Nothing beats a good ghost story. From Sixth Sense to The Others to The X-Files’ episode “How the Ghosts Stole Christmas”, these are the stories that got me into writing in the first place.
Thus it comes as no surprise that I jumped at the opportunity to watch Deadline, a haunted house movie featuring Brittany Murphy as Alice, a screenplay writer isolating herself for a week in an old, beautiful, big Victorian-style house in the middle of nowhere to finish a script before deadline. But like many writers, procrastination becomes her enemy as she sets out to explore the house. A box of home videos in the attic leads Alice to discover a love story gone wrong that the house had hosted not too long ago. And as she watches the videos, she soon comes to realise that something went horribly wrong.
What Deadline lacks in originality and plot it makes up for with a ghost story-perfect ambiance. The cinematography is impeccable; the images are striking and the lighting – or lack thereof – beautifully combines the needed darkness with just about enough light to see what’s going on. This is crucial for me, as I cannot stand scenes where you can’t see anything that’s happening — they are an easy way to create tension.
By the same token, there is only one cheap scare, although the ambiance is perfectly set for them. It’s quite impressive that the director, Sean McConville, manages to convey so much creepiness as well as manages to rattle nerves so well without cheap thrills. It underlines how this movie is really about ambiance and paranoia. While some might complain that, compared to other scary movies that were produced in the last couple of years, this one barely raises the viewers’ blood pressure, I beg to differ; what it lacks in big jumps and heart-pounding scenes, Deadline makes up for by creating a light fog of creepiness that seeps into you as you keep watching.
One weakness however is that too much emphasis is put on ambiance, and not enough on the story, including the theme of paranoia. There are many ingredients to that effect that aren’t well used. For example, Alice was, until recently, in an abusive relationship with Ben. He was recently released from jail, and the storyline implies that his obsession with Alice would make his first act out of jail that of finding her. But this plotline is barely used.
Another example is Alice’s prescription for anti-psychotic medication, which she decides not to take anymore. This sets the scene perfectly for a delusion vs. reality series of scenes, taking the viewer down a path where he or she must try to determine what’s real from what isn’t. Combined with the abusive ex-boyfriend, this plotline, if used sparingly yet consistently, could have made for even greater tension.
Being picky when it comes to haunted house movies, I usually complain that the house is ‘too’ haunted, but in this case it’s the contrary – the house isn’t haunted enough. Alice is particularly open for a haunting in that her fragile psychological state as well as her recent experiences with her ex-boyfriend Ben make her able to form an empathic bond with Lucy, the house’s ghost. Lucy, like all ghosts, wants the truth about her ‘disappearance’ to come out; however, it feels like Lucy doesn't make that much of an effort in guiding Alice to the stash of home videos, nor to the truth.
While the plot is quite predictable (you can guess what happened almost from the beginning), it's still well worth the ride. The creepy and suspenseful ambiance is brilliantly maintained by the movie’s three main strengths. First off is the amazing setting, which provides for the perfect dark and moody atmosphere for such a movie, an atmosphere that is further enhanced by an amazing soundtrack courtesy of Carlos José-Alvarez, and topped off by Brittany Murphy’s performance. While Deadline isn’t one of her best ones (that honour goes to her performance is 2001’s Don’t Say A Word), she provides a convincing tortured soul who has blocked out the recent trauma she lived at the hands of Ben.
I was hoping that the DVD would include deleted scenes or features regarding the back story, ghost stories typical of plantation houses such as the one the movie was filmed in. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much to go with, only an eight-minute long “Behind the Scenes” clip which did bring a little more understanding as to the thought process that happened before the movie was brought together by its producer, Roger Betterton.
Deadline is misclassified as a horror movie. It isn’t as much about horror as it is about psychological suspense. For viewers who typically don’t pick up horror or suspense movies because they can’t stand them, Deadline provides for a great toe-wetting experience. I also would recommend it to anyone who likes a realistic haunted house story; while the ghosts caught in the glass house in Thir13en Ghosts are obviously not real, Deadline’s ghost might make you wonder at the creaks and groans of the next old Victorian-style house you will visit.