Written and Directed by: Eric England
Starring: Najarra Townsend, Caroline Williams, Alice Macdonald
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
Don't touch anyone.
Contracted gave me the creeps. It’s rare to say that about a film, and it’s more rare to say it about a film committed to watching the human body fall apart. Usually, these films might gross you out, sure, but it’s not often that one digs right under your skin. With Contracted, it’s not so much the fact that its protagonist loses her skin that gets to you—it’s the fact that she also loses her dignity, the unjust punishment for the sins of a fateful sexual encounter. Such a smiting feels like preternatural slut shaming, and it’s that implication that makes Contracted truly creepy.
After opening with a hazy prologue involving a man sexing up a corpse adorned with a biohazard toe tag, the film gives way to Samantha (Najarra Townsend), a young woman clinging to her relationship with her girlfriend, Nikki (Katie Stegeman). When her desperate calls go straight to voicemail, she copes by heading to a friend’s party. Despite her dedication to staying sober, she winds up taking a drink from B.J. (Simon Barrett), a strange guy (the camera constantly obscures his face) who promptly coaxes Samantha to his car and rapes her. A day later, Samantha is convinced she’s only battling a hangover: she’s a bit irritable and listless, but functional. However, before she can even finish out her work shift, she discovers that she’s violently ill: certain sounds make her ears shriek, and she bleeds an unhealthy amount when she goes to the bathroom.
It gets worse. Had director Eric England quarantined the visceral horrors to this scene and allowed it to act as a mere prelude to Samantha’s psychological descent, Contracted would still be pretty squirm-worthy. But, holy shit, does he not do that. Instead, his camera doubles as a microscope and captures every agonizing physical step: the profuse bleeding, the rotting teeth, the bloodshot eyes, the peeling skin, the torn fingernails, the maggots (oh god, the maggots). It’s really raw, horrifying stuff that screams for a Cronenberg namedrop. England’s brand of body horror is a bit different though—it’s not as grandiose or operatic, and it remains mostly intimate until the film begins to veer off into some lurid de Palma territory towards its climax.
But until it arrives at that point, Contracted is a horrifying snapshot of a woman losing her shit—sometimes literally, you might say. Anytime Samantha wanders into a bathroom, it might as well serve as the sort of on-screen warning William Castle might have deployed. There’s a brutal artistry to how England captures this squeamish material: each sequence feels like gory little compositions woven into a greater tapestry. While the film is dedicated to observing Samantha as she deteriorates, it never feels like an empty gore showcase. Both England’s economical pacing and Townsend’s performance elevate the queasy proceedings into an actual story.
That story—and what Contracted eventually becomes an allegory for—is actually what made my skin crawl. For all its graphically nauseating bits, the film’s implications are much more unsettling. Much has been made about the film’s apparent attitude towards Samantha, who is punished for a sexual act. Such a fate isn’t uncommon in the horror genre, of course, but there’s something particularly ugly about the way Contracted makes it its subject that's a little off-putting at first blush. It’s key to note, however, that England seems to take little delight in decimating her. From the outset, Samantha is clearly a victim—first of rape, and then of something more insidious.
When it’s obvious she’s suffering from sort of affliction, she finds little comfort in her mother (Caroline Williams, whose cross-adorned walls say all we need to know about her) or her friends, save for the one clueless Nice Guy (Matt Mercer) in her crowd. Even as her character falls apart, Townsend’s performance remains a remarkably sympathetic turn, one that conveys rage, anxiety, regret, and sorrow over the course of 75 minutes. You never feel that she deserves what’s happening to her. There’s a small moment later in the film that subtly points to the horror of the culture surrounding Samantha: as she freaks out in the bar, it appears the guy who infected her is up to the same tricks with a new victim. Despite being a target of a manhunt (we’re told several times that the cops are after this mysterious stranger), it would appear he’s suffered none of the agonizing consequences he passed on to Samantha.
Is this a condemnation of rape culture? There’s a case to be made that Contracted has something like this on its mind. Its treatment of Samantha mirrors society in a frank way: as a rape victim, she suffers all of the consequences while her rapist (and his enablers) walks free. For Samantha, there is no comfort to be found: her mother shuns her, as do her friends, leaving her to become n ravenous, inhuman creature whose only response is to lash out. You can hardly blame her.
Whatever Contracted is up to is a bit undermined by some tonal issues and thematic confusion. Once he goes full de Palma, it becomes a touch too ludicrously trashy for its own good—as if Samantha’s rotting body weren’t enough, she also endures a conniving subplot involving her love life. It sends her into the arms of the aforementioned Nice Guy, who suddenly becomes a victim, and you begin to wonder if maybe Contracted is a sickly screed against “manipulative” girls. A climactic act leans in this direction by painting Samantha as a predator preying on the one guy in her life who apparently deserves her affection simply because he’s “there for her.” It’s some real MRA shit, and, come to think of it, maybe this is why Contracted made me shudder.
Because of these late stumbles, Contracted sort of mirrors its antagonist: perpetually blurry but definitely up to something sinister. A skin-deep analysis will reveal that England certainly knows how to craft a horror movie—I’ll admit that I was both horrified and in awe of how gross it is. Few things are as awful as confronting the inevitable decay of the human body. On an accelerated scale, it’s truly awful to behold. Contracted isn’t exactly about the existential despair that engenders (it’s too frenzied and visceral for that), but the notion is always creeping around its edges. Women are especially burdened by this, what with objectification, rape culture, and impossible standards of beauty. Samantha’s deteriorating body isn’t the most terrifying thing here; more unsettling is the fact that women still bear the cross of shame for sexual exploits—even those that are forced upon them. Buy it!
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