Psychological horror is an often overused label, but the new indie horror The Dead Center is the rare bird that truly earns the title. A tense and shockingly well-constructed horror film set in an emergency psych ward, The Dead Center is the latest from up and coming writer/ director Billy Senese (Closer to God), and it’s a fantastic blueprint for how a low budget horror film can excel with carefully built tension, a good script, and excellent performances.
The Dead Center starts with an intriguing premise and a compelling setting — the secret sauce of any horror film. A mysterious, catatonic man (Jeremy Childs) has appeared in a hospital bed where he shouldn’t be, and doctors hand him over to the emergency psych ward. Daniel Forrester (Shane Caruth) is a psychiatrist whose empathy for his patients frequently clashes with his professional limitations. His traumatic past leads him to repeatedly push past regulations to get patients the treatment they need, and his supervisor, Doctor Sarah Gray (Poorna Jagannathan), is often pushed to the edge of her forgiveness for his actions.
“A tense and shockingly well-constructed horror film […]”
When John Doe comes out of his catatonic state, he has no memory of who he is and where he came from, but under hypnosis, he claims he was dead, but something evil brought him back. Meanwhile, Detective Edward Graham (Bill Feehely) investigates a suicide victim whose corpse has mysteriously vanished from the morgue and makes a series of increasingly troubling discoveries.
The Dead Center starts with a genuinely intriguing premise and follows through, which is more than can be said for a lot of films. Senese executes his story with a focus and pacing that highlights the short number of days over which it takes place and heightens the sense of impending doom that Dr. Forrester begins to feel. Senese has created a quiet and unique evil entity for this film that delivers suspense and menace without cheap scares or the need for expensive effects. Excellent sound design, solid cinematography, and dark imagery are all we need to be always on the edge of our seats. The story leaves plenty of questions unanswered, but with enough fascinating clues that it’s all effectively open-ended rather than frustrating. The script is never weighed down by exposition, the death toll of an effective slow-burn chiller. The power of the film’s mystery is unfortunately dampened by an opening that, while attention-grabbing, leaves no question as to whether the resurrection story John Doe insists on is real. The tension of the film could have been better served with a more ambiguous start to its mystery.
The performances are excellent all around, especially Childs, Cartuh, and Jagannathan. As Dr. Forrester, Caruth is compellingly desperate and vulnerable, and his slow suspicion that something supernatural may be influencing his patient is hauntingly believable. One of the film’s shortcomings is that by the end, the mounting urgency of the supernatural threat pushes Forrester’s character arc to the side and never really resolves it. The action-packed ending wouldn’t be a problem if the characters weren’t so rarely compelling, so it’s a double-edged sword. But it is the only noticeable downside to an otherwise well-constructed story.
The Dead Center stands out among fellow psychological horror films in its realistic and sympathetic treatment of mental illness. The psych ward setting is realistic, and its doctors and patients are diverse and believable. It has none of the giggling stereotypes of the many mental institutions of fellow horror films and features a diverse portrayal of patients and doctors. The characters come together to craft a movie with a real-world sense of dread and despair that fits perfectly with the nature of the horror. In the end, The Dead Center is a bleak film with no salvation in sight, making us wonder if the broken down patients of the psych ward aren’t more enlightened to the truth than we would like to believe.
“[…] a movie with a real-world sense of dread and despair that fits perfectly with the nature of the horror.”
The Dead Centeris a strong follow up to Senese’s reimagining of Frankenstein, Closer to God (2014), which also starred Jeremy Childs. It’s a similarly effective slow burn with notably strong performances. A powerful second entry into his dark and subdued horror catalog, The Dead Center is a film that announces Senese as a horror creator to keep an eye on.
THE DEAD CENTER is a subdued slow-burn horror film featuring excellent performances and a fascinating mystery at its core. The acting, tension, and premise make it a bleak success despite a few pacing issues and an overly fast-paced conclusion.