Even a mediocre horror movie can begin with a bang, but it’s almost always a challenge to maintain chills and intensity for a full 90 or 120 minutes. There comes a point in every chiller where the audience wants and expects the MacGuffin to be revealed, and, while The Dead Center (opening at San Francisco’s Roxie Theater on Friday, Oct. 11) has a doozy of a premise and kicks off strongly, it ultimately finds itself staggering a bit before reaching the finish line.
Beginning with a long tracking shot reminiscent of Martin Scorsese’s Bringing out the Dead (though absent Nicolas Cage and John Goodman), The Dead Center wastes no time getting down to business. After an ambulance transports an anonymous corpse to the mortuary for bagging and tagging the film provides an immediate, predictable, but still incredibly effective jump scare within its first four minutes. Now that’s entertainment!
John Doe (Jeremy Childs) may have been declared dead, but he’s found sleeping in a cot at the local emergency psych ward and is examined by Daniel Forrester (Shane Carruth), a doctor with a problematic past whose employment hangs by the thread provided by colleague Sarah Grey (Poorna Jagannathan). At first completely non-responsive to Daniel’s questioning, the is-he-or-isn’t-he-deceased Doe slowly regains awareness and begins to reveal a tragic and puzzling back story.
Across town at the mortuary, the mystery of the missing body has been turned over to Medical Examiner Edward Graham (Bill Feehely). Tasked with recovering the lost corpse, Graham follows the evidence to John Doe’s parents, who are unsurprisingly confused and perturbed about the mixed messages they’re getting concerning their son’s well-being.
Written and directed by Billy Senese, The Dead Center benefits from a mature screenplay with a grown-up approach to its material. Not for Senese the horny teenagers and annoying college students of the typical genre effort — instead, his characters are all firmly and comfortably ensconced in middle age, their responses to the film’s peekaboo supernaturalism eminently sensible.
Though set in Atlanta, The Dead Center was shot in and around Nashville. In many ways it’s a throwback to the mid 20th-century’s golden age of regional horror, when independent producers and filmmakers churned out dozens of profitable — and sometimes even good! — films free of studio interference. Of course, their work ended up playing for undiscerning audiences who just wanted to go to the drive-in for a night away from the parents: The Dead Center, happily, is taking the arthouse route and customers will hopefully be paying attention.
Without giving too much away, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Tobe Hooper’s underrated science fiction thriller Lifeforce (1985). Though absent that film’s outer space trappings (as well as the imposing physical presence of Mathilde May), The Dead Center treads similar thematic ground: let’s just say the film’s protagonists will take your breath away if you’re not careful. Despite its only partially satisfying conclusion, this is a must see for genre fans this Halloween season.