her one-note statements are juxtaposed with the imagery. She says that she’s “really seeing Thailand,” but she only encounters the richest, touristy parts. Her travel/vlogging really doesn’t expose her to the country, and she’s too damn busy snapping photos of herself to actually get out and explore, let alone interact with the locals. She uses the country purely as a means to generate likes and draw new followers.
Influencer’s Unique Killer
Influencer stands out because it has a killer who’s a bit difficult to peg, especially her motives. Cassandra Naud plays CW. Very little is known about her past, but she meets Madison at a bar and befriends her, only to harm her. The viewer never quite learns what exactly she’s doing in Thailand. Maybe she simply gets off on killing gullible tourists. Regardless, she leaves Madison on an island and steals her identity. Prior to that, there’s a rather chilling scene where the two sit around a bonfire, and CW challenges the very notion that Madison is untouchable because she has so many followers.
In fact, CW even tells Madison she’s going to leave her on an island until she starves and crabs eventually eat her body. Yikes! Drunk on wine, Madison simply laughs it off. However, there’s a well-written back-and-forth that happens between the two women. Madison says no one can kill or harm her because people would notice she is gone. CW responds, “You sell products to little girls. Do you really think they’d notice?” She adds that she can easily take over Madison’s account. Indeed, she does this throughout the duration of the film.
The sharpest jab comes when CW points out how entitled Madison acts as if she’s the center of the story. Not only does CW challenge that very notion, but so does the narrative structure of the film. It begins with the image of Madison face down in the sand. It then shifts to tell her story, before it suddenly transitions to CW’s story at the 30-minute mark. It’s like CW said. Madison may think she’s in control of her narrative, but she’s not. Viewers may think this is Madison’s movie, but it isn’t.
Does CW Have a Motive, or Does She Simply Hate Influencers?
If I have one main gripe about the film, it’s that CW’s motives are never entirely clear. Does she detest the vapid nature of Madison and another social media influencer she meets, Jessica (Sara Canning)? Yes, that seems likely. Therefore, she takes it upon herself to punish the women for being so obsessed with their followers. Still, that seems like a really shallow reason to target other young women and punish them and steal their identities.
By the end of the film, I wondered if CW actually enjoyed the attention she got using Madison’s accounts. More than a few scenes show her scrolling through her phone and laptop, noting all the likes and comments she received after posting under Madison’s name. Maybe she secretly craves the attention other social media influences acquire. Without spoiling too much, the last 10 minutes certainly hint at that.
Likely, we’ll continue to see genre films that address the perils of social media. Influencer is one of the better ones. It has a clever storyline, compelling camerawork, and a unique killer. While the film feels a bit too YA at times, as if it’s holding back, it’s still a thrilling ride.
Catch Influencer on Shudder starting May 26. Keep updated on the streaming service’s newest content by following my Shudder Secrets column.
Brian Fanelli is a poet and educator who also enjoys writing about the horror genre. His work has been published in The LA Times, World Literature Today, Schuylkill Valley Journal, Horror Homeroom, and elsewhere. On weekends, he enjoys going to the local drive-in theater with his wife or curling up on the couch, and binge-watching movies with their cat, Giselle.