by Michael Joshua Rowin
Dir. Marcel Sarmiento and Gadi Harel, U.S., Dark Sky Films
A common complaint about horror movies these days is that atmosphere has been widely sacrificed for a predictable slasher structure (pick off a handsome group of teenagers one by one) that prizes shock and gore over pace and texture. But sometimes there’s such a thing as too much atmosphere—a more forgivable problem, perhaps, but still one for which a film like Deadgirl pays dearly.
As directed by Marcel Sarmiento and Gadi Harel and written by schlock horror actor and scribe Trent Haaga (debut screenplay credit: the fourth Toxic Avenger film), Deadgirl merges urban legend creepiness with “state of our youth” cynicism. Rickie (Shiloh Fernandez) and J.T. (Noah Segan), two high-school slackers from broken homes somewhere out in the sticks, skip school to trash and explore a local abandoned insane asylum drenched in David Fincher darkness and filth. Down in the tunnels Rickie and J.T. discover the still moving (if barely) naked body of a young woman (Jenny Spain) strapped to a table underneath a transparent sheet. J.T. decides to use the girl—speechless, fanged, and gnashing in a state of feral restlessness—for his sexual fulfillment, leading to a rupture in the friends’ relationship when Rickie scrupulously voices his misgivings over such vile treatment. And soon J.T. lets Rickie in on something odd about the nameless girl: she won’t die, as three ineffective bullets to her abdomen quickly prove (ever the gentleman, J.T. initially finds this out when he unsuccessfully breaks her neck during a struggle.) Chaining up the undead “deadgirl,” J.T. becomes the unofficial owner of the body, using it to his heart’s content and even allowing idiotic stoner Wheeler (Eric Podnar) in on the action.
Despite its necrophilic subject matter, the film is only superficially disturbing in its indictment of what it sees as a contemporary breed of bored, disaffected kids. I’ll cede the point that adolescent boys can be sexual cretins, but I sincerely doubt four out of every five—as the number of deadgirl participants slowly grows to—would desire to gang rape an eternally rotting zombie. And while it’s darkly clever to have them breeding more deadgirls after the original wears out her use (J.T. attaches a cut-out of a model’s face to the body in order to mask her own blood-smeared, ravaged countenance), Haaga doesn’t have much success charting the power dynamics among his characters, who mostly whine and yell at each other with “bro” and “man”-littered variants of “This is wrong” or “You better not tell the cops.” It doesn’t help that Segan is the only convincing actor on screen, bringing a cocky single-mindedness to J.T.’s demented bully, but his performance is to the detriment of Fernandez, whose timid, sensitive hero fails to provide an appropriately charismatic counterbalance.
Attempting to obscure the fact that not much of dramatic interest is taking place, Sarmiento and Harel go heavy on mood. This is one languorous horror flick, evoking teenage torpor with endless crepuscular establishing shots, a ubiquitous tinkling piano score, and characters walking with painful deliberation toward the spooky female of the title. Only cosmetic to begin with, such touches are undone in any case by a woefully silly ending that throws class and hierarchy issues into the mix by trying to pit the slackers against faintly more privileged jocks—“We’re the ones in control down here,” J.T. explains—and then completely dispenses with character development and logic by providing a hatefully misogynist fate to Rickie’s abducted love interest (Candice Accola). Though it contains one or two surprises—including a funny, gas station-set scene in which J.T. and Wheeler fail to make a victim of a voluptuous weed-seeker—Deadgirl is a disappointment for anybody wishing for a seriously macabre indie answer to melodramatic tweensicles like Twilight.