Nine high school kids celebrate graduation at a secluded home in the wilderness. They fight, philander, and feel nostalgic as they embark on a life away from home, in college. Once the party dies down they play a game: Dead Body. But when one party-goer takes the game too far, actually murdering the other guests one by one, it's up to the group to set aside their tensions, and ferret out the murderer before it's too late.
When I sat down with co-writer and producer Ian Bell of the forthcoming horror/mystery Dead Body, I asked him which films inspired his movie. I had my suspicions (clearly there’s some Friday the 13th nostalgic tropes being borrowed and I saw quite a bit of 1986’s April Fool’s Day). But the first film title out of his mouth was Clue. Definitely not what I was expecting – but once he said it, I can see it.
Now, Dead Body may have some hearty and genuine laughs (character Dwayne’s comment on the tools he finds to help the group defend themselves is a prime example), but it’s a full-on horror exercise – lots of bloody gore and chases in the woods – but there’s definitely the tell-tale signs of a true whodunit.
Dominic (Jay Myers) has invited several of his high school contemporaries (they’ve all just graduated and this is their last hurrah) to his father’s deep-in-the-woods cabin. Among them is Dominic’s close friend Ilsa (Rachel Brun – up for Best Actress in a Feature at this year’s Filmquest) and her much older boyfriend Dwayne (Cooper Hopkins). And much to the chagrin of uptight Dominic, Ilsa invited several other friends and peripheral acquaintances to the weekend party. After an evening of drinking, and during a lull in the festivities, the group decides to play the game “Dead Body”. Per Bell, it’s a real game (I’d never heard of it) but I’ll spare you the long harangue of the game’s rules/details. Suffice to say, the group becomes deeply (and terrifyingly) involved in a true (and deadly) version of the game, thus the title. But who is behind it? Ahh, the mystery.
As I discussed the film with Bell – post-screening – I offered him kudos on his characters. For my avid readers of 2, you know how much character development means to me. And Bell (along with co-writer Ramon Isao) hit the nail on the head. As the nine characters are introduced, you’re given the usual stereotypes – the jock, the quiet nerd, the pothead and of course, the final girl. But it’s clear that this was all a conscious choice in the film. And there’s a marked difference between the writers/filmmakers who fall into the cliché trap because they’re bad writers/filmmakers and those artistic minds who use these tried-n-true ideas to lift their story out of the mundane. Dead Body is one of the latter.
As an audience, we care about this group. Despite the perceived conscious choice to paint these characters with broad strokes to fit the usual horror stereotypes, there are enough character histories (many of the actors had previously worked together) and per Bell, each actor was given a backstory and secrets and memories of interactions with their “friends” – and it absolutely shows. There’s an easy shorthand present between most of the characters (some are outsiders, which plays well into the story).
The filmmakers know what films and formulas they’re pulling from, so there’s never a thought of, “Oh jeez, this again.” I find it fascinating that savvy audiences will be able to pick this up immediately. Those who don’t, may find it more difficult to swallow what could be considered “another typical stalk-n-slash”. In other words, Dead Body is intelligent.
On that note, the screenplay (Bell and Isao are up for Best Feature Screenplay at Filmquest) is smart, funny where it needs to be and provides the actors with plenty of opportunity to shine. My favorite relationship is that of Marcus (Spencer Hamp) and Rumor (Nic Morden). Rumor is part of this group’s history, but he’s his own brand of outsider. Marcus is clearly a more popular personality in their school/clique, and has brought the socially awkward Rumor along for the ride all of these years. Their relationship comes to a head as the film progresses, and without offering spoilers, one of their interactions equals the film’s strongest emotional moment. And that means the writing, the direction and the performances have all come together to make this moment work and make it stand out.
Also, the majority of the actors in the film hark from the theatre world and Dead Body is their first screen credit (their IMDb profiles tell the tale). And since it’s a sometimes difficult transition from stage to screen for some actors, it’s an even more remarkable feat to see such strong performances from the entire ensemble.
And director Bobbin Ramsey is a successful theatre director. This is her first film directing credit. Per Bell, “I sat her down. ‘I know you’ve never made anything off the stage. I will guide you. I will be there for you. I will connect you with the right DP’. Ramon and I really wanted – horror is so female driven in character and plot, but not female driven behind the camera. And we love the genre and we were really adamant and interested in what that dynamic would be to have a strong female director that could then create a strong, dynamic, complex, real female lead instead of the virgin who is strong enough to get through — wily and outdoes masculinity.”
My only biggie problem (it’s actually quite minor – but still noticeable) is that the several scenes within the cabin’s central living space – became repetitive. Something bad happens, and the remaining members of the group, regroup in this room – to basically reiterate what has happened, formulate new plans and freshly accuse their fellow survivors. It stood out to me – not as a horrific misstep, but as something easy which could have and should have been avoided – even by setting it in another space within the home.
I knew pretty early on who was on the other end of that sharp-edged shovel (and the myriad of other deadly weapons at the killer’s disposal), and frankly I was hoping I was wrong. For the record I wasn’t. However, there’s an off-hand clue to the killer’s motives early on in the film. It’s very well done, doesn’t hit your over the head or spoon-feed you with obvious foreshadowing. And despite the fact that I knew who it was and was a bit disappointed that it went that way – the revelation of the motive was ever-so-pleasing and made me raise my hands in a silent cheer. And I brought it up to Bell; the absurdity of it all. But despite that, I still bought it.
Bell: “What is a good reason to kill someone? It’s an interesting concept. Yes, it’s absurd. But then we’re making judgement on what’s an okay reason to kill folks”.
The gore effects are plentiful and quite bloody. Accompanying this nastiness is some terrific sound design. There was no shortage of juiciness as skin was punctured, implements removed and bodies destroyed.
No final word yet on a wider distribution for Dead Body. Per Bell, “We’ve been approached by handfuls – [we’re] working through. Ramon and I are doing our best to be careful. We’ve seen a lot of cohorts get screwed. I want the film to have a good life and to get as many eyeballs on it for all the actors that gave us their lives for a month… and for Bobbin.”
Keep your eyes peeled for further release information — the film’s worth it.
Dead Body enjoyed its Utah premiere at the third annual Filmquest outside Salt Lake City – and this showing was at the tail end of the film’s festival run. When I asked Bell about plans for a sequel, we got sidetracked and I neglected to double back and reiterate my question. However, he later said, “I would love to make Dead Body 12.” There you go. What’s the reality of a potential saga? Stay tuned.
But until the 12th outing premieres, you can check out Dead Body for a nostalgic, intelligent and enjoyable trip down memory lane – with modern touches and an inspired reveal. It’s a perfect addition to the already-extended pantheon of slasher films.