By Scott Dorward
The Dead Center (USA, 2019)
“What is it that’s inside of you?”
Horror is a broad church, if a profane one. Largely by accident, my choices this month have been dominated by the artistic, weird or outright comedic. There haven’t been that many straightforward horror films. So there’s something quite refreshing about watching The Dead Center this late in the month. It’s a timeless piece of investigative horror that feels both modern and very traditional.
And, yes, I’ll stick to the American spelling of the title in this review. It’s just what the film is called. My spell-checker can go and cry in the corner.
An unidentified corpse is delivered to a hospital morgue. He is a middle-aged man who appears to have committed suicide by slashing his wrists. Once the staff have gone home, however, this John Doe wakes up and staggers around the hospital in confusion before finding an unoccupied bed to slip into.
Conveniently, this bed turns out to be in the acute psychiatric unit. As our John Doe is unresponsive, apparently in a fugue state, he is admitted as a patient. Even when he does begin to talk, he seems to have retrograde amnesia. As the people around him start dying in a strange and unnatural way, his psychiatrist, the obsessive Dr Forester, begins to suspect that his patient’s talk of being possessed and returning from the dead might not be completely delusional.
At the same time, Dr Graham, a medical examiner, investigates why the body he has been called to autopsy is missing. As he tries to identify who this John Doe was, he starts unravelling the weird set of events that set all this in motion, growing convinced that they are leading to something apocalyptic.
Mental illness is a staple of horror, and one that is often handled terribly. While there is plenty of horror to be found in the simple realities of losing one’s faculties, everything about the failings of the human mind and its treatments has been sensationalised in awful ways throughout the history of the genre. So when a film like The Dead Center comes along that portrays the running of a psychiatric ward in a relatively down-to-earth way, it is a welcome change. There is a bit of a stretch when it comes to Dr Forrester’s increasingly unprofessional actions. Even then, he’s been established as having problems playing within the rules and we do see him face consequences for his transgressions.
It has been a while since I’ve seen a horror film where scientific professionals find themselves faced with the impossible. This is something that filled horror in the 1970s, especially in the work of Nigel Kneale, but it seems to have fallen out of fashion. Something about the investigation of an impending doom with ancient origins reminded me of Peter Weir’s largely forgotten classic, The Last Wave.
The basic story of The Dead Center is one of the most simple I’ve seen in a horror film for a while. A man is possessed by some ancient evil that threatens destruction; other people try to prevent this. Handled badly, it could have been trite and painfully obvious. Happily, however, some imagination and skilful storytelling save it from being average.
Having two investigative strands, each conducted by experts who know nothing of the other, creates some juicy dramatic tension. Each doctor gathers clues that would prove vital to the other but has no opportunity to share them. We, as the audience, can see how they all fit together while our protagonists operate at a deadly disadvantage.
While The Dead Center is definitely a good film, it falls short of being great. The resolution is anticlimactic, given some of the stakes established earlier. I understand that this was a deliberate choice by the filmmakers, and one that appeals to me intellectually, but it still felt unfulfilling. And some of Dr Forrester’s character flaws and the conflicts they lead to feel a little too neatly engineered for story purposes to ring true.
Despite these flaws, it is still nice to see a horror film that is serious, intelligent and well-made. This one is well worth your time.
Thank you again to Jon Cohorn for bringing this one to my attention.
The October Horror Movie Challenge
Please do join in and share your own thoughts with us about this or any other films as the month goes on. You can usually find us on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Discord, or lurking in the dark corners of your home.
If you would like to play along at home, my provisional selections are:
- 1 – Baskin (2015)
- 2 – The Bar (2017)
- 3 – The Editor (2014)
- 4 – The Beach House (2019)
- 5 – The Mummy (1959)
- 6 – The Wind (2020)
- 7 – Tigers are Not Afraid (2018)
- 8 – Voices From Beyond (1991)
- 9 – Dearest Sister (2016)
- 10 – Patrick (1978)
- 11 – The Transfiguration (2016)
- 12 – The House at the End of Time (2013)
- 13 – The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920)
- 14 – The Hallow (2015)
- 15 – Night of the Demons (1988)
- 16 – Deep Dark (2015)
- 17 – The Witch Who Came From the Sea (1976)
- 18 – Black Sheep (2006)
- 19 – The Battery (2012)
- 20 – Eaten Alive (1976)
- 21 – Satan’s Slaves (2017)
- 22 – Evolution (2015)
- 23 – The Mortuary Collection (2019)
- 24 – Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood (1973)
- 25 – The Dead Center (2018)
- 26 – Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (1972)
- 27 – Here Comes the Devil (2012)
- 28 – Two Thousand Maniacs (1964)
- 29 – Gretel & Hansel (2020)
- 30 – The Stepfather (1987)
- 31 – In Fabric (2018)
Be warned that I may alter this list according to availability, what I feel like watching at the time, and sheer capriciousness.
A Final Note
If you have been enticed here by these posts, please do look around at some of our other film reviews. We also have a podcast, called The Good Friends of Jackson Elias, which occasionally covers horror films. If this appeals, you might want to check out some of the following episodes.
- The Fly
- A Dark Song
- The Thing
- The Ritual
- The Wicker Man
- The Stone Tape
- Event Horizon
- The Witch
- INLAND EMPIRE
- Nightbreed and Lord of Illusions
- Maléfique and The Ninth Gate
- Re-Animator and From Beyond
- Repulsion and The Babdook
- Man Bites Dog, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon and S&man
- A selection of weird films
- David Cronenberg
- The films that scared us most
If you dig through the archives, you will also find episodes about a wide variety of horror stories and games. Happy nightmares!