MESSAGE FROM CHRIS: Though my name is on the byline, this review is written by filmmaker Mark Steensland who previously reviewed "Videodrome" for us.
Mark Steensland is a multi-award winning filmmaker, screenwriter and author. He has
directed numerous short films, music videos, commercials and two features. His latest
short, "The Ugly File," based on the story by Ed Gorman, is currently on
festival circuit. His Web site is at www.marksteensland.com."
REVIEW BY MARK STEENSLAND:
When you really think about it, the "torture porn" boom of the last couple of years is really quite understandable. Pornography and horror have long been tossed into the same bucket together under the assumption that they have similar goals and employ a similar aesthetic for achieving them. After all, what is a throat-slashing but a money-shot done with blood? So why not put the two together? What's more, "torture porn" is nothing if not controversial and controversy is easily the low-budget filmmaker's best friend. Don't have enough money for a marketing campaign? Then make something that pushes the envelope and people will talk enough to build a buzz. And so what really got up to speed in "Hostel" and has since played out in films such as "Inside" (2007) and "Martyrs" (2008) has now arrived at perhaps its most obvious expression in "Deadgirl" (2008), in which high school boys satiate their lust by having sex with a zombie. You can hear the pitch meeting, can't you? "Think of all the controversy we'll generate!" And honestly, that would have been fine had they been up to the task of doing something worthwhile with it. The bad news is that like its titular character, there's some life trapped in "Deadgirl," but in the hands of this crew, it just ends up dead.
The film opens as high school buddies J.T. and Rickie cut school during a fire-drill and head to an abandoned mental hospital where they can have some fun drinking beer and destroying hospital property. They soon find themselves deep in the tunnels under the hospital and inside a room where they discover a naked girl tied to a table under a plastic sheet. When they realize that she's not dead, they choose the most natural course of action they can think of: they decide to make her their sex slave.
I'll admit that this sounds like a very interesting premise, one that someone like George Romero (in his "Dawn of the Dead" days) might have mined for both soul-stirring creeps and insights into, say, something like the objectification of women, or sexual politics, or how pornography dehumanizes both performer and audience. After all, Romero's insights into consumer culture eating itself at the shopping mall are precisely why his original "Dawn of the Dead" is still worth watching 30 years on.
Too bad, then, that screenwriter Trent Haaga and directors Marcel Sarmiento and Gadi Harel choose instead to just let the controversy do the work and employ all the "indie film" tropes as if from a checklist. Muted colors? Overused handheld camera? Intercut abstract still shots? Restrained score? Yes, "Deadgirl" has all of these and even more, such as an emo song montage, scenes of rage rendered in jumpcuts and disaffected characters who can't stop saying "fuck." Not only does this strike me as sloppy, it also says that its makers likely learned everything they know about filmmaking from watching a bunch of other films. Which would certainly explain why we never get to anything that even resembles real emotion or insight.
Late in the film's too-long running time, there are several flashes of wicked humor that literally burst their way onto screen. And for a moment, I thought that perhaps the filmmakers had given up trying to be serious and were going to at least do something entertaining. Alas, the moments are short-lived and the movie soon plunges back into itself, spiraling toward a third act plot twist and ending that are both telegraphed from a mile away.
The "unrated director's cut" I saw for this review was indeed very graphic in a number of instances. How graphic? This is difficult to judge outside its position within the aforementioned "torture porn" aesthetic. On that scale, I would rate it about a 7 (where "Martyrs" ranks a 10). Yes, there are several scenes of extremely bloody violence. And yes, there are several moments whose sole and obvious intent is to go for, as Stephen King calls it, the "gross-out factor" (and they succeed).
Ironically, if they hold back anywhere, it's with the depictions of the sex acts, with most of the action taking place off screen or in a carefully framed manner. Yes, the deadgirl is completely nude for the whole movie. Yes, they have sex with her. But in the end, the filmmakers don't really push the envelope visually as much as they are trying to conceptually. If you want real hardcore porn to go with your blood and guts, you'll have to visit the fringes where filmmakers like Rob Rotten (director of "The Texas Vibrator Massacre" and "Porn of the Dead") are doing just that.
The movie is presented in a letterboxed 2.35 aspect ratio. The picture quality was fine, overall, except for what seemed a conscious choice to lean towards muddy browns and greens. Some of the low-light segments appeared grainy.
The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1. Only English subtitles are included to support the audio.
The film is accompanied by a feature-length commentary track with the stars, directors, and writer.
Other extras include the trailer, deleted scenes (7 min.), a make-up effects stills gallery and a making-of featurette (7 min.)
So what's good about "Deadgirl"? The deadgirl herself, actress Jenny Spain. Her performance is the one dark jewel in this heap of rocks. Wicked and feral – if only the whole movie had acted more like her.