What’s scarier than the serial murder of powerless puppers? The plutocratic dynamics of our celebrity-obsessed society! Shook, Shudder’s latest horror flick, places this question and answer at the fore of its story. When Mia (Daisye Tutor), a social media make-up artist, dog-sits for her big sister Nicole (Emily Goss) after a high-profile spree of serial dog-murders, a mysterious caller (who sounds a lot like Joel McHale but isn’t Joel McHale) coerces Mia into playing a series of games in order to stop the murders of her loved ones and save the family dog. You read that correctly.
While on the surface, Shook may appear to be a smaller-scale, Saw-esque moralistic horror movie, the film expands its gaze outside of the central framework of the game. The fear factor comes from the lengths characters go to virtue signal, gain internet attention and perform wealth, not merely from the stakes of Mia’s ability to save her friends and sister’s dog, Chico. Shook’s intriguing premise and technical choices purposefully enhance its thematic musings. Mia spends a majority of Shook home alone, but her use of social media both inserts realism and creates an empty-yet-populated spatial feeling that the film’s critiques highlight. Tutor, for her part, emotes like a champ—which is especially impressive considering she spends the majority of the film’s 90 minutes running up and down the stairs and crying at her cellphone screen. The film’s synth-heavy soundtrack sonically reinforces this technology-centric storytelling and left me repeatedly asking, “....is that LCD Soundsystem?” But be forewarned the film’s body horror and bevy of narrative twists may leave some viewers nauseous and—dare I say—shaken.
Shook opens with a red carpet event. A gaggle of social media starlets pose for photos in front of what appears to be a crowd of paparazzi. Mia enthusiastically champions Sekani cosmetics, the beauty brand hosting the event. Between the flashing lights and the luxury aesthetic, the audience is led to infer that Mia is the real deal. Then we zoom out. What appeared to be an exclusive brand launch event is actually taking place in the parking lot behind some warehouse. Sure, the camera people are real, as is the red carpet. But Mia’s adjacency to celebrity is shown to be garnered through a series of well-choreographed flexes. She and two other influencers are being photographed by a dozen photographers, tops, and there is no real event. In fact, nothing real seems to be taking place at all.
This opening sequence is an effective snapshot of Shook. For the duration of the film, Mia is forced to confront her prioritization of increased social media attention and the way it eclipses her commitment to her loved ones—her commitment to real social relationships. For example, Nicole and her late mother have Livingston’s Disease, a fictional illness that causes a deterioration of motor functions, nerve damage and reduced quality of life. It is revealed that the strain in Mia’s relationship with her sister comes from Mia’s preoccupation with social media and history of neglect towards their mother in the months prior to her death. The mysterious caller who stalks Mia uses this information against her. An additional example of Mia’s shortcoming: She only chooses to dog-sit when a prominent puppy-wielding influencer is murdered by the serial-dog killer. A supposed act of solidarity, spending an evening in with little Chico, is yet another selfish behavior that she thinks will buttress her brand.
Shook’s slaps of criticism—of internet obsession and celebrity culture—mostly work, in part due to their complexity and thoroughness. What’s especially compelling about the film’s critique of social media is the way it simultaneously lambasts the selfishness and patterns of inconsideration people adopt to achieve internet fame, while also contextualizing why the interpersonal rewards for a following are attractive. When Mia’s friends Lani (Nicole Posener) and Jade (Stephani Simbari) and her boyfriend Santi (Octavius J. Johnson) encourage her to ditch Chico and meet up with them instead, she declines. Good girl. But Mia heavily monitors their social broadcasts so that she can simulate the feeling of participation. Here we get a glimpse at the less vainglorious pull of social media: It amplifies a person’s existence, but in doing so enables unprecedented, borderline voyeuristic access to others.
The anxiety Mia gets from her FOMO, and the lingering suspicion that Santi is cheating on her with Lani, is reinforced through some choice visual effects. When Mia feels anxious during a conversation, the audience is shown the messages on her phone screen, but those messages are also projected behind her on the wall—sometimes they creep along the bedsheets or the surface of a decorative pillow. It’s a small but consistent decision throughout the film that visually reinforces how invasive and anxiety-inducing social media can be, even for social media influencers. While this is one of Shook’s sharpest elements, sometimes these effects land in a way that feels comical rather than foreboding. For example, during one intense sequence, a video of a tormented Nicole is projected through a door frame at an angle that makes her look like one of the protoplasmic heads from 2003’s live action Scooby-Doo.
Clearly, if Shook needed anything, it’s greater subtly. There are moments when the film’s critiques are blared rather than creepily whispered to the audience. Its overtness does not wholly undercut the places where the film succeeds, but it did leave me wondering how frightening Mia’s journey might have been had dialogue been more sparse in certain consequential moments; how savvy it would’ve been if the film trusted the audience enough to see the ooze of vainglory rather than repeatedly naming it for us. Furthermore, some of Shook’s gruesome turns, which rely on a kind of body horror aimed at replicating disability, land complicatedly. I could not decide if the close-up shots of pin-prick needle repeatedly entering skin, of mutilation and self-harm, were useful plot-propelling acts of violence which enhanced the film’s exploration of disability and neglect, or if these moments felt more ickily exploitational—mere markers of horror.
Despite Shook’s occasional heavy-handedness, the film mostly reaches the glaring social critiques its strains for. If you can put up with substitute social media app interfaces and won’t whimper at fuzzy images of brutalized doggos, Shook is worth a shot. The universality of selfishness within the film’s characters tints Shook with effective grey and dark blue emotional tones that conjure that kind of unsettled, sickly feeling I get when I watch HBO’s murder-centric dark comedy Search Party for too long. This discomfort, further enhanced by the film’s intermittent non-resolution, gloomy terror and barely lamp-lit dark rooms make Shook a fun, genuinely frightening immersion into the dreadful world of social media.
Director: Jennifer Harrington
Writer: Jennifer Harrington
Stars: Daisye Tutor, Emily Goss, Nicola Posener, Octavius J. Johnson, Stephanie Simbari, Grant Rosenmeyer, Genelle Seldon
Release Date: February 18, 2021 (Shudder)
Adesola Thomas is a screenwriter and culture writer. She loves talking about Annette Benning’s performance in 20th Century Women and making lasagna. You can follow her on Twitter.