Written by: Kevin Stevens, Jason Stutter
Directed by: Jason Stutter
Starring: Jed Brophy, Jeffrey Thomas, and Laura Petersen
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
There is an intruder. It's you.
New Zealand’s been on a bit of a genre roll lately, so much so that it’s fair to say we’re in the midst of a mini-Kiwi splatstick renaissance thanks to films like Housebound, Deathgasm, and What We Do in the Shadows. An unfortunate (and probably unfair) side effect arises as a result when a film like The Dead Room arrives on the scene: hearing that it hails from New Zealand sets certain expectations, so it’s a bummer when it doesn’t live up. Again, that’s probably not fair (it’s not like we expect every American horror movie to live up to, say, The Exorcist), but it’s a disappointment all the same if the best praise you can muster about a film is its short length and its wicked sound design.
Otherwise, The Dead Room doesn’t have much going for it, unfortunately. This is not to say it’s a disaster—far from it, in fact—it’s just that it’s the umpteenth riff on the kind of movie that’s been better done so many times already. Beginning without even a modicum of backstory, it finds a trio of investigators arriving at a remote farmhouse, where they’ll shack up for a few days to look into some spooky paranormal activity. Conversations between the three eventually sketch a familiar scene: supposedly driven from the place by a malevolent force, a family recently bailed from the place without packing so much as a single item. Predictably, the trio—which includes two scientists and one mystic—begin to experience mysterious phenomena (read: shit goes bump in the night. Loudly.)
Really, I cannot stress enough just how loud The Dead Room can be, as it conjures up deep, rumbling brown notes and other jarring noises to send the viewer leaping from their chair out of sheer reflex. Don’t mistake this for effectiveness: I’m pretty sure I could come clang some pots and pans in your ear and make you jump too, but that wouldn’t make me a skilled filmmaker. It’d just make me an asshole. At times, The Dead Room is very much that asshole because it rarely builds any sense of dread—it simply relies on random, loud noises that are naturally jolting. Following the worst impulses of a landscape crowded by cheap jump scares, director Jason Stutter doesn’t orchestrate so much as he randomly mashes keys to coax whatever noise he needs at the moment.
To its credit, the sound design is terrifically enveloping, placing viewers right in the middle of a house engulfed by strange noises from all directions. If nothing else, The Dead Room provides a worthwhile exercise for your surround sound system, as its slamming doors, thumping footsteps, and other assorted, more mysterious noises swirl around, effectively perching you right alongside the terrified investigators. It’s a convincing experience even if it’s not a particularly effective or interesting one.
Because that’s mostly what The Dead Room is: a decent exercise in technical prowess with nothing particularly compelling backing it up. Sutter might be capable of helming a technically sound film with solid performances, intricate camerawork, and top-notch production values, but what good is it without any semblance of a story? The marketing claims the film to be based on an actual 1970s case, and it could be talking about fucking Amityville for all I know. No attempt is made to carve out any particular mythology or story; rather, it remains ruthlessly committed to retracing the most generic steps imaginable. Less a narrative and more a collection of empty scares that never seem to be escalating in any meaningful way, The Dead Room tediously unfolds with all the enthusiasm of a grocer taking inventory. “Here’s a character having a freak-out over an invisible spirit.” “There’s your furniture flying about the room.” “Turns out we’ve got plenty of mysterious, off-screen bumps and thuds.”
What a dull, dry experience this is. The Dead Room’s lack of story doesn’t indicate some delirious, non-plot nightmare; far from that, it alternates between predictable (and predictably loud) jolts and leaden conversations between the three characters. Some lip service is paid towards developing them with bare minimum bullshit: psychic Holly (Laura Petersen) makes some vague references to some past troubles, while tech geek Liam (Jed Brophy) has some video conversations with his family back home. Resident skeptic Scott (Jeffrey Thomas) …uh, spends some time speaking on the phone with insurance agents. Riveting stuff, really. Also, you’ll never believe this, but the trio pontificate on the inherent conflict between science and mysticism, in the process adding nothing particularly exciting to that tired dialogue.
Perhaps surprisingly, The Dead Room takes the side of the latter. For a film so preoccupied with technical exactness, you might expect it to dive right into the scientific implications, but alas. If nothing else, this might have helped to separate it from the pack a bit: there’s some intriguing stuff about using sound waves to detect and displace spectral presences, but it’s all forgotten by the time The Dead Room becomes a half-assed rendition of Evil Dead or Poltergeist in a last ditch effort to convince the audience it hasn’t completely wasted its time—all 78 minutes of it, which, as it turns out, is one of the film’s more praiseworthy elements. It may waste your time, but not a whole lot of it.
The Dead Room is now available on home video from IFC Midnight and Scream Factory.
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