Deadgirl Film Review - An Official Selection of 2008 AFI Fest

In the spirit of Halloween, the first review of the 2008 AFI FEST from the ALT Cinema Category: Deadgirl


"" An Official Selection of the 2008 AFI Fest

***Please note this article contains spoilers***

It’s the most twisted of adolescent male fantasies. To have a girl, a pretty girl, all to yourself. A girl who is simply an object. A girl that does not talk back. A girl that is not capable of thought. A girl whose keeper has complete physical dominion and control over her. A plaything that does not require consideration or maintenance. Hell, every guy wants a girl like that, right?

But I digress.

If you know the title, you know the story. Rickie (Shiloh Fernandez) and JT (Noah Segan) are two clique-less outsiders at a local high school who decide to ditch class during a fire drill. Rickie, as usually, is preoccupied with thoughts of yearning for the one girl he can't have, JoAnn (Candice Accola). She was his first kiss in grade school; now she is part of the high school elite and girlfriend to football player Johnny (Andrew DiPalma).

Jt’s solution to get Rickie’s mind off JoAnn, go to the looney bin and get wasted on warm beer. The looney bin is of course, a decrepit, abandoned mental hospital. He does his best to creap Rickie out with taunts of ghosts and a rib-jab with every thump coming from the eerie empty halls. The jeers work until they are both caught off-guard by a random, rabid canine that chases them to a part of the institution they have never been to before. In an effort to find another way out, they journey deeper into the bowels of the medical building. And that is where they find her.

The naked girl under the plastic appeared to be dead. She’s breathing. Her skin is cold. She is chained to a bed spread-eagle. And the duo will later learn that, no matter the injury they inflict on her, she can’t die. So they decide “to keep her.” To not call the authorities but instead to reserve her as a sex toy. Rickie sours on the idea quickly, but still says nothing. So JT finds someone else to share in his “little secret”. Wheeler (Eric Podnar) is the beginning of the secret circle opening, and the beginning of the end as the stakes escalate with Deadgirl’s wild, violent outbursts and the threat of impending discovery.

At first I was impressed with Rickie’s use of the word “accessory to…” It implied his character was cognizant to consequences in the real world. I was teased into thinking this script would be a bit smarter, the motivation to keep this secret would be good enough, reasonable enough for me it sign on to this film. It wasn’t. Rickie’s real life convict succumbed easily to fascination and does not return to him until after the point of no return.

Deadgirl (2008) Production Design by Diana Zeng; Director of Photography: Harris Charalambous

Deadgirl (played by Jenny Spain) is River’s Edge meets Stand By Me, with a touch of Lord of the Flies thrown in. All the aforementioned films are great source material, but the thread of originality that should weave these familiar plot elements together into something new is flimsy at best. The stock characters are frightened, or self-possessed kids who completely lack any reasonable level of maturity. And as stock characters, they perform the exact same function that they do in every script; no dimension required. One would hope, since the filmmakers chose to venture into this sensitive topic, that they would at least try and create a more interest cast of characters to inhabit this brave new world.

The Feminist in me is outraged. This film is quite frankly cinematic misogyny. The Men, pardon me, the boys in this film force themselves upon the women in this film – both passively and aggressively. JT develops this warped detachment where he begins to see this girl, not as a person, but rather a thing, that he owns, his private property. The audience is asked to see the Rickie character as a hero when in fact he spends the film doing two truly horrible things: a) coveting JoAnn, another guy’s girl; then b) in the case of Deadgirl, nothing! which equates to enabling her repeated rape and torture. He is the worst of all because he is the one person who actually sees her humanity, and continues to let her suffer.

(l to r) Nolan Gerard Funk, Shiloh Fernandez & Andrew DiPalma in "Deadgirl"

I will say this on behalf of my gender: the filmmakers could have at least been more equitable with the gratuitous nudity. There were amply contextual opportunities to expose male private parts – nay, any male parts –, which were not exploited (enough double entendres in that last one for you?) An ass shot never cost anyone an R Rating. Given the graphic sexual nature of this film, the absence of male “exposure” was quite conspicuous (And no, hairy shins don’t count). If you had just been a bit more balanced, perhaps then it could not be argued that this film is completely sexist; and it would make it easier for your critics to try and look at this film as an expression of art.

In behalf of the other gender, I will ask a question a male friend posed to me after viewing another feature with another “Blowjob gone wrong” scene. “How long are we going to continue to use the device of the man becoming a complete idiot at the moment of arousal? When will films stop perpetuating the myth that men will follow their erection into peril or demise?” It’s a device, it’s too easy and it’s insulting. On behalf of the other genre, I’m just saying…

The filmmaker in me is… intrigued. From a purely aesthetic point of view, the film is really well done. Despite the failings of the actual script, the seed of the idea is dark and twisted and original; it took guts to make this movie. The cinematography is well done, particularly given the challenge of low lighting. The makeup for Deadgirl is impressive, imbuing the character with a supernatural otherness that escaped being alien. Despite the lack of complexity in the roles, performances of the three principle men (Fernandez, Segan & Podnar) and two principle women (Spain & Accola) was solid and for the most part credible. They did a lot with a limited script. The score and sound design were spot on, both sparse and full at all the right moments. The use of silence was smart and judicious. Directors Marcel Sarmiento and Gadi Harel should be congratulated in orchestrating all these fine elements into fine work. Although the film does go on about three scenes too long, the duo have a great sense of pacing and mood; instincts that are critical in the genre of suspense; and this film is far more suspend than horror. I will look forward to their next collaboration, hopefully on more palatable subject matter.

"Deadgirl" directed by Marcel Sarmiento and Gadi Harel

There was one genius scene that stands out. At one point in the film, JT and Wheeler, having figured out how to “make” a deadgirl, and go looking for a girl to “transform”. Their intended victim, however, proves to be quite formidable. The scene is wicked, and dark, and twisted and hysterical. That is the scene worthy of the producers of Heathers. That is the movie I hope Sarmiento and Harel do next.

Finally, the best reason to see this film is Noah Segan. There is no artifice to his performance. He gets the Annie Wilks Awards for the role of a guy who is lonely and destitute and slowly delivered to madness by the magnitude of his discovery. His character never sounds crazy, but that’s because he doesn’t know he is crazy. And until the bitter end, he is motivated by keeping his one last true friend, Rickie. Segan performs a great arc and given a finely measured performance. He’s the one to watch for out of this crop. Well done.

Deadgirl is an official selection in the Alt Cinema category for the 2008 AFI Fest, currently taking over the Arclight Theatres in Hollywood until November 7, 2008.

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