Directed by: Marcel Sarmiento and Gadi Harel
Premise: A group of high school students finds a woman chained in the basement of an abandoned hospital. The boys discover that this woman cannot die and they begin to make sport of her, with increasingly depraved results.
What Works: The premise of Deadgirl is one that has to be dealt with precisely. In the hands of careless filmmakers it would easily become stupid or exploitative but the crew behind Deadgirl takes the premise seriously and considers its implications. A story like this is what philosophers call a “thought experiment” in which a hypothetical example is used to work through a logical or ethical idea. Science fiction stories frequently function as thought experiments but horror stories sometimes allow for similar inquiry. Looked at in this way, Deadgirl has a lot of fascinating things going on in it. The movie probes our understanding of personhood and human identity; the woman in the basement cannot speak, behaves in feral manner, and is not clinically alive and yet the indignities that she suffers at the hands of her captors are very disturbing. Deadgirl also works through moral fortitude; because the title character exists somewhere in between life and death the teenage boys feel license to do whatever they please with her, and matters get degrading very quickly. This speaks to how morality can become slippery in the absence of consequences but it is also a dramatization of how others, and especially women, come to be regarded as objects. In this regard the film is interesting as a feminist piece. Deadgirl is partly about the way young men regard women. Not all of that is inherently negative but the filmmakers do recognize the way in which men mythologize women and how groups and social dynamics between men may conspire to diminish a sense of personal responsibility. This is very heavy subject matter and the filmmakers of Deadgirl deal with it admirably. They make no effort to soften the material but do thoughtfully stage and photograph scenes of sexual abuse in ways that are appropriately sordid without becoming exploitative. The central performance of Deadgirl is provided by Shiloh Fernandez. He is introduced as creepy and self-destructive but Fernandez’s performance and the script gradually round out his character. The performance of Jenny Spain as the title character is also worth mentioning. The dead girl exists somewhere between a conscious human and a mindless zombie and she includes many subtle touches in her performance that continually complicate that distinction.
What Doesn’t: Deadgirl is a very interesting movie to watch because of its novel concept but the film gets into trouble when the moviemakers fall back on clichés of the high school genre. The main characters are social outcasts and the movie recycles the overplayed jock versus geek dynamic. These scenes come across false and their integration into the story is contrived. Matters aren’t helped by the casting. The whole troupe is far too old to be playing high school students and the acting of some of the supporting players is poor, especially Andrew DiPalma as the lead jock. Deadgirl also has some problems with its storytelling. There is very little gradation between morbid curiosity and outright necrophilia and the characters dive right into the most extreme behavior with very little hesitation. As might be supposed by the premise, Deadgirl is a not a horror film for general audiences. This is a very grotesque story that treads on a lot of difficult content like sexual abuse and necrophilia. The film was released in 2009, putting it at the end of the torture trend in contemporary horror, and even in a subgenre that was distinguished by extremity Deadgirl is boundary-pushing.
DVD extras: Commentary track, deleted scenes, featurette, image gallery.
Bottom Line: Deadgirl is a troubling movie to watch but mostly for the right reasons. It is not a pleasant movie but despite its flaws Deadgirl is an interesting picture that serious horror fans ought to seek out.
Episode: #435 (April 14, 2013)