Dead Center (The) (Blu-ray) [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - Arrow Films
Review written by and copyright: Paul Lewis (2nd November 2019).
The Film

The Dead Center (Billy Senese, 2018)

Synopsis: The body of an unidentified man (Jeremy Childs) is examined by Dr Graham (Bill Freehely), a coroner. The man, listed as a ‘John Doe’, apparently committed suicide. However, during the night the John Doe wakes up in the morgue and escapes. With no memory of his previous life, the John Doe manages to find his way to a psychiatric ward before falling into a catatonic state; there, a well-intentioned junior psychiatrist, Daniel Forrester (Shane Carruth), forges the necessary paperwork to suggest the John Doe has given consent to being admitted to the ward.

During the night, the John Doe grabs an orderly, Travis (J Thomas Bailey), who subsequently becomes violently sick. The next day, Travis’ corpse is found, his mouth opened in a silent scream. Meanwhile, Dr Graham discovers that the John Doe’s corpse has disappeared and investigates, visiting the motel where the body was found. There, Graham is told by the motel owner that the discovery of the body was preceded by ‘crazy sounds and screaming’. In the motel room, Graham finds a bathtub filled with blood, a strange spiral pattern gouged into the basin which Graham recognises as identical to a pattern gouged into the skin of John Doe’s arm, and a driver’s licence with the personal details partially obscured.

From the driver’s licence, Graham discovers that the John Doe is in fact Michael Clark. After further investigation, Graham uncovers Clark’s story: Clark was involved in a house fire which killed his wife. Following this cataclysmic event, and accompanied by his two young children, Clark moved in with his father and his father’s carer.

In the psychiatric ward, Daniel uses a combination of hypnosis and drugs to break Clark’s catatonic state and question him. Clark claims not to recall any details of his life though tells Daniel he has ‘terrible headaches. They never stop’. He also talks about a dark and destructive entity that lives inside him, which came into his body following the house fire that killed his wife, and which Clark has tried unsuccessfully to kill through various attempts at suicide. When one of the other patients, the elderly Miss Lewis, is found dead, in circumstances similar to Travis (ie, with her mouth gaping open), Daniel begins to wonder about Clark’s role in the deaths of Travis and Miss Lewis. He becomes increasingly concerned when his superior, Sarah (Poorna Jagannathan), discovers that Daniel forged the documentation outlining Clark’s consent to being hospitalised and, in response, plans to release Clark. Daniel believes this will lead to more deaths. Meanwhile, Graham’s investigation on the outside leads him towards the events taking place in the hospital.

Critique: The Dead Center is the second feature of its director, Billy Senese, who previously made Closer to God (2014) after a straight-to-video feature and two impressive short films (both of which are included on Arrow Video’s Blu-ray release of The Dead Center). One of these, ‘The Suicide Tapes’ (2010), contained a germ of an idea, rooted in the suicide of a friend of Senese’s, that would evolve into the main premise of The Dead Center. Following Closer to God’s lead in exploring a medical setting as the location for a brand of almost Lovecraftian cosmic horror (Closer to God focused on genetic experimentation), The Dead Center might invite loose comparison with David Cronenberg’s early ‘body horror’ pictures such as Shivers (1975) and Rabid (1977). Wearing its ‘indie’ credentials on its sleeve, The Dead Center was produced by Shane Carruth, the director of the acclaimed, offbeat independent science fiction films Primer (2004) and Upstream Color (2013); Carruth also acts in The Dead Center, taking the role of Daniel Forrester.

Throughout, The Dead Center uses some sharp photography to convey a sense of dislocation. Some of this places us in the shoes of Clark, unsteady and out-of-focus photography being combined with a persistent ringing on the audio track in shots depicting Clark’s point-of-view; these point-of-view shots enable us to empathise with Clark and see him as a victim (of the unknown consciousness that inhabits his body) as much as an aggressor. At other times, the dislocation enacted in the film’s photography is associated with Daniel and Dr Graham. Opening with an aerial shot showing an ambulance, containing Clark’s body, being driven through the city at night and featuring a similar shot in its closing sequence (depicting police cars pulling into a desolate cul-de-sac, also at night), the film is punctuated by extended tracking shots – seemingly very influenced by the tracking shots in Stanley Kubrick’s films – in which characters pass through the corridors of hospitals and other institutions. The overall effect is one of a society dominated by its institutions, which dehumanise individuals and through the nightmare of bureaucracy strip away choice and free will. The red tape of these institutions prevents the dangers presented by Clark (and the entity within him) from being recognised, acknowledged and quelled. Daniel is crushed within his practice by the bureaucratic protocol of the hospital in which he works, and in response he bends its rules in order to do what he believes to be the right thing: forging paperwork to admit Clark to the hospital, ostensibly for Clark’s own protection; stealing medication from the drug store in order to pull Clark out of his catatonic state. In the nightmare of bureaucracy, these actions, of course, have devastating consequences for the individual, and Clark is punished by his superior, Sarah. However, though he is unaware of the precise nature of Clark’s affliction, in recognising that Clark needs to be contained within the hospital – either for his own self-protection or the protection of others – Daniel is the only person, other perhaps than Dr Graham, who is capable of preventing an apocalypse of sorts.

For much of its running time, The Dead Center crosscuts between the story of Daniel Forrester and the investigation of Dr Graham: Daniel, a psychiatrist, searches inwards – through interviews with his patients – for ‘the truth’ which exists within the self; meanwhile, Dr Graham functions more like a traditional detective, gathering and analysing clues in the world external to the self, visiting the site of the disaster that befell Clark’s family and interviewing Clark’s father. These two investigations run parallel to one another and meet in the middle, though Forrester and Graham never become aware of the other’s activities and therefore never collaborate. Their isolated investigations uncover clues which are revealed to the audience as the characters find them, but as neither Forrester nor Graham ever learn the full import of what is happening, neither does the film’s audience. ‘I died and I came back. Wasn’t the first time’, Clark answers Forrester when Forrester asks him how he ‘came to be here [in the psychiatric ward]’. When Forrester probes deeper (‘What does that mean?’), Clark tells him ‘I can’t kill it. It came back with me out of the fire, and wandered into this world. It’s…. inside of me now. Can’t stop it [….] I tried to get rid of it. I kept cutting and cutting and cutting […] until I was dead. But it didn’t work. Here I am again’. Forrester ask Clark, ‘What is it that’s inside of you?’ ‘Blackness’, Clark responds, ‘Spinning, spinning. I can see stars. I can see the things that it’s done. Powerful things. It’s been here before, many times. And now, now it’s showing me the things it’s going to do’. Clark begs for Forester’s help in committing suicide, in the hope that this will prevent the cataclysmic event he is convinced is being pursued by the entity that has possessed him. Outside the hospital, Graham’s investigation leads him to Clark’s father’s house, where Graham is confronted by Clark’s secret collection of news cuttings, photographs and drawings of mass deaths; in each of these, the mouths of the victims gape open – like those of Travis and Miss Lewis. The gaping mouths of the victims of Clark (or rather, the being that possesses him) are connected to a note that was discovered at the motel and which passes into the hands of Graham. This note simply reads: ‘I am the mouth of death. None are beyond my reach. Forgive me’.

Fundamentally, The Dead Center has a similar premise to Jack Finney’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1955) (or Don Siegel’s film adaptation), its sense of terror grounded in the notion that an alien entity can take over or possess an outwardly normal suburban family man, and by doing so initiate a contagion with potentially appalling consequences. To its benefit, the film never explains whether the being that ‘possesses’ Clark is alien in origin or demonic, preferring instead to maintain the enigma that exists around this aspect of the plot. (In this sense, one might debate whether The Dead Center looks for its inspiration more towards Invasion of the Body Snatchers or demonic intercession narratives such as William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist, 1971.) Nevertheless, the overall effect is one of Lovecraftian cosmic horror comparable to 1980s pictures such as John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) and with more than a hint of Jack Sholder’s The Hidden (1987) – though switching out the latter’s emphasis on ‘buddy’ cop dynamics and action in favour of a more glacial pace and elements of medical ‘body horror’.




Video

Filling 26Gb of space on a dual-layered Blu-ray disc, The Dead Center is presented on Arrow Video’s release in 1080p and using the AVC codec. The film is uncut, with a running time of 92:46 mins, and is presented in its intended aspect ratio of 1.85:1.

Shot digitally, The Dead Center contains some poetic photography and editing, including (as mentioned above) some Kubrickian tracking shots in corridors and aerial shots of vehicles. Detail is very pleasing, the digital photography offering a strong level of fine detail and texture in closeups. Colours are rich and deep, the interiors of the hospital being dominated by hues of sickly yellow. For a digitally-shot feature, contrast levels are pretty good, with strong midtones and low-light scenes faring well – though sometimes shadow detail seems slightly ‘crushed’ (presumably owing to the compressed dynamic range of the digital photography, as compared with analogue photographic technology). The encode to disc presents no problems, with no artifacting or other compression-related anomalies appearing throughout the presentation.

Some full-sized screengrabs are included at the bottom of this review. Please click to enlarge them.



Audio

Two audio options are present on the disc: a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track, and a LPCM 2.0 stereo track. Both of these are solid tracks, with good range and depth. The film uses some clever manipulation of audio to suggest Clark’s disorientation, including subtle whispering and an attempt to simulate tinnitus. These techniques, which sweep through the soundscape, mean that the 5.1 track is much more immersive and would be the preferred/recommended option. Optional English subtitles for the Hard of Hearing are included. These are easy to read and free from errors.

Extras

The disc includes:
- An audio commentary by Billy Senese, Shane Carruth & Jeremy Childs. The commentary begins seemingly in the middle of a conversation that feels as if it has already begun, the participants talking about the issues involved in bringing characters from the page to the screen. Carruth and Senese reflecting on their roles behind the camera, Carruth discussing how different it is to step in front of the lens ‘and not give a concern about anything else outside of it [the performance]’ in comparison with the pictures he himself has directed. There’s some strong discussion throughout the commentary of the logistics of performing for the screen, and talking about specific aspects of the picture and its production. Senese, Carruth and Childs are clearly relaxed and comfortable in one another’s company, the track offering a constant stream of recollections, anecdotes and asides.

- An audio commentary by Senese, producers Dennis Deck and editor/producer Jonathan Rogers, and cinematographer Andy Duensing. This commentary track opens with the participants introducing themselves. They talk about the crew’s approach to the material, reflecting in some detail on some of the editing decisions made in post-production. They consider the manner in which colour is used in the film and talk about some of the less obvious special effects in the finished film. This track is less lively than the other commentary included on this disc but contains much more information vis-à-vis the technicalities of the production (and post-production) process.

- ‘A Walk Through The Dead Center’ (38:27). This documentary covers the production of The Dead Center and features interviews with Senese and Carruth, alongside the film’s cinematographer Andy Duensing, actors Jeremey Childs and Bill Feehely, sound designer Russell Mehringer, visual effects artist Jonathan Richter and editor/producer Jonathan Rogers, among others. Senese talks about the origins of the film in the suicide of a friend of his. This event inspired Senese to making the short film ‘The Suicide Tapes’, an idea which evolved into The Dead Center. Senese, Feehely and Duerning visit some of the locations used in the making of the film, discussing some of the issues involved in shooting a feature on a limited budget and using real locations rather than studio sets. The actors discuss the process of preparing for their roles, Senese revealing his approach to directing their performances. Interviews with the subjects are interspersed with behind-the-scenes footage of the shooting of the picture.

- Deleted and Alternate Scenes: John Doe Arrives at the Hospital (0:52); Journey of the Dead (0:26); Another Day in the Ward (0:24); Daniel and Sara Argue (0:53); Edward Gets John Doe’s File (0:48); Daniel and Anne (0:47); Daniel Drunk (0:31); Sara’s Last Morning (1:05); Alternate Ending (1:06). (‘Play All’ option available.) These are all scene fragments or extensions of scenes.

- Cast Interviews:
Shane Carruth (funny) (3:00)
. Carruth offers a dryly funny, satirical take on the paradigms of onset EPK-style interviews, stating that the film is being shot ‘on cameras… which is helpful’.
Shane Carruth (serious) (3:50). Carruth talks about the differences involved in working in front of the camera rather than behind it, and discussing some of the aspects of the script that drew him to the film.
Poorna Jagannathan (3:24)
. Jagannathan discusses how she came to be cast in the film, and she talks about what appealed to her about the script. She reflects on some of the film’s themes too, and considers her character’s relationship with Daniel Forrester.

- Head-Casting with Jeremy Childs (1:43)
. This is a behind-the-scenes clip, mostly consisting of time lapse footage, showing the process by which a cast of Jeremy Childs’ head was made for one of the film’s special-effects sequences.

- Short Films: ‘Intruder’ (19:58); ‘The Suicide Tapes’ (24:52)
. These two short films by Senese are excellent, easily the equal of the main feature. ‘The Suicide Tapes’, rooted in the suicide of a friend of Senese’s, formed the core of the idea that eventually evolved into The Dead Center. Made in 2011, ‘Intruder’ focuses on a wounded soldier who returns home, wheelchair bound, mute and passive. His wife struggles to deal with his presence and his lack of engagement with the world around him. Meanwhile, she becomes suspicious of the noises she hears from the neighbouring house.

Made in 2010, ’The Suicide Tapes’ was inspired by the suicide of a friend of Senese’s, the narrative being presented as a series of videotaped interviews between a psychiatrist (Jenny Littleton) and her patient (Jeremy Childs), who claims to have committed suicide and believes himself to be immortal. This short film formed the core of the narrative premise of The Dead Center, Childs essentially playing a variation of the character in this short film.<

- ‘Midnight Radio Theater’: ‘Insomnia’ (26:00); ‘The Long Weekend’ (23:01); ‘Disposable Life’ (31:29); ‘The Suicide Tapes’ (26:14); ‘The Woman in the Basement’ (32:55); ‘Blood Oath’ (36:39); ‘Flu’ (40:23)
. These are seven audio dramas written by Senese. (They are also available online at the website of Senese’s production company LC Pictures: https://lcpictures.com/radio-plays/.) They are very good examples of the form and a nice inclusion

- Trailers & Teasers: Teaser 1 (1:05); Teaser 2 (1:03); Trailer (1:30)
.

- Image Galleries: Production Stills (62:33); Behind the Scenes (34:22); Poster Art (0:30)
.

Overall

Ambitious and making use of some low-key scares that are grounded in a sense of the uncanny (the gaping mouths of the victims, for example), The Dead Center sometimes feels a little disjointed. Nevertheless, there’s some glacial photography that seems clearly influenced by Stanley Kubrick’s films, in particular. The Dead Center lingers in the memory because of its execution and minimalist approach, which makes most effective use of a presumably limited budget. On a personal level, I found The Dead Center particularly interesting because by some strange synchronicity, some of the themes (the sense of cosmic horror) and imagery (the gaping mouths of the victims; the long tracking shots) are very similar to those of a short film, 'The Imposter', I co-wrote and directed for regional independent filmmaking collective Grimnir Pictures in February of 2018 (though in my case, the tracking shots were more influenced by Alan Clarke than Kubrick). Seeing Senese's take on material similar to that which I struggled to capture on screen myself makes me admire Senese's approach and the manner in which, in The Dead Center, he interweaves these elements in a way that retains a sense of enigma.

Arrow’s Blu-ray release contains a solid presentation of this digitally-shot feature which is supported by some superb contextual material. Amongst the material relating to the production of The Dead Center are Senese’s two short films, ‘Intruder’ and ‘The Suicide Tapes’, and Senese’s seven audio dramas; taken together, these are worth the price of admission alone. In many ways a fascinating film, The Dead Center is likely to divide viewers owing to its enigmatic nature and glacial pace, and some viewers may find the film frustrating for the very reasons that others will admire it. Arrow’s Blu-ray release is excellent, the inclusion of Senese's short films and the seven superb audio dramas by Senese, being worth the price of admission alone.




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