The only thing it’s missing is a meaty part for Toni Collette.
When the body of a “John Doe” (Jeremy Childs) goes missing from the morgue, forensic officer Edward Graham (Bill Feehely) is called in to investigate the evidence to determine what mistakes were made and where the body disappeared to. Around the same time, Dr. Daniel Forrester (Shane Carruth) discovers a man in the psych ward of a local hospital, awake but otherwise non-responsive. Daniel is already in hot water with his boss Dr. Sarah Grey (Poorna Jagannathan) over questionable treatments for patients considered beyond help, so he keeps his new patient a secret from her. As both Edward and Daniel individually investigate their cases, who they are searching for is far less important than what’s waiting for them.
In 2018, writer/director Ari Aster unleashed Hereditary upon an unsuspecting world, half a great idea that neither panned out nor stepped up to the performance skills of Toni Collette. The cast was not only wasted, but horror fans felt relief as each unlikable character was routinely and pointlessly discarded… and good riddance. The director himself reportedly admitted the underlying story was personal and based on real events, so the nagging feeling that the “supernatural horror elements” were an afterthought were correct. Writer/director Billy Senese similarly lucked into a great cast with a story that follows similar beats, but can it avoid the pitfalls that left Aster’s freshman entry a promise unfulfilled?
As a screenplay, the story invokes most of the trappings of Hereditary with one key difference: it succeeds in all of them. Members of a family torn apart by tragedy and misunderstanding, dealing with it any way one can? Check. A malevolent supernatural force driving the underlying plot? Check. Violent imagery coupled with existential terror? Check. With a sense of impending failure and vague-yet-unconfirmed explanations, viewers are invited to connect the dots and suffer along with the characters as an unfathomable situation escalates. This is psychological horror at its best, when the eventual bloodletting pales in comparison to a Lovecraftian realization that one is well and truly doomed.
While not as female-centric as Aster’s film, Senese concentrates the action on a police and medical procedural, revealing family complications along the way. He also plays with the tropes of intersecting arcs, enabling a few genuine surprises. The ending should be what viewers expect — it’s right there for the taking — but both direction and misdirection keeps the journey fresh. Make no mistake: these are low budget films — Hereditary was made for $9 million — and the perfect venue for filmmakers to do their best with whatever they’ve got. Both films could be considered origin films while still being self-contained.
Jeremy Childs deserves the lion’s share of what makes this film work as John Doe; in much of the same way he brought the character of Jody to life in the third season of AMC’s “Preacher,” he conveys more with physicality than many actors can do with expression and dialog. Staying with you conceptually and getting under your skin in the same ways It Follows and The Autopsy of Jane Doe did, The Dead Center earns its dread.
The Dead Center is Not Rated… like all things should be.
Four skull recommendation out of four