If necrophilia were ever to become a subdivision of sexual education, "Deadgirl" would be the cautionary film cited as required viewing in the course syllabus. However you've reacted to the preceding sentence should signify where you'll reside in "Deadgirl's" polarizing aftermath. If repulsed, steer clear; if uncomfortably intrigued, however, you'll find the debut film from directing duo Marcel Sarmiento and Gadi Harel to be a welcome surprise. The first-time filmmakers clearly have a ball playing on the conventions of both the horror and teenage coming-of-age film genres, taking a familiar virgin-outcasts-on-the-sexual-prowl premise and supplementing stone-faced bleakness where raunchy gags and McLovin types normally exist. The result – while a bit too reliant on its horror inclinations – is certainly one of the more unique and interesting genre films of the year thus far.
Sickly fascinating, "Deadgirl" is likely to disturb the "Superbad" crowd, and rightfully so. The script, written by Troma veteran Trent Haaga, slithers into a mood that can be described as Jack Ketchum's "The Girl Next Door" by way of Clive Barker." High-school-aged loners Rickie (Shiloh Fernandez) and J. T. (Noah Segan) venture into an abandoned insane asylum – one closely resembling the setting of Brad Anderson's underrated shocker "Session 9" – on a relatively uneventful afternoon, rather than talk to girls or mingle with the cool kids. There, the friends find their way into a back corner of the facility's basement, where they uncover a naked, tied-down and seemingly flat-lined female (Jenny Spain), an ice-cold body that curiously has lungs that squeeze out faint breaths and eyes that piercingly stare.
The differing ways that Rickie and J. T. respond to this gruesome discovery are what drive the remainder of "Deadgirl" off the deep end. For once in their lowest-common-denominator lives, the best friends have power over a beautiful girl, albeit a comatose one. The sensitive Rickie realizes the awfulness of the situation, but he's more concerned with his long-time crush Joanna (Candice Accola), the now-popular redhead whom he shared his first kiss with back in grade school. J. T., on the flip side, is a ticking time bomb of pent-up frustration, angry at his place in his school's pecking order and ready for change. Under his influence, the basement-kept "dead girl" becomes a lifeless sex slave. And then "Deadgirl" gets really twisted.
Mr. Haaga's script consistently high-steps into a tone that's unapologetically corrupt. Beneath the perversity, though, lies an interesting case study on misguided adolescence. It's more often than not overshadowed by the film's bloody overcoat, but it's there. The main question posed: If you can have your way with the type of girl who'd typically laugh in your direction, then why stop, no matter the gross the details? Powerless otherwise, J. T. feels a new and intoxicating sense of control around an involuntarily submissive intercourse partner – sexual abuse, redefined. It's a compelling setup trivialized by zombie-movie plot devices midway that squander the impressive unpredictability of "Deadgirl's" opening. As its rails-unscrewed finale gives way, "Deadgirl" plays out like a much more competent "Return of the Living Dead III," both an easy accomplishment and an unfortunate comparison.
As a directorial debut, "Deadgirl" is a testament to the power of subtle touches – an auteur-tandem's showcase above all else. Messrs. Sarmiento and Harel aren't overly showy, aside from an unsettling sexual daydream sequence. When not delicately framing the basement setting into a grime-smeared and claustrophobic dungeon, their camera surveys the dead girl's yellow and disgusting skin with the closeness of a magnifying glass. With an impressive sense of intense control, Messrs. Sarmiento and Harel save "Deadgirl's" seedier moments from devolving into pure exploitation.
The actors, meanwhile, are given much larger breathing room. The performances are uniformly better than one might expect from a film of this ilk, where more time is spent executing shock moments than dramatic heft. Though, a handful of the bit players emote with the woodenness of student-film rejects. One in particular, playing the bully boyfriend of Rickie's dream girl (Andrew DiPalma) is distractingly off, not to mention old enough to teach his classmates, let alone share the same birth year. He's like an in-joke straight out of "Not Another Teen Movie," only unintentional.
Back in 2002, filmmaker Lucky McKee's haunting and overlooked "May" brought the damaging effects of romantic rejection into the forefront of a provocative and brutal little horror film. "Deadgirl" is in many ways "May's" testosterone-injected, though slightly inferior, alternative. Like Mr. McKee, Messrs. Sarmiento and Harel have effectively pushed realism into surrealism, sympathy into sadism. The ride isn't pleasant, and the narrative is unbalanced. But, a point that's driven home by a darkly ironic happy ending, "Deadgirl" is tough to shake off.