Clickbait (2019) | Directed by Sophia Cacciola, Michael J. Epstein
Written by Jeremy Long, Michael J. Epstein | Starring Colby Stewart, Brandi Aguilar, Seth Chatfield
The Oxford online dictionary defines Clickbait as: ‘material put on the internet in order to attract attention and encourage visitors to click on a link to a particular web page’.
The 2019 film directed by Sophia Cacciola and Michael J. Epstein of the same name is probably best defined as a comedy peppered with elements of horror; a parable that serves to warn us against the dangers of the dark web. The premise is clear enough- college student Bailey has been topping the ranks on a social media platform called Streaker with her video uploads. However, Little Miss Popularity has taken a blow recently thanks to one of her fellow peers whose cancer diagnosis has sent her tear inducing videos soaring with likes. Not one to settle for second best, Bailey tells her bookish roommate Emma that she has a plan to reclaim her crown on Streaker. However, what Bailey doesn’t know is that someone is stalking her with a camera. Just how far is she willing to go to usurp the throne and will her plan succeed or turn in on the fame seeker?
In tone and subject matter, Clickbait follows very closely in the footsteps of Cam, Daniel Goldhaber’s exploration of a young woman whose videos begin to exceed in the popularity stakes when her channel is overtaken by another woman. Through its use of black humour and backdrop of commercials for Toot Strudels (more of that later) Clickbait pitches itself as something approaching the darkly comic whilst also seeking to comment on the role media plays in society at large. Bailey, a beautiful, young, carefree and somewhat nihilistic character who for all her flaws is compelling to watch due to Amanda Colby Stewart’s performance rather than the script or direction. With her confidence and self-obsessive nature, she reminded me of the predatory Lola in Sean Byrne’s 2009’s superb The Loved Ones, a must for any fans of Aussie horror. ‘Bailey Nation’ (exemplifying her self-love) is how she greets her viewers as she berates her friend Emma (who stands behind the camera) for her studiousness. If we didn’t get it by now, the film provides us with an insight into how the world views these two friends (and that’s friends with a small ‘f’) through their costume choices for an impending Halloween party; Bailey is a Princess whilst Emma is a giant poop!
After losing her streak to Laura, Bailey begins to lose not just her fanbase but her love interests who reject her without a second thought which only serves to heighten her determination for the number one spot. She can at times be a character we root for and empathize with (such as when she tells a potential boyfriend: ‘you don’t own the legal rights to being a fucking dickhead’) but conversely we see her issue put downs to her roommate Emma; it’s easy to believe Bailey has befriended her simply to feel better about herself.
Cacciola and Epstein are clearly horror-literate as there are nods from everything to Giallo via the inclusion of tight black gloves, while the heavy breathing point of view shots of the stalker and repetitive synthy soundtrack are both reminiscent of John Carpenter’s Halloween. Sound is often utilised with impressive results such as the reoccurring thud of a heartbeat; a reflection of the opening credits which show a changing graph while the ventilator beeps relentlessly in the background. A motif explored but not thoroughly developed is the appearance of a Donald Trump mask; a shorthand for fear itself in addition to surveillance, social media and fake news.
As the stalker closes in graduating from posting videos of Emma and Bailey to entering their apartment and attacking them, the tension doesn’t build as steadily as it should. This is owing to the girl’s reaction which feels disappointingly flat and the change in dynamic once they decide to involve the authorities and a Police Officer becomes the film’s third integral character. With lines such as ‘I’m here to look for clues, if the underwear being sexy is a clue I need to know about it’ and: ‘do you want me to take your underwear into evidence?’ the tone descends into soft porn territory rather than horror.
However, the film tries hard to be creative and to its merit achieves this to a large degree, such as in Emma’s dream sequences where Bailey is chased by an assailant with a knife, and the satirical Toot Strudel Adverts. For clarity, Toot Strudels are toasted snacks (similar to Pop Tarts) and adverts featuring the product are used as scene dividers throughout the film. Some of these are lightly amusing, some are annoying and some are quite frankly strange but there are far too many of these ‘inserters’ which seemingly have no other purpose or significance.
When we reach the final act there are an adequate number of twists which are both conceivable and nicely paced in their reveal. Although the film looks polished and professional for the most part, there are a handful of scenes which perhaps should not have made the final cut. It would be fair to say that there are some performances that need honing but thankfully in Bailey, Amanda Colbly Stewart outshines the rest and is both engaging and believable. In the short running time (80 minutes) there is evidence of solid ideas that have been carefully considered but unfortunately everything does not quite come together in the overall execution. As a small fish in a big pond of horror movies, if you are a fan of films that examine clickbait culture and enjoy low budget horror this will no doubt have something to offer, just don’t expect it in spades.