Synopsis: After comic artist Adam responds to Internet trolls, he begins experiencing sleep paralysis. As he chronicles increasingly malevolent occurrences in a series of tweets, Adam starts to believe he is haunted by the ghost of a dead child named David.
Stars: Augustus Prew, Andrea Bang, René Escobar Jr., Cameron Nicoll, Justin Long
Director: John McPhail
Running Length: 94 minutes
TMMM Score: (5/10)
Review: If you’ve never read the infamous Twitter thread by former Buzzfeed artist Adam Ellis that went (very) viral in 2017 and inspired this new horror film, do yourself a favor and snuggle in before clicking here and catching up. It’s terrifically creepy and reads like the best campfire ghost story you can experience while lying in bed with your eyes darting to the dark corners of your room, hoping not to see a ghost appear. I had nearly forgotten all about this before I saw the trailer for Dear David, so there I was, fighting off feelings of déjà vu for most of the preview before it hit me why it was so familiar.
This isn’t the first time a Twitter thread has become the basis for a feature film; 2020’s Zola defied all naysayers to be an unexpected critical darling, so it was already proven that it could be done. Produced by Buzzfeed, where Ellis was employed when he wrote the posts, Dear David is a loose-ish expansion of what Ellis experienced, with more time to explore the supernatural elements that the author never fully explained or examined. Mixing mystery with horror puts a lot of extra weight on what began as an electric jolt of a read, and the resulting film gets some effective creep-outs in but stumbles when it attempts to dramatize real life and discoveries.
A nominally successful staffer at Buzzfeed, Ellis (Augustus Prew, Kick-Ass 2) wasn’t big on pitching the next crazy column to get the most clicks and struggled with incorporating his personal life into his work. Though an out gay man, he didn’t advertise his life through his work and instead tried to keep his personal relationships separate from his job. He is friendly with his co-workers but often at arm’s length; when he opens up in a more revealing comic, he makes the mistake of reading and responding to the comments. Though he succeeds in shutting down most of the nastiness, he draws the ire of one who appears to latch on to his digital profile.
At a low point, personally and professionally, he begins to experience debilitating sleep paralysis accompanied by visions of a child in his bedroom. Then there’s his rocking chair, which starts to have a mind of its own, creaking into motion at random intervals. Without anyone close to share this information with, he turns to what he knows best…his online platform. When his stories of haunting and sleep paralysis take off and his boss (Justin Long, Barbarian, who is seemingly everyone nowadays), the nightly terrors only intensify, and Ellis realizes there’s the possibility the boy is reaching out to him needing answers. The further Ellis digs into finding the boy’s identity, the more danger he’ll be from a vengeful entity attacking him online and IRL that may not be as otherworldly as it purports.
In 2017, director John McPhail delivered the super fun zombie Christmas musical Anna and the Apocalypse. That rollicking comedy starkly contrasts Dear David’s mostly humorless 94 minutes. While it has the required amount of jump scares and intense imagery, I never felt like McPhail or writers Evan Turner and Mike Van Waes were fully committed to making a full-on horror movie from the original thread Ellis wrote. The low budget doesn’t help matters, with more cash going into the technical elements of the piece than into the physical production values, resulting in a film that looks like it was made on a utilitarian set that could fall over if a strong gust of wind came in.
For the most part, aside from some late-breaking overzealous reactions, Prew is an engaging lead, and it’s nice to see an out gay actor playing a gay character without a bunch of fuss and muss. The rest of the cast is decidedly working on a curve, with Long convincingly playing a boss at Buzzfeed only concerned with cornering the next big story and Andrea Bang (Luce) deserving more time onscreen as a friend of Ellis who gets pushed to the side once the ghost child starts his nightly visits.
Interesting if you’ve read the original thread and would like to see how it would come to life onscreen, but perplexing in the way it has expanded on it; on second thought, Dear David might be less of a head-scratcher if you knew nothing about the original iteration before watching it. As quick, digestible entertainment that produces a few jumps and more rationale for a good night light, Dear David will do the trick but isn’t always a fulfilling treat.