Mesmerizing. Disturbing. Haunting. Creepy.
All of these words can be used to describe Deadgirl, a film that is so much better than I was expecting. Actually, I am not quite sure what I was expecting when I sat down to watch this. The premise alone is more than enough to garner interest from the curious horror crowd and some controversy from the press. To put it simply, two teenage boys go to an abandoned mental hospital to skip class. While they are there they discover a naked woman tied to a gurney. There is something wrong with her as she does not speak and stares at them with blank eyes. The discussion is whether to get the authorities or to keep her. They choose the latter. This decision sends them down a dark path that will forever change them.
There is something about the way this movie plays with themes of power, control, and friendship. On top of that, it also plays out a little like a coming of age tale. Two aimless boys have their lives toyed with by their inability to deal with the situation. The male ego and libido are dissected in a way that could not have been done in a non-genre film. The zombie/horror element lends itself to new opportunities. What would be unacceptable, nigh unthinkable, in a straight drama becomes disturbing and haunting, not to mention perfectly acceptable in what has the surface shine of a horror film.
Deadgirl begins during a fire drill at a high school. Two students, Rickie (Shiloh Fernandez) and JT (Noah Segan), decide to skip the rest of school. They head off to a long abandoned mental hospital where they proceed to pull out the beers and smokes. Their adventures take them to the tunnels beneath the building. Well, you know what happens here. The duo find the woman shackled, devoid of clothes, and covered with a plastic sheet.
JT decides, over Rickie's objections, to keep her. Each day they visit the remote room where they proceed to rape her repeatedly. If she gets a little too frisky they just punch her in the head. She keeps coming back for more. As time passes Rickie's conscience begins to kick in, which brings him to blows with JT. Eventually, word gets around school about what is going on in those long-empty corridors. We all know that the more people who know about something like this, the quicker something will happen to bring it crashing down. When that crashing moment comes, it will leave you shaken, with the final moments seared into your mind.
The story is fairly simple and straightforward. What makes it work so well is the way the characters are handled. They are not the brightest bulbs in the box but they are not treated like idiots. They are somewhat complex individuals and to watch them deal with the situation and how it changes them is fascinating.
What may be even more disturbing is that the filmmakers do nothing to hint at why the girl is there, who she is, or what happened to her. A good number of zombie films will spend some of their running time explaining where the zombies came from or at least pay it lip service. Deadgirl does none of it. That is not what this story is about. Deadgirl is more about the living characters, with the titular zombie being the chosen mode of transportation.
Take Rickie, your hero character. He is the one with the conscience. Rickie is the one with reservations, but goes along with JT out of loyalty to his best friend. It is a decision that weighs on him. Did he make the right decision? We all know he didn't. Rickie finally realizes too, and moves to make amends.
JT, on the other hand, takes his friend's loyalty for granted and is much more interested in control, power, and status. His "possession" of the chained girl gives him a sense of purpose. We only get references to his home life, but it is clear that he does not have much in the way of guidance. Now he has a direction, a purpose, and he will defend it against everyone.
The supporting cast is filled with the necessary bullies and outcasts who challenge Rickie and JT. They are not nearly as fleshed out, but they all serve the purpose of building the drama between our main two boys.
Now, I would be remiss if I did not mention Jenny Spain. Jenny Spain plays the title character. She has no dialogue, but there is something in how she plays the role. She gives Deadgirl character. There is substance behind the eyes. Profound sadness. Evil. Maternal instinct. So many ways to describe the character. It is a fearless performance — after all, she spends the entire film naked and dirty.
The film was written by Trent Haaga, who got his start back in 2000 with Citizen Toxie: The Toxic Avenger IV. He has crafted a fascinating tale that could probably be expanded into a wonderful novel. The dialogue has a certain flow and sounds real. Yes, there is a lot of repetition of things like character names and "man" to end sentences, but it feels genuine to the characters.
Deadgirl's director credit is shared by Marcel Sarmiento and Gadi Harel. The two do a good job of marrying horror movie sensibilities with an indie aesthetic. They show just enough to get the imagination going while keeping a steady pace that is never boring. Beyond that, they ratchet up the insanity as we near the climax before bringing it back down for a haunting conclusion.
Audio/Video. The image is presented in its original 2.35:1 ratio and looks good, for the most part. While the image is always clear, it does get a little grainy during the many dark sequences and detail is lost. The colors are also quite muted, likely by design, but they could have used a touch more saturation.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 track is decent. The film is dialogue-heavy, so it is very front-centric. The surrounds are not all that active. Overall, it is a good track that accurately conveys what is going on.
Extras. Nothing. That's right, nothing. It turns out Dark Sky Films released two versions, the stripped down, R-rated theatrical cut and a more elaborate unrated director's cut. The director's cut includes a commentary, behind the scenes featurette, deleted scenes, and trailers. I wonder what they are like? I also wonder how different the film is? Perhaps one day I will find out.
Bottom line. Rated or not, this is a fascinating film that will surely reveal more upon multiple viewings. As it is, I found the film to haunting, it really grabs your attention and does not let go. It is really disturbing. In a good way.