Another month, another new entry to the rapidly growing social media horror subgenre. Just over the last year or so, we’ve seen Deadstream, Sissy, Shook, Followers, and We’re All Going to the World’s Fair pop and click ‘Unlike’ on influencers and other aspects of our social media culture. Now as May comes to a close, Shudder platforms its latest original release. From Canadian filmmaker Kurtis David Harder, Influencer targets, well, social media influencer. Again. Yet critics are finding something fresh with this take and subscribing to the results.
Influencer and travel vlogger Madison is spending what looks like an amazing getaway at a picturesque resort in Thailand. But it’s a solo trip without her boyfriend who stayed home last minute. Alone and ironically disconnected, Madison meets another resort guest – a free-spirited woman named CW. For several days, CW whisks Madison off the resort – and off the grid – introducing her to the real Thailand and the joys of living for yourself. However, CW’s intent may not be as altruistic as appears. Soon Madison learns the mysterious woman has her own deadly agenda.
Influencer Avoids Subgenre Familiarity With a Clever, Subversive Narrative
When the title credits for Influencer roll about 26 minutes into the movie, you know you’re in for something different. And director Kurtis David Harder along with co-writer Tesh Guttikonda subvert expectations with a clever narrative approach. What feels like Madison’s journey quickly shifts focus to the mysterious CW before changing yet again to follow Madison’s sleazy boyfriend Ryan’s perspective. It’s a storytelling approach befitting of a psychological thriller. And yes, Influencer is a thriller in the vein of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley. When a new social media guru turns up, Harder and Guttikonda again play with expectations by throwing a wrench into the previously established pattern.
She’s [CM] a master manipulator who’s every bit as ‘phony’ as the social media personalities she targets.
Another refreshing aspect of Influencer’s story is the treatment of its central villain, the enigmatic CW. Specifically, Harder and Guttikonda resist offering any simple explanations about Cassandra Naud’s (Snowpiercer) motivations and psychology. She’s a master manipulator who’s every bit as ‘phony’ as the social media personalities she targets. Is she craving the attention that her marks enjoy on Instagram? Or is she an opportunist exploiting the vanity of her targets? Harder and Guttikonda leave it up to the viewer to decide. Add a quietly haunting performance courtesy of Naud and CM makes for a compelling villain.
Influencer Offers a More Nuanced Critique of the Cultural Landscape That Gives Rise to Influencers
After weaving and defying expectations, Influencer ultimately chooses a finale that feels a bit too convenient. Though Harder and Guttikonda drop some early hints to explain their resolution, it still manages to stretch believability. Aside from that minor grievance, Influencer is consistently engrossing and often rife with tension. Having previously directed the underrated and underseen Spiral, Harder knows how to find suspense from the most benign scenarios. Here, a calm and seemingly casual conversation on a beach feels chilling. And the beautiful Thailand backdrop is almost a character itself.
Whereas other social media horror movies have been explicit in their disdain for ‘influencers’, Harder and Guttikonda are more ambiguous.
Some audiences may find Influencer’s broader commentary more difficult to decipher. Whereas other social media horror movies have been explicit in their disdain for ‘influencers’, Harder and Guttikonda are more ambiguous. Early scenes juxtapose Madison’s extravagant lifestyle posting on Instagram with a hollow and joyless reality. Seeing the loneliness of Madison’s existence somewhat shifts the critique from the individual to the culture in which influencers grow and thrive. In part, Influencer also shows us how easily the technology we’ve relied on to connect with one another dehumanizes us. Look no further than the ease with which CM uses photoshop and AI generative software to subsume Madison’s identify. And CM herself – who avoids social media – is no less duplicitous than Madison.
Influencer a Smart, Taut Social Media Thriller
Though it’s less explicit in its messaging about social media culture, Influencer may be the smartest thriller in recent memory to target the subject. Director Kurtis David Harder and co-writer Tesh Guttikonda have something more to say than just the self-absorption of ‘clicks’ and ‘likes-based’ personalities. Instead, Influencer offers a much more opaque social commentary. That is, Harder uses the psychological thriller subgenre to explore the often hollow and superficial nature of our connections – on and off social media. With a subversive storytelling structure and haunting performance from Cassandra Naud, Shudder has delivered another solid thriller.