3 out of 5 stars

I’ve never understood why Thailand is such a popular destination for tourists. It’s on par with the American South and Australian Outback for its association with the most violent crimes imaginable, usually against holidaymakers. When I was a kid, it seemed that every six months there’d be a story about a handsome young couple getting horribly murdered, or elderly expats having their skulls bounced against a cafe’s pavement. Perhaps because of the problematic racial angle involved, few mainstream horror films have ever exploited Thailand’s unfortunate dark side.

Influencer redresses that balance with its tale of a social media starlet on holiday in Thailand. Coming in at an admirably lean 92 minutes, it’s a trashy but effective psychological horror. Madison (Emily Tennant) is a British social media influencer spending a week in Thailand as her toxic boyfriend/manager Ryan (Rory J. Saper) waits in London for her to return. The early scenes are narrated by Madison in the tone of Instagram posts such influencers make to accompany shots of them ‘Eat Pray Love’-ing in exotic locales. But then Madison meets CW (Cassandra Naud), a friendly young woman who helps her out when her passport goes missing and offers to take her to a remote island…

On a big screen, Influencer’s sparse and relaxed plotting with little creative ornament would feel tedious, but it’s more watchable on Shudder’s small screen and even rises to the level of satire, sometimes evoking a surprisingly effective and menacing atmosphere. As its first half-hour drew to a close I realised it was the 21st-century equivalent of a high-concept 1980s B Movie, where simple but vivid genre ideas were executed in a slim timeframe.

It’s a little odd that the first third of Influencer is treated like a prologue, but this didn’t affect my enjoyment. The film is definitely padded and uses lots of touristy shots to fill out its runtime, but never painfully so. It’s something that, again, would feel more tedious if you were stuck in a dark auditorium watching it on a big screen. But as a Shudder original, it’s remarkably efficient and well-judged, stretching out a short film concept without snapping it.

Influencer also borrows elements from classic horror films, like subterfuge around who our protagonist is before the reveal is made. And once it comes, the reveal is chillingly evil and reminiscent of The Talented Mr Ripley (1999), though obviously not at that level of filmmaking craft. The plot as it develops follows a similar structure to the Anthony Minghella film (itself based on the Patricia Highsmith novel), using an identity theft storyline and the threat of its revelation to move things along. Shades of American Psycho (2000) also emerge in the satirical elements around influencers disappearing without a trace and no one caring; functioning like the interchangeable Wall Street bankers of Patrick Bateman’s world, only with Instagram accounts instead of business cards. There’s certainly a satirical point Influencer is making about the essentially vacuous and reproducible images that social media stars present to the world.

The film is directed by Kurtis David Harder with a crude competency, not at the level of a cinematic feature but not down in the dumps with Z-grade crud either. Its vision of Thailand is straight of a tourist brochure, almost as if Harder sat at the feet of TV holiday programme editors and loaded his film with efficient if slightly vacuous establishing shots of sandy beaches, luxury resorts, picturesque animal enclosures, etc. That said, the filmmaker’s vision of Thailand is oddly empty as a side effect of the lower budget, meaning the lack of people around the characters gives everything a cheap unreality as if it was filmed in a friend’s villa.

The acting is… reasonable. None of the cast are going to be Academy Award-winners and some struggle to sell even this basic screenplay, making a few scenes feel like plot interludes in a porno. Saper as the boyfriend is easily the worst, his lines coming out more wooden than the trees that dominate many shots. It’s also a problem that Ryan is written to be so unlikeable when, at a certain point, he has to emerge as the hero of the film. While he’s not physically abusive, the misogynistic way in which Ryan talks over his girlfriend and assumes that any problem in her life that affects him is her fault—even when it manifestly isn’t, like losing a passport to a hotel break-in—before gaslighting her with lines like “I’m only trying to help”, makes it clear he’s coercive and disrespectful. 

While I’m not a big fan of The Talented Mr Ripley, this was done much better there with Philip Seymour Hoffman’s entitled playboy character growing suspicious of Tom Ripley after Dickie Greenleaf goes missing. What Influencer needed to do was either end Ryan’s character arc sooner, as well as make it shorter (a la Miles in Ripley), or make him more of a normal boyfriend we can root for. 

Tennant is the best actor in the film, lending her character a genuine and authentic vulnerability. Naud does well as the villainous CW, although she’s not an interesting character like Ripley, Bateman, or any number of other male psychopaths in the movies. She seems to be more in the Catherine Tramell from Basic Instinct (1992) mould, though without either Tramell’s sexualisation or Stone’s devilish presence. It’s a shame she’s not given more motivation. 

The actress also has a distinctive facial birthmark and one wonders if the film’s going to use this at all—as it’s remarked upon at one point—perhaps to make a statement about how beauty standards affect women’s self-perception. It really doesn’t get into her motivation, though, besides some vague speculation about it here and there. Elsewhere, Paul Spurrier shows up as an elderly lech in a bar, looking and sounding like something out of the Are You Being Served? (1977) film where they go to the Costa Plonka, and Sara Canning plays another influencer called Jessica.

However, none of the acting is painfully bad and the performances serve the genre. There are surprisingly few schlocky touches, perhaps because the filmmakers wanted to be a little classier, or more likely didn’t have the budget for much gore. We do get one good kill, however, with the heel of a stiletto shoe. The climax of the film is also extremely implausible—as it’s beyond unnecessary for one character to go back where she does—but it does provide a certain dramatic neatness.

Overall, Influencer is smarter and better plotted than most straight-to-streaming horror. It’s not as satirical as it thinks, and the first act is where the meat of the story really is. If you turn it off just as the opening credits start to roll, you’ll have seen a surprisingly subtle and creepy short movie. But as a whole, it still engages if you’ve not got much else to watch and feel like some fun trash.

USA | 2022 | 92 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

director: Kurtis David Harder.
writers: Tesh Guttikonda & Kurtis David Harder.
starring: Emily Tennant, Cassandra Naud, Rory J. Saper & Sara Canning.