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Influencer

We are likely in the very early days of the “Social Media” phase of the horror genre, as the international reliance on apps like Instagram, TikTok, and Twitter provides fuel for screenwriters to plumb their terrifying depths. And the truth is that most of them so far have been less scary than the notification that tells me my average screen time at the end of the week as a cruel reminder of my iAddiction. They’re often simplistic depictions of the horrors of living life online, which led me to approach “Influencer,” now on Shudder, with a heady dose of skepticism. I was rewarded with a thriller that, like so many people on those apps, is not what it appears to be. 

This is an effective, twisting tale that's clearly better if you can approach it with the same lack of awareness or expectation as I did, as it pulls one rug out from under the viewer after the first act and then keeps spinning off in unpredictable new directions. It’s smartly crafted, well-written, and strongly performed. I’m not sure it works as social media commentary, but it undeniably clicks as an entertaining thriller about someone who thinks the Insta-world is shallow enough to hide her sociopathic behavior. Do you think living online is dangerous? There are still some real dangers out there in the real world, too.

At first, “Influencer” feels like it’s going to play out like a social media era “Hostel,” a tale of someone trying to turn international travel into views who discovers that there are dangerous corners of the world that aren’t seen on TikTok. And yet there’s melancholy in Emily Tennant’s performance that hints at something deeper from the very beginning. She plays Madison, someone who has become famous on Instagram largely just by being herself but seems to have trouble maintaining her smile when she's not filming. She poses, takes pics of her food, and has probably made a fortune pushing free products as an influencer. She’s certainly made enough to support her travel, which has taken her to gorgeous Thailand, filmed with an effective blend of beauty and menace by cinematographer David Schuurman. Yes, it’s beautiful, but it also looks like someplace where a woman traveling alone could get lost and never be seen again.

It's slowly revealed that Madison wasn’t supposed to be solo. She was going to travel with her boyfriend Ryan (Rory J. Saper), but the relationship hit some speedbumps before the trip, leading her to come alone. When a drunk ex-pat hits on Madison at the resort bar, CW (Cassandra Naud) swoops in to save the day, and the two become instant friends. CW knows the area, taking Madison to cool bars around town. But savvy viewers watching a movie on a service like Shudder will notice that CW doesn’t like to be included in Madison’s photo posts and looks suspiciously after Madison when she discovers that her room was robbed, and her passport stolen. Now Madison will have to stay at least two weeks before she can get a new one. What could go wrong?

This is all the pre-credits set-up of “Influencer,” and it’s largely a trick. Without spoiling anything, CW is not what she seems, of course, but neither is the movie. In fact, the sharp script by Tesh Guttikonda and director Kurtis David Harder plays with the traditional protagonist role a few times, pivoting to another influencer named Jessica (Sara Canning) before bringing Ryan into the mix. CW is the connective tissue, the one who lives off the grid and seems to resent those who spend all their time on it.

Harder gets a lot of mileage out of his setting as the story moves from the resort to a lavish mansion. It all looks so pretty that one wouldn’t expect the violence seething underneath it. That itself is a kind of social commentary that “Influencer” smartly doesn’t hammer too bluntly. Social media thrillers often falter by reducing tech into addictive boogeymen, but it’s more connective tissue in “Influencer” than moral messaging. CW would argue that Madison and Jessica’s online lives are faker than hers, but where does that kind of judgment get anyone? Influencers are here to stay, and the film's final twist proves they can also be unpredictable, too.

It helps greatly that “Influencer” has a strong cast of committed performers. Tennant and Canning go a long way to add depth to what could have been a shallow project in that they try to understand these characters instead of just making them the clichés we’ve seen in this subgenre. But the film belongs to Naud, who can be both captivating and terrifying in the same beat. It’s a great performance.

Maybe I’m cynical, but I feel like I’m surprised less and less by films I’ve had to review lately. “Influencer” broke that pattern. I should go post something on Instagram about it.

On Shudder now.

Brian Tallerico

Brian Tallerico is the Managing Editor of RogerEbert.com, and also covers television, film, Blu-ray, and video games. He is also a writer for Vulture, The Playlist, The New York Times, and GQ, and the President of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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Film Credits

Influencer movie poster

Influencer (2023)

Rated NR

92 minutes

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