Before watching DEADGIRL I was reading a recap at EvilOnTwoLegs.com of Fangoria’s most recent Weekend of Horrors in NYC. Jon was recounting actors and directors across multiple panels who all lamented America’s new remake fueled industry, an industry that leaves no room for risk taking. Well I hope someone gives the original cast of LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT a copy of Marcel Armiento and Gadi Harel’s DEADGIRL, which is exactly the kind of film the industry doesn’t have room for any more, a film from the independent sector gambling for notoriety with nothing to lose.
And notoriety is precisely what DEADGIRL found on the festival circuit and is bound to find in the years to come. What else can filmmakers expect when they make a movie about two high school aged outcasts, Rickie and JT, who find the naked and bound body of a pretty girl in the basement of an abandoned insane asylum. Soon discovering that the pretty girl is a pretty undead girl, the degenerate boys take advantage of the situation. Undeterred by her lack of a pulse, dead girl’s body becomes their private adolescent play ground.
I don’t think I need to explain the risks involved with such a film. I also don’t think I need to explain that I’m having a hard time conjuring up a more misogynistic horror film than DEADGIRL. Sarmiento and Harel have no agenda other than to push buttons, to get people talking about their manifested controversy. I cannot fault an agenda of this sort as it cuts to the core of what all horror movies aspire to do, particularly since few recent American titles with actual talent behind the camera have yearned so deeply for the grunge and the grime as DEADGIRL. But simply reaching the end of an agenda does not guarantee that something special has been accomplished.
DEADGIRL has an obvious strategy and a campaign to reach it staffed with admirable performances, great makeup and a measured hand to pull the wool over the audience’s eyes, but it doesn’t have a point. It’s a well crafted but hollow repulsion, the film equivalent of chugging ipecac on an empty stomach.
The obvious obstacle is how divisive the premise is. If you’re going to push as far into the dark as raping, and eventually pimping out, a dead girl, you damn well better have a reason outside of exhibition. There must be a moral compass to push back towards the light, to give the sick imagery some perspective. But there’s no perspective to DEADGIRL. All of the men are scumbags, all of the women are victims. Victimizing women may be misogynistic on its own, but making matters even worse is the fact that Trent Haaga’s script stages all of its feminine characters as victims due to their own weaknesses. Even the deadgirl, whose only instinct is to eat flesh, ends up being subservient to her master JT at one point in the movie, as if to suggest even when they are literally brain dead, women will still make an effort to serve men.
For a movie working with so many strong personalities, there are no strong characters to be found. Everyone is written to cave to weakness which shades the entire production with a boring, defeatist attitude. Unfortunately this insults all the talent that braved being on set knowing that they were making a love-it-or-hate-it film. The two gents leading the freak show, Ritchie and JT, played respectively by Shiloh Fernandez and Noah Segan, give impressive turns in their seedy roles, but they’re outshone by the eponymous deadgirl, played with so little as a dust mite of fear by the unknown Jenny Spain.
Truth be told there’s little to complain about the nuts and bolts of the film. It looks great while feeling bigger than most smaller productions do these days and makes effective use of a melancholy soundtrack. Fortunately directors Sarmiento and Harel keep what they’re putting in front of the lens relatively restrained, angling for implied imagery during some of the harder edged sequences. The only enjoyable avenue of the script involves an impromptu bit of revenge on a bullying jock, which is a fleeting (and admittedly contrived) detour into happier territory. Praising those elements, DEADGIRL is, to a degree, an accomplishment. That I could find enough positive elements peppered throughout a thoroughly pessimistic and, intentionally, disgusting100 minutes is the only reason I can’t wag my finger too psychotically at DEADGIRL.
But then I remember that there’s no point to any of it, that Sarmiento, Harel and Haaga are all just exploiting emotions, often conceptually, sometimes literally. Not unlike their two leads, the filmmakers have cornered and caged a touchy subject and are selling tickets for their poking and prodding tour. But they’re not examining, they’re not learning or drawing any conclusions. There is no diplomacy to their agenda, which is a brutally one sided relationship I know some people think a horror film is better off for having. I’m not of that school. If a horror movie isn’t going to entertain me, if it only wants to test my endurance it absolutely must have a debriefing. There must be something in the film that shows there was reducible complexity to the test.
DEADGIRL lacks any complexity. It’s a machine for word of mouth; a hook made entirely of bait designed only to be bitten the once.