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Movie Review: Deadgirl
In its conception, Deadgirl plays like a long lost Twilight Zone episode, revolving around the perfect kind of conflicted fall guys who make questionable moral choices as influenced by certain dark forces. The difference, of course, is that Deadgirl is fucking perverted.
Playing hooky one sunny afternoon in Nowheresville, USA, high school juniors J.T. (Noah Segan) and Rickie (Shiloh Fernandez) decide the best place to take cover from the sun while they polish off their brews is the local abandoned mental hospital. Every town has one, right? The boys eventually find themselves prying open a rusted-shut door in the bowels of the hospital's basement to uncover an unexpected surprise. There they find a woman wrapped plastic, completely naked and chained to a bed. She appears dead...but not really. In a somewhat state of decomposition, her eyes rusted around the edges with blood, she writhes and moans like a drugged animal. Meet Deadgirl (Jenny Spain). Rickie desperately wants to call the cops, but J.T....well, let's just say he has other ideas.
Rickie wants no part in this, and leaves Deadgirl to the whims of J.T. Soon uncomfortable with his private copulations, J.T. enlists the spaced-out Wheeler (Eric Posnard) as company. One thing leads to another, and soon others are brought into the Deadgirl's lair, with various results. Rickie remains haunted by his infatuation with popular girl and childhood sweetheart Joanne (Candice Accola), his sensitivity constantly pitting him against the ever-more unhinged J.T., who quickly reinvents himself as makeshift pimp of the Deadgirl. In filling his role, J.T.'s capacity to care, as illustrated with creepiness as he tenderly applies makeup to the girl, contrasts sharply with his violent objectification, which finds him thrusting a machete into the Deadgirl's head for no other reason than to more easily prop up her head. This is Rickie's story, however, his dreams and fantasies fully explored, and thus in the end finds this display of madness come back onto him, full circle.
This premise, almost overly simplistic in its initial set-up, graces the screen with the subtly and sophistication of a hammer to the face. J.T., the town psychopath, wants to use the Deadgirl as his plaything; Rickie, the class romantic, wants to save her. Conflict ensues. Suffice to say, the first act of Deadgirl is not promising. The gee-whiz dialogue, too perfect delineations between "jock" and "outsider", and greaser appearance of the two leads establishes a milieu so cliché one wonders if it's intentional 50s-style camp. J.T.'s quick descent into psychopathery is so smooth one can actually hear the screenwriter's gears turning in the background. But a funny thing happened on the way to fucking a (technically speaking) corpse. At a certain point Deadgirl finds its footing and spins itself into an absolutely bat-shit insane, yet alarmingly compelling and intelligent study of the male's uneasy relationship to its Id, peering into a certain dark corner of a 17 year old's sexual angst with open eyes. Deadgirl falters somewhat as it leads us towards a deconstruction of female objectification, as the sexual campaigns against the woman remain aloof and ragged. But it isn't a matter of the film losing its nerve, not forging ahead to speak to an obvious message that it already casts aside through it's depiction of a rabid dog's demise, but rather what it's setting us up for. Where the film unexpected goes is in its look into just how twisted the male fantasy can be, especially when coming into its own in a 17 year old's mind. It's the age when one can consider that the fear, confusion, and insecurity involved with the act of sex pales in comparison with the road it takes to get there. For a dreamer like Rickie, all he wants to do is the right thing. Unfortunately, the right thing can be as problematic an act as the wrong thing. Late in the film Rickie's mother's boyfriend Clint (Michael Bowen) confesses that he oftentimes wishes he were still 15. When Rickie disappointedly tells him he's 17, Clint merely repeats his sentiment.
The performances range from good to adequate, with Segan particularly strong after his transformation into pimp of the underworld. While it's more abrupt than it probably should be, he builds a momentum with his character in step with the narrative, channeling a fast-twitch frenzy that keeps in pace with the film's downward spiral. A note must be made for the completely thankless but absolutely imperative performance of Jenny Spain as the Deadgirl. Much of the film's power, and what keeps many scenes on the right side of disaster, is derived from her uncanny ability to create a feeling of undead ennui. Through a squint of her eyes and a curl of her lip, this "character" is able to veer from aloof sadness to feral impulsiveness, all with a cheeky mysteriousness that resembles sexy just enough to keep the film believable. She is, in a sense, playing an animal, and is able to fully inhabit that vibe of inhuman wildness and unpredictability. With a lesser performance the film would have fallen completely flat, creating a domino affect that would leave every scene as an unbelievable, misguided mess. While she clearly won't win an Oscar for the role, she most certainly deserves a mention on year end lists for a fearless performance both minimal in form but visceral in impact.
Shot with low-budget angst, directors Marcel Sarmiento and Gadi Harel clearly want to stress the importance of this film, what with all the interludes of isolated streetlights and ominous skies. The film remains completely uneven, however, veering sometimes in the same scene from melodramatic angst to absurdist slapstick humor to blood spattering horror. At times it feels amateur in execution, yet the extreme inconsistency in tone is almost fitting for a story that is as unconventional as this one. It's impossible to play everything that happens straight, and Sarmiento and Harel roll with the punches of Trent Haaga's strangely ambitious screenplay. If the film doesn't go far enough in exploring its base themes, it at least offers entertaining insanity in its wake. It is a shame, however, that the film ultimately feels as if a tad bit too much was left on the table, missing the opportunity to more cuttingly link the themes lurking underneath with the narrative on screen. What we're left with is something that falls far short of the twisted existential masterpiece it was consciously shooting for (think a more unhinged but less classical, male-centric take on May), but still remains as one of those rare films where you can honestly say you have no idea what's going to come next.
Review by Michael Cuculich
Deadgirl is available on DVD tomorrow.