Far more than the broken bones, bloody noses, night terrors and busted-up demon children, the thing that frightens me most about Dear David is becoming the villain in Adam Ellis’s head.
That’s because the new horror — sprung straight from the mind and Twitter (the website now begrudgingly called X) thread of the above-mentioned cartoonist — exists less to thrill audiences than it likely does for Ellis’s own peace of mind.
Using a cobbled-together premise more unbelievable and less coherent than if the Cats movie was also pitched as a true story, Dear David disappoints in what it seems to try to do. Instead of mining a potentially interesting experience for more and deeper scares, this adaptation was apparently made expressly to get back at Ellis’s doubters — and his critics.
That’s not to say those themes were championed by Ellis himself, but they are hard to ignore with the route this tale took for the film.
Even after parlaying that success into a job at Buzzfeed, what really launched the popular webcomic artist’s cultural cachet was Dear David — in its first appearance as a Twitter thread about his experiences with nightmares, sleep paralysis and the eponymous supernatural force with a partially dented head.
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That thread, which ran for months and even featured a drawing of the demon in question, had everything it needed to reach creepypasta legend — an internet-based horror subgenre designed to be shared repeatedly and at least partially believed, which already spawned the (superior in every way) horror series Channel Zero. With semi-plausible pictures showing shadowy figures, spooky yet indecipherable recordings and an arbitrarily strict set of rules around asking Dear David two (never three!) questions, it quickly gained hundreds of thousands of likes sustained over months of posting.
But where Ellis’s original tweets were little more than a collage of semi-spooky observations of a settling house and the nonsensical behaviour of his cats, the project jointly produced by Lionsgate, and unsurprisingly Buzzfeed Studios, injects more of a story — both into David’s backstory, and, more tellingly, Ellis’s.
Because while Dear David is brave (unlike Exorcist: Believer and What Comes Later) in being one of the only productions to dare go up against Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour at the box office this week, its addition of plot reads like a self-insert therapy exercise.
Here, long before ever being haunted by ghosts, Ellis is haunted by trolls. Played by Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power‘s Augustus Prew, our big-screen cartoonist similarly draws, works at BuzzFeed and eventually encounters a spooky circumstance that derails his life. But first, we see him taking to Twitter, compulsively seeking out the few negative comments among a sea of compliments.
And even as his co-workers give the useful advice to not “feed the trolls,” we see Ellis slip further and further into the habit of sparring with accounts that can collectively be described as firstname bunchofnumbers.
It’s all loosely mirrored in David’s parallel origin story — which involves an unfortunate child cyberbullied with some of the most hilariously awkward dialogue written outside of an Archie comic — and the finale, which involves the unbelievably heavy-handed metaphor of a kill using a wifi router.
Combined with wooden lines (“Say goodnight to your cyber-friends,” and his boyfriend’s ham-fisted relationship metaphor: “We gotta maintain full signal between us or the call gets dropped,” are among my favourites) and a convoluted plot that skips between horror genres without ever landing on one long enough to build suspense, there’s little scaffolding to hold up this cautionary tale.
Trolling the trolls
And though, according to director John McPhail, Ellis himself had relatively little to do with the final story, it feels like he and its writers harkened too far into Ellis’s own life as a building block for the movie’s centre. Because while we often gravitate to horror for the novelty of experiencing danger you’re pretty much guaranteed to survive, some of the most well-worn — and expected — tropes in the genre surround punishment.
From classics I Know What You Did Last Summer, to Friday the 13th, to the more recent IT, Hereditary, Final Destination and Knock at the Cabin, these movies set up the gore as a consequence of something its characters did — especially if those characters are women, people of colour or gay.
And as our genuine monster-tale is continually interrupted by a barrage of profanity-filled comments no more evil than what we’d encounter scrolling down the average YouTube page, it feels more like that’s what the movie wants to be about: the trolls punished for trolling, and Ellis for daring to challenge them.
The problem, though, is how Dear David chooses to frame it. Because if we’re here to vilify the trolls, we would need to have a character who is actually punished — which is very obviously missing here. And if it were to punish Ellis, we’d need the horror side of the story to take precedence — and maybe for Ellis to not still be engaging with trolls to this day.
Instead, the scares are so light it’s hard to believe this movie is anything but an op-ed about how hard it is to be Adam Ellis — the supernatural horror element just gilding over a very-special-episode about why you shouldn’t have posted that comment to him. And even taking the horror at face value, it’s still too neatly packaged and cartoonish to feel scary — as is generally the case with what Ellis has largely been putting out as artsy horror content since he left Buzzfeed four years ago.
Though drawn with stellar talent, both the story and the style come off as trying too hard to convince you of the uncanny than actually exhibiting it. Like how Heath Ledger depiction of the Joker had an effortlessness quality that gives genuine chills while Jared Leto’s just felt like an over-enthusiastic cosplay, the horror here is trying much too hard to unsettle anyone. If something like artist Junji Ito’s horror rawness is on one end of the spectrum, Ellis’s corporatized Buzzfeed work is right next to CalArts and JibJab.
It is all on top of a plot that immediately falls apart given a second’s thought, and an underlying message that rivals The Conjuring as a defence for conspiracy theories and the paranormal. And while a journalist of all people understands how difficult it is to receive hate comments, death threats and unmediated criticism for your work, there’s still probably not a horror movie’s worth of content to make out of it.