Despite plenty of annual offerings it seems horror fans can only reasonably expect or two great options a year. Last year was the outstanding boogeyman style Haunt. This year hasn’t been great for much of anything, but 2020 delivers with the tremendously unnerving and engaging Followed.
The found footage horror genre doesn’t have the best track record. It seems like so many films have tried to capitalize on the formula used to blockbuster perfection with The Blair Witch Project back in 1999. Since then just a handful have managed to have any kind of crossover and lasting appeal.
Followed enters the chat with a high quality production, better than expected performances and an abundance of creepy scares to keep viewers on edge.
This is a premise similar to last year’s indy release, The 16th Episode, with a trio of hungry for followers travel vloggers get more than they bargained for on their latest episode. The 16th Episode had a lot of promise and started off very engaging until some questionable choices made it unbearable. Followed avoids those pitfalls and sustains the suspense and thrills right to the final credits.
Mike (Matthew Solomon, Ballers) is the host of a popular horror vlog, DropTheMike, with a hunger for the macabre and unsettling to satisfy his followers. He travels to various sites of infamy and mocks the incidents and victims with little empathy. At least he’s got his fiance, Jess (Kelsey Griswold), and camera crew, Chris (Tim Drier) and Danni (Sam Valentine), to indulge/tolerate his eccentric behavior.
Halloween is approaching and Mike has a big sponsorship deal in the works provided he can reach a certain amount of subscribers. To reach that threshold Mike needs a huge hook for his next episode and finds a perfect candidate in a hotel known for its legacy of horrific murders. Perfect for a snarky vlogger and his reluctant film crew to use as the backdrop for their biggest episode yet.
Writer Todd Klick incorporated some plot elements from the real life incident at the Cecil Hotel in Los Angeles involving the death of Elisa Lam. Given the somewhat bizarre nature of Lam’s death tying that in to this story actually works as Followed for more than just a cheap tie-in for those in the know.
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Klick also wisely doesn’t try to insult the viewer with foolish character decisions and fake-outs. As they get developed, character choices check out and make sense.
Followed is staged like a first person perspective with someone operating a computer file and uploading the final vlog from the hotel to DropTheMike’s page. Director Antoine Le truly understands how to maximize viewers’ sense of uneasiness whether lingering the stationary cams a little longer than anticipated while the characters move off camera, very subtle visual distortion around characters’ faces and terrific use of stark blue and red lighting from cinematographer Nelson Pun.
The best found footage films keep the scares rolling even if the payoff can’t arrive until the final act. Le easily maintains the eeriness and continued sense of dread with random text messages and break points between the video uploads as a highly effective way to keep building the tension.
Great acting isn’t a hallmark of this genre, but Followed provides far better performances than the norm.
Solomon makes Mike a perfectly annoying and self-absorbed character. Over the course of the film as Mike begins dropping some of his bravado and gets real with his friends, Solomon is able to show greater depth to his character than just an attention-starved would-be influencer. Drier and Valentine make for good foils in a welcome role reversal as Chris is the more cautious one while Danni is more likely to go along with Mike’s questionable decisions.
Typically, I get annoyed with the lack of minority characters in films in general. Followed doesn’t have the largest ensemble and while there were a few options for more diversity, there are some POCs included with speaking roles. My only real gripe is a major spoiler towards the end. It’s the kind of trope that the film could have avoided and been just as meaningful.
Followed makes terrific use out of the modern obsession with insta-fame and the found footage format to make for a tremendously nerve-wracking experience.
Rating: 9.5 out of 10
You can watch Followed this Friday, June 19, at select drive-in theaters at the following locations and opens wide June 26.