'The Dead Center': Film Review

Arrow Films
Makes hospitals seem even scarier than they already are.
10/11/2019

A suicide victim mysteriously comes back to life in Billy Senese's horror thriller starring acclaimed indie filmmaker Shane Carruth.

Hospitals make excellent settings for horror films. It's scary enough having to go into one for even a minor medical procedure, not to mention that people often die there. In real life, of course, the dead at least stay dead. But that's not the case in the new indie horror film from writer-director Billy Senese (Closer to God), in which all hell breaks loose when a supposedly deceased suicide victim suddenly wakes up, crawls out of his body bag and wanders naked down a hallway until he collapses on an empty bed, desperately trying to get warm. That startling scene occurs in the opening minutes of The Dead Center, and it's not even the scariest moment in the pic.

Acclaimed filmmaker Shane Carruth (Primer, Upstream Color) here takes off his director's hat to play the lead role of psychiatrist Daniel Forrester, who becomes involved in the case of a mysterious patient (Jeremy Childs, AMC's Preacher) who's been brought to his psychiatric ward in a highly confused state. What Forrester doesn't know is said patient didn't have to travel very far to get there. He's the John Doe who was previously brought to the morgue after having apparently committed suicide by slashing his wrists and several other body parts.

Two parallel storylines emerge. In the first, Forrester attempts to uncover the background of his patient who has no memory of being dead, let alone how he got to the hospital. In the second, a medical examiner (Bill Feehely) plays detective and tries to uncover the identity of the dead patient who somehow disappeared, completely unaware that the man whose background he's digging into is actually in another part of the hospital.

It soon becomes evident that Forrester, in the time-honored tradition of movie shrinks, has some emotional issues of his own. He's also more than willing to bend the rules to get around the watchful eyes of his supervisor (a very effective Poorna Jagannathan, Big Little Lies) who considers him bad news. More problematically, people in the hospital soon start winding up dead under horrific circumstances, and it eventually becomes clear that the new patient is responsible.

The Dead Center feels familiar at times in its horror film tropes (for instance, John Doe is obsessed with spirals, as were the characters in the 2000 Japanese horror flick Uzumaki), and its pacing seriously lags at times. What it has going for it in spades is supremely creepy atmosphere. The hospital virtually becomes a major character in the story itself, its washed-out coloring and neon lights making everyone look like they have a sickly pallor.

Even more impressive is the unnerving ambient sound design, often pitched at deafening levels, that constantly keeps our nerves jangling, as well as the occasional use of strobe effects and subliminal imagery that give the proceedings a surreal, nightmarish feel.

The casting is effective as well. The hospital employees don't seem like they've stepped out of a fashion advertisement, such as in Grey's Anatomy; they actually look like ordinary, harried humans working too many double shifts. Carruth brings an intriguing complexity and vulnerability to his troubled shrink, and Childs has such an imposingly outsized physical presence that you can't take your eyes off his character, whether he's alive, dead or somewhere in between.

Production companies: Sequitur Cinema, Movie City Films, LC Pictures
Distributor: Arrow Films
Cast: Shane Carruth, Poorna Jagannathan, Jeremy Childs, Bill Feehely
Director-screenwriter: Billy Senese
Producers: Shane Carruth, Denis Deck, Jonathan Rogers, Billy Sense
Executive producer: Kelly L. Frey Sr,
Director of photography: Andy Duensing
Production designer: Ashley Amezcua
Editors: Derek Pearson, Jonathan Rogers
Composer: Jordan Lehning
Costume designer: Jena Moody
Casting: Jeremy Childs

92 minutes