Cassandra Naud Steals Sharp Shudder Horror

May 26, 2023

Horror movies that authentically capture the experience of the online worlds we’ve built for ourselves are all too rare. More often, they can feel persistently out of touch and unaware of the particulars of how online spaces function. Some can successfully take aim at social media apps like TikTok and the way it has reshaped our relationships to each other. However, at the same time, getting too into the weeds of any one aspect of our online spaces can diminish the potential to explore social and emotional questions in favor of more technical ones. If a film can manage to strike a balance in exploring how technology has moved beyond being a tool into something that fundamentally alters us, then it is worth cherishing for that alone. The Shudder original Influencer does this in frightening yet focused fashion. Wearing its low budget on its sleeve and mostly transcending any flaws, it is a film that moves beyond being a gimmick into something greater. Directed by Kurtis David Harder, in a significant improvement on his intriguing if frustrating prior movie Spiral that has no connection to the Saw franchise, it is a delightfully scrappy horror flick that proves to have plenty of bite.

This all begins in appropriately disquieting fashion with an overhead shot of a seemingly deserted island that slowly pushes in closer and closer. As we come up to the edge of it, we begin to make out something on the beach. As the pulsating score continues to rise up, we see that this is a body laying face down and isn’t moving. While some horror films can rely too heavily on the drama this type of opening creates as we wait to see how it ends up here, this is done with just enough of a light touch that it works. It is then when we flash back to the titular influencer of the title: Madison. Played by Emily Tenannt of the series The Watchful Eye, she is here on an unexpectedly solo trip to Thailand which she is capturing for her online audience and making it seem as though she is having the time of her life. In reality, she is lonely and only pretending to be enjoying herself. The narration she gives takes on a more chilling quality as we hear the fakeness in her voice and see how it is juxtaposed against who she really is when the camera is off. When she meets the camera-shy yet charismatic CW (Cassandra Naud) and begins spending time with her on the trip, the film begins its steady descent into something more unsettling. Allegiances and perspectives shift multiple times with each ratcheting up the dread as we see the cracks begin to show in the lies both virtual and real.

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‘Influencer’ Takes Its Time With Teasing Out Terror

Image via Shudder

Though there isn’t anything wholly surprising to the experience, in a way that may be disappointing for those looking for big twists, that doesn’t take away from the thrills. In fact, one monologue that CW gives tells you basically everything that is going to happen and makes it all that more horrifying when it does. The calm way this is communicated and the methodical unraveling that follows is what makes it linger. When the title drops nearly a half hour in following this monologue, an audacious move that not many will go for that this film is still cheeky enough to pull off, you’re fully locked in for wherever it will take you. Written by Harder and Tesh Guttikonda, it is the type of film that proves, once again, that low-budget horror can be the place to find some real gems you wouldn’t have discovered elsewhere.

As the film shifts the main characters, placing us in the shoes of one who begins impersonating and living the life of another, the story begins to thrive in the details. As a new social media personality becomes a target, there is a significant portion of the film that plays out with minimal dialogue and lets us watch this unfold. On top of that, it is totally believable how easy it could be to find and impersonate someone with such a significant online presence. The way a face can be manipulated is captured with convincing ease, making the subsequent fallout all the more sinister. It doesn’t go for a more flashy spectacle, instead taking its time as a patient work of horror where the deception at the core of those who could soon become predator, prey, or both gives it all an extra edge it delicately walks along.

While the film doesn’t rely on deception for too long, any other details beyond this in terms of its story would rob it of the depths it begins to go to. What can be said is how excellent Naud is. So much of the film’s key developments hang on CW putting on different faces for each scene. She can go from being cool and confident to more uncertain. It is only when she is unobserved by others that we get small glimpses of the real person underneath it all. Just the way she will look at those who aren’t looking back is effectively menacing as we see all the various faces she puts on melt away. Everyone is a pretender in this film, in one way or another, but she is the most mesmerizing to watch. Even just observing the wheels turning while she smokes a cigarette off to the side, waiting for the first phase of a plan she has set in motion begin to come to fruition, carries with it a suffocating tension. It is as much a modern character study of troubled people as it is a thrilling horror. Even when the dialogue can ring false or certain narrative developments strain credulity, Naud’s performance is what holds it together. What could have easily been one-note and superficial is more multilayered.

‘Influencer’ Isn’t Afraid To Take Some Big Leaps

Image via Shudder

In many ways, it feels like it is the horror version of Ingrid Goes West with a light dash of the recent Infinity Pool. Even if it isn’t quite as sharp as either of those, the journey it goes on is still a darkly joyous one. As everything begins to fall apart with one character giving voice to the unspoken tension that was lurking underneath, it takes a bloody yet earned turn. Rather than feel like it may be losing a handle on its story, the patience of what preceded it pays off in spades. Even just a single standout shot of a stuffed suitcase is this in glorious action.

The grim absurdity of it goes hand in hand with the horror, making the escalations and chaos properly fun. Something as quick as a simple ding of a phone and what it reveals is a gut punch. Though it doesn’t fully stick the landing, losing sight of its most compelling character along the way, its authentically creepy contortions makes it entertaining as hell to see it fly.

Rating: B+

Influencer is on Shudder now.

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