Upstream Color‘s Shane Carruth stars in a haunting, atmospheric horror film about what lies beyond the pale.
One of the perennial themes of horror is the idea that death is not the worst fate. Despite our fear of our mortality, the fact that death is an end is in itself a comfort. While many wish for immortality, not being able to die would be truly horrific. Billy Senese’s supernatural thriller The Dead Center is a tale about a man who returns from the dead and carries with him a terrible power.
Daniel Forrester (Shane Carruth, Primer) is a dedicated psychiatrist who works in an emergency psych ward. When a catatonic John Doe (Jeremy Childs, Preacher) shows up in the ward after being found in the adjacent hospital, Daniel finds himself drawn to the mysterious man. When the man snaps out of his catatonic state, he is unable to remember who he is, But he claims there is a darkness that spirals within him.
Unbeknownst to Daniel, a medical examiner, Edward Graham (Bill Feehely, Blood Rogues) is looking for the John Doe. The mysterious patient is actually Michael Clark, a suicide victim whose corpse has disappeared from the morgue. While the two men attempt to unravel the mystery behind the patient, there is a spate of deaths in the ward when workers and patients who come in contact with the strange man become sick.
There is an unfortunate trend in mainstream horror to put the monster front and center and to deliver a neat explanation of whatever evil the heroes must face. Fortunately, The Dead Center understands that nothing is more terrifying than the unexplainable, and mostly keeps the horror off-screen and enigmatic. We are rarely shown more than a few flashes of Michael’s attacks, making them all the more effective. While there is mercifully no expository scene that tells us exactly what’s going on, we are given hints. Michael explains an evil spiral that shows him horrifying things, and when Edward goes to Michael’s parents’ house, we see a wall covered with pictures of demons and corpses that look suspiciously like Michael’s victims.
Gore-averse horror fans will be happy to hear that there is little gore in The Dead Center. Michael’s evil is more akin to disease than physical violence, and we’re rarely shown the attacks in full. While this may be frustrating to fans of more ‘extreme’ horror, it will be a boon to viewers who appreciate subtler scares. You only need a flicker of light and a glimpse of Michael approaching the victim to be creeped out.
Cinematographer Andy Duensing eschews the typical horror movie aesthetic, opting for flat lighting and muted colors. This lack of stereotypically creepy visuals helps keep the film grounded in the psychiatric ward setting, and makes the horror elements feel more realistic. Instead, the film opts to use music and sound design to amp up the chills. Jordan Lehning’s score is unobtrusive and mostly consists of ambient sounds that give the scenes an eerie atmosphere.
In addition to the music, the film’s use of sound also helps to give the audience a sense of unease. This is most noticeable with Michael, who often has tinnitus. When he explains the horrors that haunt him, we hear the ringing in his ears while Daniel’s dialogue is muffled. It puts the audience in a disoriented mood and helps us empathize with him, even as he causes horrible events to occur.
As far as monsters go, Michael is a sympathetic one. It may not even be fair to call him a monster, as it’s obvious from the start that he is possessed by some evil force, and doesn’t want to hurt people. Childs’ gives a powerhouse performance, portraying him as tortured without feeling self-pitying. His physical acting is also fantastic. Before attacking his victims, Michael will go into convulsions, and Childs throws himself into these scenes. As he writhes around, his eyes give a dead stare, making the character feel completely inhuman. It’s unsettling and escalates the dread before it culminates into terror.
The Dead Center understands that nothing is more terrifying than the unexplainable.
While Childs’ performance is the lynchpin for the movie, the rest of the cast also play their roles admirably. Carruth’s Daniel is passionate but vulnerable, and his descent into madness is believable as his desire to help Michael turns into a desire to stop him. Feehely does well as Edward, but his performance is hindered by the blandness of his character. The medical examiner has no quirks and his investigation is only in the film to give the audience a few hints of the evil that is possessing Michael.
Though grounding its horror in the mundane offers a perverse appeal, the unremarkable nature of the characters is maybe the film’s biggest flaw. While Edward is the worst offender, Daniel’s characterization also feels uninspired. While he isn’t boring, his tragic backstory (his mother committed suicide) and complicated relationship with his boss Sarah (Poorna Jagannathan, Big Little Lies) feel like typical traits of a horror movie psychiatrist. This isn’t to say that the characters don’t work or detract from enjoying the film, but a little more development would have helped elevate The Dead Center in the crowded field of low-budget horror.
However, even if it doesn’t break any new ground in the horror genre, The Dead Center is still worth a watch for fear fans. Its concept is a fresh one, and the chills are deftly handled. There are fates worse than death, and missing out on this fun horror flick may be one of them. (Now, Shane, come back to directing. It’s been six years since Upstream Color. We miss you.)
The Dead Center is currently haunting limited theaters and VOD, and comes to DVD October 15th.