Studio: Arrow Films
Director: Billy Senese
Writer: Billy Senese
Producer: Billy Senese, Denis Deck, Jonathan Rogers, Shane Carruth
Stars: Shane Carruth, Poorna Jagannathan, Jeremy Childs, Bill Feehely
A psychiatrist and a medical examiner unravel an unsettling mystery behind a John Doe who inexplicably returns to life.
Los Angeles Film Festival Review:
An unidentified suicide victim just came back to life in the Metro General morgue, although no one knows it yet. Medical examiner Edward can answer “who?” since he knows John Doe’s real name, but Edward has no idea where the body went. Psychiatrist Daniel can answer “where?” since the catatonic amnesiac turned up in his ward, except Daniel doesn’t know he is a missing man who was previously dead. Unaware that they are separately unraveling the same strange case, the two medical professionals now seek to answer “how?” and “why?” from opposite ends of a mind-bending mystery.
Not just because of its reanimated corpse premise, but also because of its similarly atmospheric aesthetic, the dark aura of “The Dead Center” would pair terrifically with the supernatural suspense of “The Autopsy of Jane Doe” (review here) and the slasher thrills of “The Corpse of Anna Fritz” (review here). You could slot it wherever you feel the film fits best on that triple bill of morgue-set mysteries. Although if you want to save the best for last, you may want to reserve that spot for “The Dead Center.”
If your tastes in slow-burn horror lean toward economical indies such as “Absentia” (review here), “The Pact” (review here), or “They Look Like People” (review here), “The Dead Center” will scratch equivalent itches for macabre moodiness. Light on expensive production value, “The Dead Center” renders its budgetary limitations irrelevant by oozing uncomfortable creepiness using psychological subtlety instead.
Independent filmmakers can learn excellent lessons from “The Dead Center’s” exceptional attention to authenticity. Particularly when telling a tale featuring an otherworldly element, convincingness becomes crucial for grounding fantasy in some semblance of reality. Remarkably for a movie made without the strength of powerhouse producers or stars, “The Dead Center” builds a setting where each bit role and side scene contributes to a bigger picture where believability benefits immensely from collective details.
Every extra in the film reads like a real person. A motel manager who appears briefly, incidental nurses, and random psych ward patients all appear to truly occupy their professions and personalities. Lesser movies would throw away these roles to inexperienced amateurs, family, or friends. “The Dead Center” understands how much little things matter, making it genuinely impressive to watch the background breathe. Even a minor touch like having a car screech past its intended turn and having to back up puts one more pinch of realism into proceedings instead of only orchestrating action around major movements.
Secondary hospital drama occurring in between primary plot developments is treated as no less important despite its status as support. Nothing plays like a “Grey’s Anatomy” soap opera at all. This is the byproduct of staffing three different medical consultants to make sure every aspect of the project is taken seriously so that the audience takes it that way too.
As for the story at its core, “The Dead Center” efficiently toys with expectations by not revealing too much, and not revealing too little. The gradual unfolding of unsettling insinuations hits a sweet spot where it plants sinister seeds, yet leaves your imagination to take care of fertilization. The cryptic mystery might confound those anxious for more definitive explanations. Anyone entranced by the eeriness however, will find themselves satisfied with the suggestive texture of unseen terror.
It’s odd for a film to employ A and B arcs whose protagonists never meet. As a result, the medical examiner’s peculiar path stumbles somewhat from serving largely as intertwined exposition. Still, the unusual approach to storytelling increases the movie’s atypical appeal as a hypnotic chiller.
Engaging performances from unfamiliar faces, a mesmeric score from composer Jordan Lenhning, and a cleanly clinical look to Andy Duensing’s cinematography tie the bow on “The Dead Center’s” total package. I haven’t seen writer/director Billy Senese’s first feature “Closer to God,” but “The Dead Center” has vaulted it toward the top of my backlog. For the future, if Senese can continue hitting concurrent notes of drama and dread with the force inflicted here, he could collect a respectable résumé on par with those of Mike Flanagan, Nicholas McCarthy, and other names made notable by this particular brand of intriguing indie horror.
Review Score: 85