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The Girl Who Played with the Dead (2014)

The Fault in Ourselves

The antidote to bad horror movies and shitty remakes of great ones is a combination of vision, guts, and the ability to tell a compelling story. Udler has all of those things, but he'll never make it out of Wisconsin by shooting himself in the foot like this. Instead of rushing to deliver a picture every year, he might try making one every three years. With a greater budget, expanded resources, and enough time to hammer the kinks out of material that showcases his full potential as an artist, there would be no stopping him from conquering Hollywood. Knowing Cory, that's the last place he'd want to work, but they desperately need him out there. Goddammit, so do we.

That's how I ended my review of Cory Udler's last film, 2012's IDS Rising. I've echoed that sentiment for years regarding the writer/director's work, and it holds true for his latest picture, The Girl Who Played with the Dead. As a friend, a fan, and a film critic, it's easy for me to be sore at Udler for not having taken my sage advice (har har). It turns out the problem is mine, not his, and I can no longer ignore my blind-spot for micro-budget horror filmmaking.

(Please indulge me on this detour into Tangent Town. We'll be back on course momentarily, I promise).

In the nearly five years since I started Kicking the Seat, I've prided myself on watching anything and everything I can get my hands on. No genre is off limits. No budget is too small. No run-time is too short.

But there's a catch.

I don't make concessions regarding budget or intent. I operate under the assumption that, when I sit down with a movie, the filmmaker has presented me with something that he or she is not only ready for me to watch, but ready for a potential audience to pay for. It's not my problem that your boom mic was glitchy during the parking lot scene or that the gaping hole in the plot was due to an actor having a doctor's appointment during pick-ups. In a world where independent artists spend years on pictures, scraping and shooting whatever they can, whenever they can, there are few good excuses for not massaging something until it makes sense to the audience--or innovating in another direction.

In case you're wondering (and I get this question a lot), yes, I do hold mainstream features to the same standard. Movie podcasts weren't a thing, really, when I started out, but I listen to them all the time now. They're packed with juicy filmmaker tidbits that explain set troubles, studio meddling, or other circumstances, which led to this or that not making sense in the final cut. That's great, but I'm uncomfortable paying eight, twelve, or nineteen bucks for multi-million-dollar art that's full of problems inexplicable within the context of the experience.

It's the same argument I made years back, when people accused me of not "getting" The Tree of Life because I hadn't seen Terrence Malick's other films. I might've bought that line of logic, had the movie opened with a career-retrospective montage and dissertation on symbolism narrated by Morgan Freeman. Unless we're talking about sequels, however, such a degree of prior knowledge should be a bonus feature, and not a disclaimer. 

Call this a snobbish attitude if you like, but I've seen relatively few of all the truly great movies cinema has to offer--meaning that every film I watch is one step further away from experiencing the medium's full potential. In short, I approach each new movie as being potentially worth my time, in the sincere hope that it is. Otherwise, it's easy to switch to the mode of only watching the "classics" or stuff that colleagues assure me is good. Gems don't get discovered that way.

I lost a friend over my harsh reviews of the no-budget romps Swamphead and Sexsquatch. I regret the disconnect, but not the sentiment behind those critiques. Both films are poorly made, nigh objectively unfunny, and made to appeal to people who don't care at all about what they watch. By what criteria do I judge such work? Would the filmmakers be insulted if I flat-out said, "I know this isn't a real movie, so I'll just grade you on the 'piece of shit' scale."?

The easy answer is, "Well, if you're too good for this stuff, just don't bother watching it." Fair enough, but again, this doesn't leave room for surprises. Which brings me (finally) back to Udler.

His Incest Death Squad Part 2 made my list of top ten films in 2010. That's right, I ranked it in the same league as The Fighter, The Social Network, and The King's Speech. I wouldn't submit the film for Academy consideration, but the brains, talent, and creative vision behind that movie outclassed the majority of mainstream output I'd suffered through that year. Udler took a kooky premise and blew it up, making IDS2 feel like the last brilliant gasp of someone convinced they'd never have another shot at filmmaking.

His subsequent pictures, Mediatrix and IDS Rising, fell short of that spark. Udler's films are full of interesting ideas and inspired bits of low-rent movie magic, but after IDS2, he seemed increasingly focused on putting out something every year--rather than putting out something great. The Girl Who Played with the Dead is his latest, and my last straw.

The setup: A Wisconsinite named Lauren (Kristen Casey) has a death fetish. She loves looking at books and movies featuring real-life corpses. One day, Satan (Blade Braxton, reprising his IDS Rising Role, with a Ledger-Joker flair) shows up and wagers Lauren's eternal soul on her ability to turn things around within thirty days. The dark lord doesn't actually want this to happen, of course, and so he plants some famous serial killers in her path as on-line dating candidates, and arranges for her dead sister, Bianca (Shannon Lark), to put in a good word for the afterlife. 

The first twenty-nine minutes and twenty-four seconds of this movie are awful. Following a cute warning at the outset by schlock Buddha Lloyd Kaufman regarding all the filthy, politically incorrect things contained within, The Girl Who Played with the Dead slides downhill into a miasma of bad filmmaking and worse acting. Udler's signature flair for awesome music placement is still strong, but the visuals are flat and unengaging. Every scene is lit as if late morning is the only time of day, and the performers bang drunkenly around the screen in ways that suggest they're collectively allergic to relatability.

This is a cartoon, a hodgepodge of Udler's worst instincts as a storyteller, and it took everything in me to not just shut the damned thing off. But minute-marker 29:25 changed everything. I know this because Lark's arrival so classed up the proceedings as to compel me to watch her first scene three times. I'd sat for a half hour wondering if Casey's toneless delivery; Braxton's flamboyant, copycat routine; and the usually reliable Greg Johnson's...well, whatever that was...were simply stylistic choices on Udler's part. But Lark is so on point--not just for this movie, but for most movies--that I knew right away the director had simply lucked the fuck out.

Along with a brief cameo by Udler regular Tom Lodewyck, Lark's presence gives us glimpses into what the movie could have been--indeed, should have been: creepy and portending doom, with a subtle sense of humor that tickled the brain while upsetting the stomach. Instead, Udler throws narrative and editorial spaghetti against a poop-covered wall, serving whatever sticks for supper.

I'm pretty sure he's trying to offend Christians, conservatives, and everyone else he sees as one-dimensional, cartoon assholes with images of defiled bodies, amputee sex dolls, and endless cuts to a pair of demonic lesbians fondling each other. But as someone with a somewhat rounded world view, I doubt this mythical target audience would ever deign to watch something called The Girl Who Played with the Dead. They'd likely just pray for everyone involved--which the so-called "sinners" wouldn't care about in the first place, resulting in a net effect of zero.

It's a shame, too, because, miraculously, Udler still manages to sneak reminders of his greatness into his own film. In one scene, blood drips over the black letterboxing bars, consuming the entire screen (it's stylized blob blood, sadly, but the effect would have killed in a more serious production). In another, he turns the word "juicing" into a very funny visual pun that, once again, would have made a great comedic break in a horror film, rather than an exception to a rule of lameness.

I've spent a great deal of this review talking about low-budget and no-budget movies in general, using The Girl Who Played with the Dead as a back-drop. If you're like me, you find this practice really annoying in film criticism, and probably haven't even hacked your way through all fourteen-hundred-plus words. I feel good about this decision, though, because this film is my "Get out of Jail Free" card. Laying bare all my feelings (agree with them or not, these are my criteria) shakes me of the obligation to review this stuff anymore. I'm done, and you'll now need a telescope to see the bar for any movie that comes across my desk.

Filmmakers: we live in a golden era of DIY motion pictures. Equipment and talent are cheap, and literally anyone with friends, time, and equipment-rental money can shoot, edit, and distribute "art" globally with zero training (the same is true for Internet writers, frankly). But just because you put effort into something--just because you tried, or kinda tried--doesn't make the resulting product worthwhile or worth watching. It certainly doesn't make it worth selling.

If you're content asking friends and family to spend a few bucks to watch the funny little movie you made, go for it. But don't bother me unless you're genuinely confident in your project's ability to capture the passion, production, and potential of a young Scorsese or Raimi. After all, if you don't really care, how the hell am I supposed to?

Full Disclosure: I'm listed as a producer on this film. I supported Udler's IndieGoGo campaign and am proud to have done so. But I'm disappointed--in myself for holding out hope, as much as I am in Udler for not doing something legit with all that beautiful potential. Again, that's on me. The Girl Who Played with the Dead is, as they say, what it is. I'm too good for this movie. And so is Cory Udler.

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