GFF Frightfest 2019: ‘The Dead Center’

This is horror done on a low budget that manages to impress on a number of levels, writes Iain MacLeod.

Writer and director Billy Senese delivers a feature that captures the viewers interest with its cerebral approach to the usual standards of low budget horror, those being the undead as well as other supernatural events that cause an alarming body count.

The presence of Shane Carruth who commits himself here mainly to leading man and co-producing duties instead of his usual acting/writing/directing/editing/composing and self-distributing duties lends the film a high pedigree that goes hand in hand with the films style. In his introduction to the film’s Frightfest screening, Senese remarked on his love for the paranoid cinema of the 1970s, namechecking the films of Alan Pakula in particular. The chilly, sometimes clinical style of those films is evoked successfully, fitting well with the horror story Senese tells here.

Basically, this is a tale of the undead. An unnamed corpse, a John Doe played by Jeremy Childs who may be familiar to viewers of Preacher as sadistic shitkicker, Uncle Jessie, wakes up in the morgue and tears himself from his bodybag then flees the scene to hide elsewhere in the vast hospital. Discovered by the resident psychiatrist, Daniel Forrester, played by Carruth, John Doe is sneakily admitted into the hospital without his consent so Forrester can examine him further, mainly for his own needs which soon transcend the professional. John Doe can’t remember anything in his past life but feels that something has come back with him from the other side and it, and himself, need to go back. Forrester believing this to be delusion ignores Doe’s pleas and needless to say things do not go well.

This is horror done on a low budget that manages to impress on a number of levels. Whether it is the films location, the hospital where most of the action takes place was abandoned and ready to be configured into an apartment complex, the effects, which are used sparingly and are low key when employed or the script which leaves the viewer in the dark for most of the films runtime and even then holds back on the motives of its supernatural antagonist, it comes across as fresh and different. The influence of Carruth seems quite apparent in its clinical approach to fantastical situations, recalling his own Primer. Special mention should go to the films sound design; the scene where John Doe wakes within the bodybag consists of nothing but a black screen which only increases the sound of his panicked breathing. Combined with his screams and the crazed rustling and scrabbling against the plastic bodybag it is a truly unnerving sequence.

Senese also manages to avoid the temptation of going for cheap jump scares and gross out effects. His approach manages to avoid the usual clichés of the genre. As well as his admiration for 1970s’ American paranoia cinema there is also a Lovecraftian strand running through the film; men of science and medicine whose investigations have them running into unknowable and ghastly supernatural entities who look upon humanity as insignificant playthings.

There are a couple of aspects on display here that do come across as slightly creaky; some performances come across as stilted and a little broad. The influence of Carruth on the piece as a whole is there to see but for the most part this is a very promising and effective chiller that hopefully signals an interesting career ahead for Senese. His sense of style, storytelling and ambition could make for some very interesting cinema in the future as well as making him a considerable talent within genre cinema.

❉ ‘The Dead Center’ received its UK premiere at the Glasgow Film Theatre on Friday 1 March, as part of Arrow Video FrightFest Glasgow 2019.

❉ ‘The Dead Center’ Director: Billy Senese. Cast: Shane Carruth, Poorna Jagannathan, Jeremy Childs. USA 2018. 93 mins. N/C 18+

❉ Iain MacLeod was raised on the North coast of Scotland on a steady diet of 2000AD and Moviedrome. Now living in Glasgow as a struggling screenwriter he still buys too many comics and blu-rays. Has never seen a ghost but heard two talking in his bedroom when he was 4.

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