It’s a shame. Jeff Ryan’s Mean Spirited voices relevant and vile concerns about social media soullessness, but its commentary is neutered by shaky execution. Tighter productions like Deadstream, Followed or Deadcon are the celebrity YouTuber horror stories Mean Spirited aspires to stand alongside. The bar isn’t all that high. Ryan and co-writer Joe Adams sneak eerie satires about the hellscape of Hollywood into this first-person mockumentary about internet pranksters becoming the ultimate prank victims. Still, none of the duo’s best thoughts end up shining in a regrettably unpolished video package.
Mean Spirited presents itself as “Vlogumentary,” spearheaded by semi-viral prank specialist “The Amazing” Andy (Will Madden). His ex-partner and estranged best friend Bryce (Ryan) invites Andy and his crew to a vacation in the Poconos after he abandons the Mean Spirited channel for a CW superhero role (as Thunder-Man). Bryce has everything Andy wants—riches, popularity, limitless success—so he treats the vacation as a content opportunity with hints of jealous vengeance. That’s until suspicions arise when Bryce starts acting strange, possibly due to the trauma he faced—and a fleeing Andy didn’t—during a childhood prank gone awry.
The narrative’s venom gets a lot right about vain YouTuber culture: The hyperspeed video edits that splice image gags into pre-recorded videos, all the nastiness about comparing your subscribers or likes to more successful creators. Excessiveness is on brand, and obnoxiousness is on par given how Andy is always chasing his million-hit breakout upload. If you’ve watched vloggers before, the aesthetics, overcompensating energy and stupidity in the name of engagement will feel authentic. If not, you’ll want to drive thumb tacks into your pupils and sharp pencils through your eardrums after a few minutes of Andy’s attention-pleading monologues.
As a modified found footage presentation—this isn’t livestream like Deadstream, so we get raw and edited footage together—cinematographer Kenneth Wales never maximizes the subgenre’s fearful intimacy. Empty space “fills” wider frames, and characters are often pushed far away from lenses, eliminating that up-close-and-nasty terror seen in everything from Paranormal Activity to [REC]. Ryan’s directorial talents align with the comedy aspects of this horror-comedy, where the horror seems like a limply forced afterthought. The film’s jagged editing—when, say, possibly possessed figures yank victims out windows—hackily ruins what should be intense moments with quick-splice fast-forwards that attempt to signify glitches of a demonic presence, but are cop-out bores nonetheless.
Budget restrictions make it difficult for actors to sell whatever’s on screen, devoid of tension or adrenalized excitement. Will Martin as the affable drunkard wildman “Dew” earns scant laughs via his caveman persona—an off-putting party clown who finds it necessary to record himself pooping (a taste of the script’s signature humor). Michelle Veintimilla’s out-of-his-league girlfriend Nikki has to sell a very fake-looking skeleton as something she’s frightened of, with understandably minimal results. Daniel Rashid tries to make us laugh as the most generic knee-high-sockin’, bible-carryin’ geek caricature Tom; Maria DeCotis as techie team member Joey is mostly there to be pissed at Andy’s juvenility or provoke others. Your mileage may vary, but most performances succumb to ancillary blandness.
Mean Spirited is Madden and Ryan’s standoff of a Vlogumentary, which Ryan wins as a somewhat menacing “maybe” villain with his bleach-blonde anime imposition. Madden’s playing an irredeemable vlog host whose entire personality can be defined as “endlessly punchable,” maybe too well—Ryan’s able to sway audiences with teases of charisma followed by devious gazes, always aware of the camera’s position. Madden’s there to expose the babiest of mindsets behind online rivalries when one party wants what other, more notable creators have. It’s a chore. An intentional chore—especially considering what the finale says about being careful what you wish for—but Madden’s performance makes something like Joseph Winter’s detestable but watchable lead in Deadstream all the more miraculous.
Mean Spirited has plenty to say but never smooths a unified tone between rubber body parts being flushed down toilets and legitimate attempts to make us squeal in fear. Ryan’s genuine replication of the worst YouTube has to offer is an uncanny assault, yet justifiably presents a barrier to entry. Even after that hurdle, patience will be tested by thinly written supporting stereotypes, inadequate presentations of glancing horror blows—robed voyeurs in animal masks, red glows under doorways, blackout eye effects—and an overall cheapness that weakens the experience. Graphic overlays meant to make the camera lens look chipped and Halloween store practical effects might be specific choices to accentuate the film’s goofier tone, but unfortunately, the valley between “horror” and “comedy” is too wide to conquer.
Director: Jeff Ryan
Writer: Jeff Ryan, Joe Adams
Starring: Will Martin, Will Madden, Jeff Ryan, Michelle Veintimilla
Release Date: February 7, 2023
Matt Donato is a Los Angeles-based film critic currently published on SlashFilm, Fangoria, Bloody Disgusting, and anywhere else he’s allowed to spread the gospel of Demon Wind. He is also a member of the Hollywood Critics Association. Definitely don’t feed him after midnight.