Saturday, October 06, 2012

30 Days of Nightmares #10: DEADGIRL (2008)

The Story: Two teenagers find a naked woman chained up in the basement of an abandoned mental hospital.  Instead of wondering how she has managed to stay alive down there (is she a zombie?), they start thinking with their dicks...

Expectations: From the synopsis alone, I knew that this was not a horror movie I wanted to watch with my wife.  A quick look at the Netflix reviews revealed that a lot of people have been VERY offended by this film, to the point of arguing that it should be banned.   I can't help wondering why those people were watching this movie in the first place.  The title and the poster art pretty clearly announce the lurid subject matter.  So I can only assume that they wanted to watch a horror movie... but then got upset when it was genuinely horrifying?

Personally, I like for horror movies to be genuinely horrifying -- not just to provide casual diversionary entertainment, but to leave me with lasting thoughts and feelings.  To be clear: I have no interest in watching depictions of rape and violence.  As far as I'm concerned, there's nothing worthwhile in a casual reminder that people are capable of doing horrible things.  What I am interested in are stories that examine why people do horrible things.  Based on some of the less reactionary reviews for DEADGIRL, I thought it might be a worthwhile story.

Reaction: This movie reminded me of something Wes Craven has said.  After he made LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT (1972), many of his former friends shunned him.  They called him a monster because he'd made a film that depicted rape and torture.   Actually, it was more than that... He'd made a film that believably depicted rape and torture.  Over the years, Craven has had to defend the depiction of violence in his films on many occasions, and he has often asked the same questions: Shouldn't a horror movie conjure an unpleasant reaction?  Would you really prefer a film that sanitizes and trivializes violence so that it's merely casual entertainment?

According to the poster art, DEADGIRL comes to us from "the producer of HELLRAISER and HEATHERS."  This marketing tagline is actually pretty instructive.  DEADGIRL really does seem like the mutant offspring of those two movies.  If you didn't appreciate the sadism in HELLRAISER and the black comedy in HEATHERS, you probably won't appreciate this.  If, however, you can appreciate the depiction of the life of a teenager as its own kind of nightmarish hell, this might be your kind of movie.

When the two main characters, J.T. and Rickie, find a not-so-dead girl and start contemplating what to do with her, I strangely found myself thinking of the John Hughes movie WEIRD SCIENCE  (1985).  Hughes' movie is a comedy about two geeky teenage boys who manage to create their own Frankenstein monster... except their Frankenstein monster just happens to look like a supermodel.  The film jokingly acknowledges the boys' lust-filled fantasies, but for the most part it's a family-friendly movie.  Nevertheless, I was a geeky teenage boy when I saw first saw the film and I knew damn well what was happening offscreen. 

The truth of being a geeky teenage boy is that the objectification of women is much easier than intimacy.  Intimacy requires trust and a kind of self-surrender; objectification prevents vulnerability and implies a kind of power over others.  This is how J.T. justifies rape: "Folks like us, we're just cannon fodder for the rest of the world... [but] down here we're in control.  We call the shots down here.  Feels good, doesn't it?"  Supernatural elements aside, he's describing a very believable rape scenario... one that's genuinely horrifying precisely because it's so believable.  Rickie is not quite as horrified -- he's too confused by the anger and frustration of being a socially outcast teenager, repeatedly bullied and berated, to reject this scenario entirely -- but he's not as callous as his friend.  The main issue at the heart of the film is Rickie's moral dilemma: What kind of man am I going to be?  

For me, DEADGIRL is a reminder that horror movies can still be just as shocking as LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT was in 1972.  Now, as then, the onscreen violence isn't what's really shocking.  The gore isn't what's shocking.  It's the familiarity of humanity's dark side that makes a strong, lasting impression.  DEADGIRL isn't a zombie movie.  The victim's obvious inhumanity allows the viewer a bit of distance from the ugliness of rape, and keeps the narrative squarely focused on the living.  As George Romero often says of his own movies, the real story is about us.  That's why, at times, I found myself thinking, "I can't believe I'm watching this"... and yet I couldn't look away.

Most Nightmare-Worthy Moment: Behind the defensive aggression, there's a real sadness about the two main characters, especially in a climactic final scene, that's more haunting to me than anything else in the movie.  Kudos to actors Shiloh Fernandez and Noah Segan for their ability to convey that vulnerability.


  1. I've heard of this film, but had never wanted to check it out. Good point about why people watching this movie then being shocked by its content. The victim/victimizer aspect is intriguing, though. Perhaps, because I have a daughter, and son, I'm curious and repulsed toward the subject matter. btw, did you see Bryce Wilson's write-up on film one of Kindle book purchasers suggested to him? I think I'm getting soft in my old age ;-). Then again, I re-watched FROM DUSK TILL DAWN last night. Thanks for this.

  2. Michael - It's probably best to follow your gut on this one. DEADGIRL is not an easy film to watch. That said, I do believe it has some redeeming qualities. The story goes beyond simple shock tactics.

    I'm not sure I'd be able to get past the surreal nature of something like SPLATTER: NAKED BLOOD in order to fully understand or appreciate whatever lies beneath. Then again, I did love TETSUO: THE IRON MAN...

  3. Joe,

    I saw this movie about a month ago. It was something that I had heard about and decided to give it a shot. I have to say, it was a very disturbing film. As you mention, not so much the gore or violence, just how quickly normal people can show their dark side given the right situation. Although as I said I found it a bit disturbing, I couldn't stop watching it. Definitely a film not for everyone.

  4. Thanks for writing, Troy. I was a little apprehensive about recommending a film that most people assume is all about necrophilia... Then again, maybe I shouldn't worry so much. TWILIGHT is all about necrophilia, and I'd rather watch DEADGIRL any day.

    1. Joe,

      Totally understand your hesitance, but as you and I both know, DEADGIRL is much more than that. Someone who just sees only the nerophilia aspect of the film is really missing out. Great review Joe!