Writer and director Kurtis David Harder impressed a few years back with the queer folk horror Spiral. His latest, Influencer, retains his patient approach to genre filmmaking, but is a step up in its storytelling and direction. While the ubiquity of social media has led to an inevitable glut of films centring the perils of being (often literally) terminally online – Ingrid Goes West, Host, Sissy, and Deadstream being notable recent examples – there seems to be a general trend towards satire in the treatment of the subject. Influencer bucks this trend in favour of a restrained but doom-laden psychodrama that foregrounds character, even as it keeps their motivations opaque.

Social media influencer Madison (Emily Tennant) is adrift in Thailand after her boyfriend Ryan (Rory J Saper) backs out of the trip at the last moment. Drowning her sorrows a the bar, she meets the confident, enigmatic CW (Cassandra Naud) who saves her from some unwanted male attention and tells her she’ll show her a more authentic experience. The two bond quickly as CW shows Madison the sites away from the beaten track and the omnipresent pull of a wi-fi signal. But it soon become clear that CW has other designs on Madison, and the reluctant solo traveler discovers her existential isolation has also become geographical and she may be in real danger.

Influencer is one of those pleasurable experiences that teases a variety of directions and delights in wrongfooting its audience. Harder fortunately has a tight grip of the reins and its patient, grounded approach keeps its wilder narrative twists well within a heightened but plausible reality. The rest of the slack is taken up by some excellent performances. Tennant is great at the abrupt switch from psychotically perky blogger to disillusioned, lonely and vulnerable young woman, and Sarah Canning impresses as a more grizzled and cynical social media veteran. But Influencer really belongs to Cassandra Naud with a serpentine performance that raises three questions about CW for every one that gets answered as the film progresses. This may be frustrating for some – is a character study successful if we can’t get a handle on the character? – but this ambiguity fits beautifully with the commensurate tone of the film, and its undeniably exhilarating to watch.

The emptiness of internet fame and a life lived at the mercy of online likes is as blunt as thematic concerns get, but there are wider ideas at work in Influencer. There is an exploration of beauty standards, the morality of technology, what constitutes an authentic life, the subtle power dynamics in romantic relationships and the almost imperceptible abuses therein, and even a sneaky socio-economic critique in its choice of location. Influencer is filmed (beautifully by DP David Schuurman) in Bangkok, yet indigenous faces are few and far between. While this seems odd at first, Harder not only avoids the trope of western protagonists at the mercy of sinister locals, but indicates that this ‘authentic’ Thailand is nothing more than a playground for the wealthy, out of the reach of most of Thailand’s actual residents. It’s a subtle point, but one that adds further complexity to the shifting sympathies the film evokes in the viewer.

While Influencer is sweetly plotted, blessed with as crisp a three-act demarcation as you’ll see, there is the occasional instance of lag. As Rory J Saper’s Ryan becomes more prominent as his concern for Madison brings him to the island, the sudden focus on him playing detective makes one bracingly aware that neither the character nor the performer are a match for the film’s shining female triumvirate. Thankfully it isn’t long before Naud is back to carry it home; although who gets to return home is left in the air until the very end.

Undoubtedly more of a psychological thriller than a straight up horror, Influncer‘s eschewal of the broader comedic sweep and slapstick gore of many of its similarly themed contemporaries makes it a distinctive and fascinating proposition. It’s full-blooded when it needs to be – there is one horribly potent moment of offscreen violence that triggers traumatic echoes of that scene in American History X, for example – but its focus is on mutable storytelling and its atmosphere of nebulous menace. It’s so light-footed you never get a sure handle of what will happen next. Yet as good as the script is, and Harder’s direction, and the lustrous cinematography that shows how gorgeous a film can look despite limited means, it’s Cassandra Naud who leaves the biggest impression in what should, if there is any justice, be a star-making turn.

Screening on Shudder from Fri May 26 2023