The condemned: The Dead Ones (2020)
The plot: In the opening minutes of The Dead Ones, a principal delivers a stern admonition to some kids who are serving a lengthy detention. Very quickly, however, her language and behavior veers into not just unprofessional but actively disturbing territory. The viewer’s entirely understandable question would be, “Wait—is this just bad writing, or is something very weird going on?” As it turns out, the answer is a resounding, “Both.”
The kids in question are a quartet of high school students who took some time out of their summer vacation to trash their alma mater, Arcadia High. Now, with only a week of summer break left, their punishment is to clean it up themselves. There’s lunkheaded misfit Louis (Torey Garza); shy and awkward nerd Alice, a.k.a. “Mouse” (Sarah Rose Harper); metalhead outcast Scottie (Brandon Thane Wilson); and Emily (Katie Foster), a girl whose sole personality trait seems to be that she’s severely mentally ill. (Within minutes of meeting her, we discover that she hallucinates patterns on her skin, which she then carves into herself with a knife. The others shrug off this behavior with a “Ha, that’s just Emily bein’ Emily!” attitude that beggars belief.)
A lot of other things very quickly beggar belief. For starters, they’re being taken to school to start cleaning up just as the sun sets, which seems weird to say the least. Next, there’s that odd behavior of the administrator overseeing their punishment, Miss Persephone (Buffy The Vampire Slayer’s Clare Kramer), who comes across more like an intoxicated dinner-theater performer than someone who works at a school. (After explaining in a purr that the school’s janitor was stabbed to death recently—what?!—she announces she’ll be locking herself in her office until they’re done. Great plan!) And the school doesn’t look trashed—it looks more like a crime scene, but with severe property damage to boot.
But before you can say, “Huh, none of this feels remotely plausible,” in comes the plot driver—or the ostensible one, anyway. A group of four people arrive at the property, don black outfits with elaborate masks and military-grade gas masks, pull out weapons, and proceed to lock down the school with themselves and the others inside. Presumably, they’re going to pose a major threat to our gang, no? If only it all didn’t feel like someone’s badly written fever dream to begin with.
The jig is already up about five minutes into it, when Mouse lugs her cleaning bucket past a case containing the school’s sports trophies. Because they’re not normal trophies; all the little gold-colored figurines atop the awards are monstrous, non-human beasts. At this point, any viewer can probably guess what’s going on here—this is some hell dimension, or maybe purgatory, and the four main characters have been sent here for reasons unknown. Whatever it is, it’s not reality. Still, the film continues to act as though we’re building to a big reveal, intercutting between the masked ones setting up some elaborate plan to release gas into the vents throughout the school and the kids slowly realizing something weird is going on. (You’d think Mouse happening upon Miss Persephone with half her face missing and muttering strange things—about 15 minutes in—would’ve clued them in to the fact that magic is afoot.) After the masked quartet starts appearing in flashbacks where they stormed the school and took hostages, it’s obvious what happened: These four teens are also the masked ones who committed this school shooting, and they’re all paying for their sins—which, once you see the true extent of their crimes, are numerous and horrifying—while fighting to see if they can resist the supernatural evil that’s tormenting them.
Skip this paragraph if you don’t want to know how it ends, though allow me to assure you that you should not care in the slightest. (And at only 73 minutes, “slight” is an apt word for The Dead Ones.) We soon realize that these four banded together to get revenge, but there was a little miscommunication about the endgame. In the flashbacks to their assault on the school, we learn Mouse didn’t think they were actually going to kill anyone, just scare them—a bit hypocritical, since Mouse agreed to be part of the team only on the condition that they murder her abusive father first—so when the shooting starts, the group fractures. Emily ends up dead after trying to kill Mouse, and Mouse then races to stop Louis and Scottie before they can hurt Persephone’s pre-teen daughter. She hacks the former to death then shoots the latter in the head, ultimately sacrificing herself to get the gas mask onto the girl and save her life. This same order of deaths then plays out again in the present, only with the malevolent spirits taking out the kids. The movie ends with the group once more being driven to the school to begin their eternal cleanup-punishment of supernatural torture, memories wiped, with one exception: Mouse is no longer with them.
Over-the-top box copy: “Best horror film of the year!” claims a glowing endorsement on the Blu-ray cover, apparently from someone who only saw one horror movie this year. The tagline below it—“High school is hell”—isn’t bad, though. And if you flip the case over, there’s a very funny quote on the back arguing that The Dead Ones is “a juddery, disorienting trip into the psyche of the school shooter, as well as a catabasis into the mor(t)ality of crime, punishment, and maybe even redemption.” Sure.
The descent: Like a lot of horror fans, I spend October looking for as many films to check out in that genre as possible. And this one seemed promising enough: a bevy of positive citations in the press materials, as well as a description of the film as “a horror version of The Breakfast Club,” which sounded just delightful. Admittedly, I’m not a fan of the other films I’ve seen by director Jeremy Kasten, 2001’s The Attic Expeditions or his 2007 remake of The Wizard Of Gore (Crispin Glover’s performance notwithstanding), but this held potential.
The theoretically heavenly talent: I wasn’t familiar with any of the actors, save for Buffy’s Kramer (there’s always a warm glow of recognition when someone from that show appears).
The execution: Okay, what are the people who praised this film seeing that I’m missing? Within the first few minutes, I wrote, “Editing is borderline incompetent,” in my notes, as well as, “Why is the camera almost never pointed at the thing we’re ostensibly meant to see?” And I mean this in extremely basic ways: At one point Scottie grabs cleaning supplies and another comments on it, but you wouldn’t know what they’re referring to, because the shot never lands on a wider frame to reveal it until afterwards, instead sticking with an unmatched shot-reverse shot. Saying it’s messy is putting it mildly. But don’t take my word for it—see for yourself.
It’s rare to say this about a horror film, but “pretentious” is an apt term. The movie is straining for depth and symbolism is doesn’t earn. It believes it contains rich mythology by dint of including the myth of Ammit, an ancient Egyptian monster who devoured dead souls unworthy of immortality, and applying little flourishes like having the kids dress up as the four horsemen of the apocalypse—death, famine, pestilence, and war—to lend it a heady intellectual air. How does it apply those concepts? By oh-so-subtly having its educator named “Persephone” and by having Mouse just explain to the others, out of nowhere, the history of Ammit, so that when it appears later in fully rendered CGI, we can think, “Oh. Ammit, right?” It is never used outside of that. It’s pure window dressing, meant to tart up a thunderingly pedestrian script where characters who are literally confronting undead monsters for the first time in their lives don’t freak out, but instead say things like, “Stop it, or I’ll kill you for real.”
Despite suggesting the old “What if we’re all hallucinating from something those masked guys put in the air vents?” option, it’s clear well before that what kind of story this is. A lot of reviews seem to argue that the movie isn’t trying to hold back the reveal that the four horsemen and our four protagonists are one and the same, which is a point I’d be more inclined to grant if the film then didn’t treat the late-in-the-game reveal as some massive rug-pull. As horror fans, we’re used to having to defensively justify our fondness for a genre that was long considered disreputable (not so much these days, happily), so while I can understand trying to find value in the film’s semi-distasteful use of the real-life tragedy of school shootings (it’s put to cheap and exploitive ends, not thoughtful ones—this isn’t Elephant), the result falls well short of compelling.
Still, it’s not without its moments of eerie potency. After having largely dismissed the film, the next day I found myself remembering with a shudder a scene in which Louis enters the women’s bathroom to look for his girlfriend, Emily. (Another strike against the movie: It’s one of those stories where the four “friends” not only don’t seem to have anything in common, but they interact like people who have never even spoken to one another before, let alone like people close enough to plan and execute an exhaustively rehearsed school shooting together.) As he wanders past the decaying stalls, a pair of writhing CGI creatures occupy them, just outside his sightline. It’s not exactly great effects, but something about it obviously worked, because I’m still dwelling on that moment.
There’s also one genuinely gross moment in The Dead Ones, depending on your tolerance for body horror. After old wounds of Emily’s start bleeding heavily, the group wraps her arms tightly in bandages to staunch the flow. Later, Emily starts clawing at them in agony, so Mouse helps her unwrap the gauze, and when her arms are again revealed, the injuries are swarming with maggots—which are one of my particular weaknesses. Yuck. Yuck yuck yuck. More like The Gross Ones.
Still, a few decent squirms do not a movie make, and the basic building blocks of a decent film—blocking, framing, editing—are all mishandled here. Simple shot compositions often seem inexplicably chosen, and I ended up putting on the closed captioning in order to get past the wobbly sound mixing. But at least there were some unintentional laughs to help things along. During the climax, Louis has remembered that Mouse betrayed them during their attack, and begins stalking her, intent on wreaking bloody vengeance. He chases her into the rafters of the school auditorium, ready to rip her apart, when suddenly he gets tangled in a rope and falls off, some bad CGI depicting the plunge instead of a stunt person. Which is already a little silly, but then Louis calls up after his fall has been broken: “I’m okay, Mouse, pull me up!” Yeah, she’ll get right on that.
Likelihood it will rise from obscurity: Despite the wannabe-shocking subject matter (reportedly, the script was done way back in 2009, but the unfortunate tendency of real life to keep having actual school shootings scared off any potential producers for years—of all the rotten luck!), The Dead Ones just isn’t very good. The actors do their best with the material, but are defeated at every turn. Ammit is eating this thing’s soul for sure.
Damnable commentary track or special features? There’s a brief set tour and a charming featurette with Jax Smith, an intern who got to do her very first special effects work on this movie (the effects guy, Elvis Jones, died in 2017 before the film was completed) and who sells the film way better than the film itself. But on top of that, there’s not one but two commentary tracks—one with the cast and director, and one with the producer, director, and editor. Full disclosure: I could only bring myself to listen to a few minutes of the one with the producer and editor, maybe because it’s too difficult to hear people hold court on things you thought they did very badly. Right out of the gate, the director begins by saying they’re recording it almost “11 years to the week” since they started shooting the movie, which, what? They filmed this a decade ago, in summer 2009?! Wow. And spent the past decade editing, doing the effects, and so on, which just makes me feel bad for how weak I find the final product. But also, apparently, there was at one point a cut that was two hours and 20 minutes long—I have no idea what that might look like, but maybe three more minutes of space to let up on the choppy editing could’ve gone a long way toward rescuing this thing? (Also, there’s a lengthy stretch of silence at one point, where they just watch their handiwork unfold. Awkward.)
The cast commentary is much better, though even the sound mix on this is bad—some are incredibly quiet, some are front and center. The director talks about how it’s the first time he’s felt like a “grown-up director,” which is unusual. But it’s a charming listen, much more enjoyable than the film; Kasten and his actors are all great, the equivalent of a Dinner For Five episode where the topic is a bad movie, but they make it sound good.