Saturday, August 01, 2020

New Promise Aborning in DEAD DICKS

Heston Horwin and Jillian Harris study the mysterious Thing on the Wall in DEAD DICKS.

DEAD DICKS - the unfortunately titled debut feature of Canadian director team Chris Bavota and Lee Paula Springer, which won the Audience Award for Best Canadian Feature Film at the 2019 Fantasia Festival - has a lot in common conceptually with recent cable series like RUSSIAN DOLLS and FOREVER, which probably originate with DEAD LIKE ME (2003-2004). It's a situation/existential dramody whose protagonists are dead people trying to navigate the laws and booby-traps governing their newfound non-existence.

We don't have to think too hard to figure out why scenarios such as this are becoming so popular; the world in which we're now living is such a mess, such cause for despair, that we are turning to death itself for hope. But what I find especially interesting about all of these mentioned projects is that they portray all of our horrendous problems in life as duck soup compared to the situational difficulties awaiting us beyond the veil. RUSSIAN DOLLS is about a single character caught in a post-mortem loop of events and trying to find her way out, while FOREVER tackles the issue of how messy human relationships turn even messier in an Afterlife where everything is permitted. DEAD DICKS is about Rebecca (Jillian Harris), a young woman who has just been notified of her acceptance into a college where she will train as a neurological nurse, whose big opportunity conflicts with her habitual caretaking for her adult, mentally-ill brother Rich (Heston Horwin). After hours of trying to contact him by text and phone, she goes to his apartment - where nearly the entire film takes place - and discovers his dead body hung in a closet... only to have her shock and grief interrupted by another Rich, who walks into the room stark-naked, having just been birthed - fully-grown - through an enormous vagina-like occlusion manifest on his bedroom wall.

Rich discovers himself dead yet still alive after yet another suicide attempt.
The never-explained thing on the wall (which tellingly suggests to Becca a shit-giving anus rather than a life-giving vagina) is a wonderfully curious, ambiguous image, one that recalls the titular object in Kathe Koja's 1991 horror novel THE CIPHER (written as "The Funhole"); however, the story doesn't get around to putting something back into it for transformational purposes till the very end. Instead, Rich - a depressed artist who is forever blasting doom-laden music to the torment of his downstairs neighbor (Matt Keyes) - has responded to his initial, not fully successful suicide a few more times in frustration before Becca shows up, leaving his lifeless "originals" strewn about the different rooms of his apartment. It takes Becca to realize this will pose a problem for Rich, since his landlord is coming early in the morning to respond to the downstairs fellow's complaints - though Rich has the interesting counter-argument that he is they, and they are he, and he is clearly still alive, so could they be called "murdered" or even "dead"? As the film reaches this point, we're increasingly drawn in by the characters and performances, but the narrative gets stuck for awhile in trying to figure out its own lack of forward movement as Rich's successive attempts to kill himself (in all but the "messy" ways) translate into dead identical twins and an inescapable monotony of plot, especially as Becca's involvement deepens with the systematic (largely off-screen) dissections of corpses. Then there comes a turning point it would be wrong of me to reveal.

The film begins with a well-advised cautionary card about the seriousness of depression and suicide prevention, which provides a hot-line telephone number for anyone who may feel alone and in trouble. The film too reaches a point when it finally surpasses sick situational humor and knuckles down to the serious issues underlying its central relationship. Most responsible for the film's ultimate success are its clever script (by the two directors, who initially told this story in the form of a short) and its three lead performances, which eventually delve into the innermost regrets and feelings of this helplessly self-involved and irresponsible man and the sacrifices his sister has made over a lifetime, simply to get him through each day. Her choice of profession shows the extent to which her character has been molded by supporting her brother, and the story sharpens as it hones-in on Rich's decision to take responsibility, enabling her to meet her promising future without regret. I was very disappointed that a film this vested in the reality of a serious issue would leave some of its key elements unexplained; in addition to the bedroom wall adornment there is a certain liquid in the refrigerator that somehow ties into all this, but unless I missed something, we never learn what it was or how it ties into all this, so the presence of both these things loiters at the edge of conceptual art or surrealism. Not that I'm anti-ambiguity - far from it. Remarkably for such a low-budget film, DEAD DICKS culminates in one of the genre's great ambiguous closing images, something part BEING JOHN MALKOVICH/part ENTER THE VOID, which I wouldn't feel uncomfortable comparing to the closing images of L'AVVENTURA or even 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. I won't be surprised if there are essays in years to come, musing over its meaning. 

DEAD DICKS' sibling protagonists.
In the accompanying audio commentary by Bavota and Springer (as they admit, the first they've ever done and the first they've ever listened to!), their explanation of how this closing shot was achieved is hilariously simple and made me want to buy them drinks. The commentary plays much as the conversation over those hypothetical drinks would; they are both young and down-to-earth and speak humbly and clearly while recounting the warts-and-all story of how this maiden feature came together - shot in a mere ten days. The track was recorded without the soundtrack playing under their voices, so their occasional silences are more harshly felt than they should. Also noted are the presence of some Easter Eggs in the film, such as the fact that Becca's college name is an anagram for Cronenberg, and a variety of disguised "dicks" integrated into the art direction. The extras include four "video diaries" by the directors (18m) and a special effects featurette.

While I wouldn't agree with most of the hyperbolic blurb words adorning the packaging, DEAD DICKS is nevertheless a welcome, engaging surprise made by a new directorial team that bears watching. This Artsploitation Films release is available on both DVD and Blu-ray and I recommend it to anyone struggling in their search for interesting new diversions in the horror and fantasy genres.

(c) 2020 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.

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