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Dead Girls (2014)

Girl Power from Beyond the Grave

We need more horror anthologies like Dead Girls. Though co-writers/directors Neal Fischer* and Del Harvey have made a decidedly rough-around-the-edges feature debut, their film's conceit is brilliant, and the passion behind it is undeniable.

Centering on four tales of jealousy, abuse, revenge, and murder, Dead Girls may be most notable as the first female-dominated movie of its kind. But it's also a hell of an example of low-budget filmmaking's possibilities (and its constraints, frankly). For starters, the film looks and sounds like a million bucks--except for the last chapter, which I'll get to later. You might think I'm front-loading praise to avoid talking about the story, but a solid AV presentation is practically everything in indie horror's wide but shallow world. From the cold, Fall woods of the wraparound, to the itchy body-in-a-fridge-under-an-overpass of "Over My Dead Body", and the Argento-worthy red-lit hallways of "Theta Phi's Never Die", there's a lot to appreciate here--and in stunning clarity, to boot.

The individual chapters are a mixed bag. We begin with a girl being chased through a creepy forest. Alice (Jessica Galang) ducks into a creepy house to avoid the dirty, bearded stalker (Joe Caballero), who apparently wants to do nasty things to her. Hiding in a room upstairs, Alice discovers a leather-bound journal and begins flipping through its pages.

Oddly, there's no portal from this framing into the first story-within-a-story. We jump right to black and back into "Over My Dead Body". It's an artsy choice, but an unwelcome one in a movie like this. The best anthologies offer strong connective tissue between its bookends and segments (think of Creepshow or, more recently, Trick 'r Treat). Here, there's no narrative fade between Alice, the book, and any of the stories--to the point where one couldn't be blamed for wondering if those stories even appear in the text.

Luckily, the chapters are uniformly interesting, if only intermittently satisfying. In the strongest of the bunch, "Theta Phi's Never Die", co-writers Fischer and David Nevarez mash together the cheesy 80s-ness of classic college comedies with a fun twist on I Know What You Did Last Summer. When things go horribly wrong during a sorority initiation, geeky best friends Avery (Mia Doran) and Courtney (Ali Hadley) are torn apart by the cruel machinations of head sister, Taylor (Madalyn Mattsey).

Following one girl's death and resurrection, the Theta Phi house gets a brand-new occupant who returns from the netherworld with a fierce attitude and vengeance on her mind. The sisters find themselves in a bind, thanks to their only having been pretty sure the body they'd buried in a vacant lot was dead. When a ghost turns up at their doorstep, they do the polite thing and offer her/it a room. A long, bloody night of terror unfolds, but not without healthy splashes of black humor (one girl's solution to being terrified is jumping into bed with her two half-naked sisters and Taylor's dumb, trophy-jock boyfriend).

Fischer's direction is spot-on, transitioning easily from comedy to horror and back again. "Theta Phi's Never Die" could have easily been a mess of disparate tones (as is often the case when young filmmakers switch up genres), but most of the jokes land, and the tension is intentionally fun. The stalk-and-slash motif is a bit of a let-down, but the segment is anchored by great performances from Mattsey, Doran, and Andrew Jacob DeHart.

The next-strongest chapter is "Over My Dead Body", in which a scorned college girl gets in a fight with her cheating boyfriend at a party and winds up dead. Fortunately, she'd just gotten a nifty pentagram tattoo, which allows her to return from the grave and exact revenge. The setup and execution are great, thanks to a spitfire performance by Aubrey Joyce Tunnell as Suzy. It's at once easy to see how Travis (Nick Cardiff) could get fed up with her paranoia about his sleeping around, and difficult to understand how he could cheat on someone with such a bold, bright personality.

Unfortunately, Harvey's script devolves into a stalk-and-slash affair in the boyfriend's house, with a re-animated Suzy twitching, taunting, and knifing her way to justice. Either through a lack of budget or vision, "Over My Dead Body" loses steam in its second half, trading supernatural intrigue for conventions found in any serial killer movie. Still, it's not the weakest of the bunch.

That honor would go to "Vengeance is Mine", a non-linear assault on religion that passes right over substance on its way to style. Writer Drake Linder offers little new in her story of a prostitute named Maggie (Kelsey Sante) seeking revenge on the Catholic priest (Brian Rooney) who repeatedly raped her as a young girl. While the girl's look is iconic (scuffed nun's habit and self-satisfied sneer), her story is not. We've seen a dozen such movies, all with leering priests and old, cold nuns who don't believe anything bad is happening under their sacred roof. The flashbacks to Maggie's previously happy life and the present-day look at the competitive life of a street walker are just filler leading up to the climactic showdown with the film's "real monster".

I should note that, at the screening I attended, the sound in "Vengeance is Mine" was quiet and kind of warbling, as if we were watching the film underwater. I don't know if this was an issue with our particular transfer, or a stylistic choice on the part of the filmmakers (if it's the latter..yikes).

It's difficult to fault Dead Girls' three chapters. Taken individually, they range from okay to pretty great. But spliced together via faulty framing device, the similarities and cracks in these shorts become all too obvious. Besides the previously mentioned slasher-movie repetition, there are two (count 'em, two!) dick-ripping scenes, and one too many monologues about characters making up in death for their poor treatment in life. Each segment also suffers from a certain degree of theatricality in the performances--which is understandable, I guess, considering many of the actors have stage backgrounds; I mention this only because, as someone who doesn't already know this going in, the broad projection and sometimes overly pronounced delivery might seem out of place in a horror movie.

Despite all its quirks (and, in some cases, because of them), Dead Girls is a fun, funny, and sometimes creepy anthology. If the stories come across as a tad tin-eared in parts, that may have to do with their having been written mostly by men paying homage to a genre that typically doesn't add shades of gray to female protagonists. Should Dead Girls 2 ever get off the ground, I would love to see a take on the material driven by the gender its creators are trying to honor. Harvey, Fischer, and company show a lot of promise here, but the key missing ingredient may, in fact, be a woman's touch.

Note: Dead Girls will be available on DVD this Fall. This is an early review.

*Full disclosure: Fischer is not only a friend, but one of my favorite creators working in Chicago's thriving independent-art scene. My doorway into this world opened wide in 2012, when I saw a play he directed, Brian Work's fantastic, heartfelt comedy, Once Upon a Rom-Com: The Bill Pullman Story.

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