Directed by Antoine Le. Screenplay by Todd Klick.
Starring Matthew Solomon, John Savage, Tim Drier, Sam Valentine, Caitlin Grace, Kelsey Griswold, Christopher Ross Martin, Sarah Chang, Karan Sagoo, & Ethan Alexander.
Branded Pictures Entertainment / Viscape Arts
Rated R / 96 minutes
Horror / Mystery / Thriller
★★ (out of ★★★★★)
DISCLAIMER: The following essay contains SIGNIFICANT SPOILERS!
I have to start off by saying that Followed is not a good film, in my opinion. The story and plot are a convoluted mess that never quite comes together enough by the end. The main character is meant to be unlikable, but he surpasses unlikeability and transcends loathing. Despite my negative thoughts about the overall quality of the film there are themes in the screenplay worth pulling out to analyse at length.
Mike (Matthew Solomon) is a vlogger who goes by the name DropTheMike on YouTube and other social media. His significant other Jess (Kelsey Griswold) doesn’t particularly love his line of work, given that Mike is less than sensitive to the true crime subjects he seems to favour. That doesn’t stop him from going to one of the most haunted hotels in America, the Hotel Lennox, dragging along his friends Chris (Tim Drier), Dani (Sam Valentine), and Nick (Caitlin Grace) as his crew. Not long after they check in things get strange. Then they go from strange to dangerous, as secrets of the hotel and Mike’s own personal history come to light.
Forget all the judgements if you don’t like the film— to each their own, I don’t like it, either. Just think about the themes writer Todd Klick works into the screenplay. Mike is a total asshole whose friends don’t even like being around him half of the time. His bad attitude towards true crime, and his equally condescending tone with his channel’s subscribers are actually reflective of internet/social media culture today. We’ve seen plenty of rightful push back against true crime exploitation, between all the Netflix docuseries’ and podcasts based on, usually, murdered women. Mike’s journey in the haunted hotel sort of brings him to a realisation about his own attitude. Except by then it may be all for nought.
Followed gets into true crime metafiction with the Hotel Lennox standing in for the Cecil Hotel with references to Richard Ramirez— turned into David Olmos in the film— and Elisa Lam— fictionalised as Meghan Kim. The Cecil was similar inspiration for Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s American Horror Story: Hotel. It’s interesting that Ramirez and Lam are leaned on so heavily throughout Followed, given that the only thing the film has going for it is its confrontation of true crime ethics. This is the one thing that hinders the film’s potentially smart look at the way true crime’s treated online as an entertainment industry unto its own.
What’s very interesting, and telling, is how Mike acts nonchalant about true crime and victims. He’s often making fun or mocking victims until he discovers he has a personal connection to a horrific piece of crime history. Then he suddenly feels differently, showing how hypocritical he is about crime— the typical white male perspective, that crime doesn’t matter until it happens to ME. At first he’s despicably offensive in how he treats serial murder and the victims of it, introducing us to his dog J. Dahmer (named after serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer) and jokingly asking the dog to an “impression of a strangulation victim” while making choking noises before chuckling. That’s why it’s so perfect in the end when Terrible Tyler and the next generation of shitty, insensitive YouTubers with bad attitudes towards true crime take up where Mike left off. DropTheMike deserves nothing less, honestly.
The disrespect Mike has for his audience and his channel’s topic strikes me as deeply reflective of today’s horror industry, and how many critics, even filmmakers who make horror, seem to look down on the genre. Most recently Jay Baruchel included an extremely pretentious statement in the press kit for his film Random Acts of Violence, in which he proceeded to tear down the horror genre and boasted that his film was the one to ‘fix’ horror (instead it reinforced most of what he was apparently attempting to ‘fix’). People want to shit all over horror, at least until a Hereditary or The Witch or The Silence of the Lambs comes along. Then those same critics/filmmakers trip over themselves to call it anything but plain ole horror, whether ‘elevated horror’ or something equally foolish. Mike epitomises 21st-century internet famous behaviour, believing himself to be a star because of his YouTube channel. He makes fun of his ‘fans’ and insults their intelligence, as well as the fact he assumes they’re all virgins, because that’s like the bargain basement of insults thrown towards people who frequently use the internet. And still, there are far worse things about Mike than his contempt for the people who help him make ad revenue.
The most despicable thing about Mike is his treatment of the houseless people they encounter on the way to and at the Hotel Lennox. It’s reminiscent of another recent film, Murder Death Koreatown, in which the protagonist likewise treats the houseless with contempt and barely veiled disdain. While Mike and his crew are driving to the hotel, they encounter a squeegee guy trying to wash their windows and rather than toss a few cents to him Mike shoos him away like an insect, prompting the man to tell him: “I hope you die.” They see another houseless man on the way and Mike makes a snide remark to his friends about what they could pay him to do, clearly thinking of degrading the guy for entertainment.
The only houseless person Mike encounters that he’s even a little civil to is a woman in an alley behind the hotel. He tries to get her to talk to them about the place. It’s only when a houseless person is of use to Mike that he considers talking to them like a human being. Ironically, after all is said and done and the Hotel Lennox’s spirits have tortured the crew, Mike decides to do a documentary on houseless people, as if it’ll somehow erase all the nastiness and the destructive effect he’s had on everyone around him, including himself. But it’s too little too late.
It isn’t easy to write a film essay or review about a film you don’t particularly enjoy. That being said, Followed does have some great stuff going on, despite the fact it can’t quite come together as a strong story. One of the biggest reasons it can’t is that Mike has no likeable qualities, whatsoever. I love a film with a protagonist who isn’t easy to like— half of the ‘gritty crime dramas’ out there these days have leads who are difficult, flawed humans. Stories don’t require perfect, likeable characters to be great. But a character, especially a protagonist at the centre of a story, has to have a modicum of likeable qualities. Otherwise horror just becomes sadism when all we want is the main character to die. It’s the same in slashers where all the characters are horrible people and we’re waiting out the running time until we can see each of them sliced and diced. Mike’s brief redemption at the end means little to nothing because he’s such a piece of shit most of us are waiting to see him get what’s coming to him.
Where Followed succeeds is in its depiction of true crime and influencer culture. So many (white) people indulge true crime as entertainment, rather than a chance to learn or achieve justice for the dead. So many (white) people who make true crime podcasts/docuseries'(etc) focus on entertainment value rather than thinking about how they’ll affect the families of victims involved. Mike is a symptom of all this, encompassing the worst aspects of YouTubers, social media influencers, and true crime filmmakers. If there’s any sort of lesson to be learned here it’s that life catches up with you, whether in the form of legitimate personal growth, self-destruction, or the ghoulish spirits of a haunted hotel. I don’t believe in karma, but either way, you do get what you give. One way or another.