“I see it, like all of Graham’s videos, as an art piece. It’s challenging people about what they think is real, and what they think is not real.”
This is how artist Erin (Annabel Logan) describes the online footage of her vlogger boyfriend Graham Hughes. Given that Graham shares his name with, and is played by, the writer/director of Death Of A Vlogger, it is not hard to see that her words constitute a reflexive commentary on the film that we are watching: a multi-media mockumentary incorporating Graham’s vlogs, “the first ever VR live-streamed seance”, off-camera audio recordings, text messages, and online articles. On one level we know that this is all a carefully constructed fiction, akin to Joel Anderson’s Lake Mungo (2008) only set in Glasgow; yet on the other, as we get drawn onto separating what, within the film’s fractured narrative, is pure hit-seeking fake-out and what is uncannily real, the film takes us on a journey through the all too human desire to believe in the afterlife, our ready susceptibility to charlatanism, and the suspension of disbelief that fiction constantly demands. Even as the (or a) film’s fakery is repeatedly deconstructed before our eyes, its loose threads continue to unnerve us.
The hook here is a metaphor. Death Of A Vlogger opens with Graham telling an anecdote about D-Day paratroopers, that he expressly states will “sum up what it’s like to make videos for the internet”. According to this oblique, ‘abstract’ anecdote, paratroopers who accidentally landed on rooftops would simply walk off the edge, unable to realise that so little a distance, in contrast with the great distance that they had already jumped, could still do them harm. It is a story of warped perceptions, of megalomania, of self-belief and self-destruction – the perfect parable of our often bizarre conduct online, and the tunnel vision that it can engender (significantly, Graham’s eyes are bandaged in his first video, following laser surgery).
For two years Graham has been staging comedy sketches for his vlog with limited success – but when, blindfolded, he captures on camera something apparently supernatural in his rented Maryhill flat (festooned with posters for Ghostbusters and Gremlins), the video goes viral. Whether in pursuit of answers or more hits, Graham films again in the flat with Erin, getting evidence of more irrational and menacing activities – and finds himself an online phenomenon living in a home that now frightens him. So he joins forces with dodgy ‘internet ghost-hunter’ Steve Mitchell (Paddy Kondracki), even as investigative journalist Alice Harper (Joma West) sets about debunking the vlogs. “It was clearly just three people making short horror films,” Alice says in one of several interviews, “and I’ve got nothing against horror, but the fact that they were presenting it as real, manipulating people, taking them in – there were some people that really bought it, and it really hurt them.” Again, this is as much a comment on Death Of A Vlogger as on Graham’s vlogs, as the film’s different layers of self-authentication and trickery come in for constant interrogation.
Early in Death Of A Vlogger, a threatening graffito appears in Graham’s flat, warning him to “prepare for slaughter”. The writing is literally on the wall for Graham, in a film whose very title promises a chronicle of a death foretold – and many of the documentary’s interviewees conspicuously refer to Graham in the past tense, further reinforcing the impression that our hero is doomed. One might even regard the film as giving Hughes’ previous title A Practical Guide To Suicide (2014) a new horror spin. For, like those paratroopers on the roof, Graham cannot resist the edge, even if it is to be his undoing. In all its addictiveness, the online world is a haunted house, occupied by mistakes, misunderstandings and shame that leave traces of their past in the present – and as this twisty tale unfolds with its key elements hidden in plain sight, we are left to wonder if there truly can be life not just beyond death, but beyond the internet. The result is a boldly sophisticated ghost story fuelled by fake news, vicious feedback and merely virtual reality.
Death Of A Vlogger was seen and reviewed at Arrow Video FrightFest 2019.