Studio: IFC Midnight
Director: Eric England
Writer: Eric England
Producer: Raphael Margules, J.D. Lifshitz, Eric England
Stars: Najarra Townsend, Alice Macdonald, Matt Mercer, Katie Stegeman, Charley Koontz, Simon Barrett, Dave Holmes, Caroline Williams
A troubled young girl begins mutating after she contracts an unidentifiable STD.
Cutting scars on her inside forearms. Her disapproving mother for a roommate. Drug addiction. An ex-boyfriend. An ex-girlfriend. Samantha is coping with enough baggage for a half-dozen average young women working dead-end waitress jobs. And three quick days is all it takes for things to go from already bad to incredibly worse.
Her head swirling over her sexual orientation, the stress of acceptance into a flower competition, and her troubled past, Samantha adds to her cocktail of confusion by carelessly mixing alcohol with a poor choice in potential sex partners. BJ appears to be a morgue attendant with a proclivity for molesting the merchandise, even the ones wearing toe tags with a biohazard symbol. But Samantha does not know that. Thanks to a roofied red Solo cup, she is barely aware of anything at all.
The morning holds opportunities for second guesses. Especially once bloody maggots start falling from between Samantha’s legs. An unplanned pregnancy and hepatitis are suddenly two far more preferable punishments for a momentary lapse in judgment.
“Contracted” is smaller-scale body horror that is mostly effective for its self-contained story. The drawback is that this depiction is so insular that not pouncing on the chance to exploit broader contagion fears becomes a missed opportunity.
Samantha is a drag. She is cute, liked by her friends, and has been struggling with a few bad cards dealt from life’s hand. Pulling out a shovel to move generous heaps of sympathy in her direction should be easy enough. But Samantha proves to be an irritating twit instead of an unfortunate soul.
Even after fingernails fall off and bloody clumps repeatedly plop into toilets, Samantha remains in denial about her situation far longer than is reasonable. Mother notices her daughter looking sickly and Samantha’s response is a sarcastic, “thanks mom.” Her friend sees her bloodied eyeball and Samantha sloughs it off as “I think there is something caught in it.” For her boss, that lie evolves into an explanation of pink eye. And when her ex-boyfriend confronts Samantha point blank about her encounter with BJ at the previous party, she exclaims, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
The girl is literally mutating into a creature and she acts as though the condition might go away on its own. There is some understanding that her character is afraid of the truth pushing away her relationships. But it makes even less sense when she evades the impartial doctor’s questions just the same, refusing to admit to even having sex. Samantha never comes across as helpless because she refuses it every time help is offered.
Simon Barrett’s mysterious patient zero is given a terrific introduction. Writer/director Eric England purposefully makes “BJ” a faceless carrier who is depicted either from behind or out of focus. It’s a smart technique for making the character non-specific without adding more creepiness than necessary by never showing what he actually looks like.
This same detail implies that “Contracted” wants its tale to be a universally identifiable experience. These people could be anybody and this could happen to anyone. Yet the way Samantha keeps herself beyond arm’s length erects a quarantine-grade barrier between the film and the viewer. Her situation is relatable while her reactions are not. Sabotaging her shot at empathy then becomes collateral damage.
Samantha is a waitress. She prepares food for the customers, breathes in everyone’s faces, and drinks from public glassware. Strangely, no one else appears to be at risk of contagion given the circumstances.
The best body horror induces squirms through a relatable fear of sickness. “Contracted” excels at depicting the escalating danger that Samantha is in without ever transferring those viral scares onto the audience. The infection is happening to her alone. Everyone else, characters and viewers alike, is merely observing safely from the outside.
The quieter tone explodes with sudden surprises during the climax. Shock value is added, but these developments border on betrayal of the believability created until that point. Although the effort is well executed, the strong starting premise suggests that the takeaway feeling should be of fingernails wanting to tear at an uncontrollable itch under the skin. Instead, the feeling settles on accepting “Contracted” as being good enough for what it is, which is an experience too passive to register a lasting tremor.
Review Score: 60