Influencer culture should be fertile ground for horror. There’s a delicious potential in stoking our schadenfreude as we watch the vapid and the beautiful get bumped off in inventive ways; alternatively, there’s plenty of scope for a deep-dive on the psychology and sociology of Instagram celebs: what makes them tick, what role do we, the viewer, play in their lives, why do we watch, and why do they want us to? All of that stuff. The problem with Shook is that it attempts both approaches and consequently manages neither.
Mia (Daisye Tutor) is a moderately-successful influencer, sharing the glamorous ticks of her life via make-up tips on an unnamed Instagram-style platform. She has slightly less glamorous, less popular influencer friends, and a decidely unglamorous sister, Nicole (Emily Goss) living with the same degenerative genetic disease that recently killed their mother. Mia is back in the family home, passing up on a boozy sleepover with her ’grammable buddies to dogsit while Nicole is away. When said dog goes missing, a mysterious phone call triggers a series of sinister games, with her friend’s lives apparently at stake.
It’s a plot with potential, and writer/director Jennifer Harrington, helming only her second feature, layers plenty of intriguing ideas into her story: Mia neglected her dying mother to lose herself in a life of online validation, leaving sister Nicole – who has, by the way, given her Alexa-style smart home her dead mother’s name – to nurse her through her final days alone. Nicole herself will one-day suffer the same fate. Meanwhile, Mia’s friends seem shallow and jealous of her wealth and success, wanting her company because she has “the most followers”. And somewhere a dog-killer is on the loose, though sometimes you feel like that’s happening in a different movie altogether. Much of the film takes place within phone and laptop screens, which Harrington projects onto the sets behind her actors; an effect presumably done in-camera. It’s a brilliant visual signature; unsettling and genuinely effective. That’s also true of Johnny Jewel’s queasy electronic score, which wobbles and blips its way through a much better story than the one we’re watching.
All of this puts a classy frame around an image that doesn’t really deserve such stylish presentation. Harrington leaves the richer subtext unexplored as her film unsuccessfully treads its line between grim thriller and schlocky slasher. The tone swings wildly between the genuinely unpleasant and the pleasingly fun, both of which have their places in horror but rarely work side-by-side. It’s all such a waste. A witty death early-doors tells us we’re going one way, a self-conscious, super-weird edginess on the other side of the titles suggests we’re going another. Ultra-violent realism gives way to a scene where a character manages to walk without much difficulty on a broken leg. More frustrating is a lack of attention to detail – at one point Mia tries to google something on her phone only to find she has no cellular service, which given that she’s in an extremely techy house that definitely has wi-fi shouldn’t really be an issue, what’s more, the fact that she’s literally talking to someone on the same phone at the same time suggests her service is fine. Were I her, I’d change my provider. Such moments wouldn’t even be noticed if the narrative was more compelling, but a lack of momentum means they stick out like a giraffe in the penguin pool.
What’s maddening is that somewhere under all of this is a much better film, and occasionally we get glimpses of it. The premise, the subtext, the style … there’s plenty to work with there, but it’s all squandered on a story that can’t decide what it wants to be or, indeed, what it wants to say; lacking the gleeful energy of Netflix’s similarly influencer-focussed Spree, or Black Mirror’s skilled exploration of our relationship with technology. Had Shook committed to either path it could have really worked.