The world of horror is vast. With so many films across the spectrum of budget, studio involvement, quality, availability, and, above all else, pure scare-the-living-shit-out-of-you-ness, it helps to have trained professionals parse through some of the older and/or lesser-known offerings. That's where Team Fangrrls comes in with Deep Cuts, our series dedicated to bringing the hidden gems of horror out of the vault and into your nightmares. This time we're looking at teen whodunit mystery Dead Body.
The “cabin in the woods” motif is a common one in the horror domain — sometimes memorably, but predictably more often than not. What tends to elevate these classic settings from frequent retreads is the effectiveness of their storytelling. We’ve seen teens go off into the woods and get killed before, but it’s always different when we empathize more with their plight. In director Bobbin Ramsey’s feature debut, Dead Body, some characters are definitely more sympathetic than others — but the movie makes it difficult to get too attached to anyone when a friendly parlor game quickly turns deadly.
An early poster for the film shares undeniable parallels with an earlier ensemble comedy-mystery flick, 1985’s Clue, and if you watch Dead Body with that predecessor in mind it’s easy to link the two right from the start. Dominic (Jay Myers) has planned an intimate post-grad getaway for himself, his close friend Ilsa (Rachel Brun), and exchange students Mariko (Miho Aizawa) and Kenji (Koe Sakuta) — but when Rachel takes it upon herself to extend an invite to five others, including current beau Dwayne (Cooper Hopkins), nice guy ex-boyfriend Marcus (Spencer Hamp), stoner kid Eli (Nathan Pringle), outcast Rumor (Nic Morden), and tough girl Sarah (Leah Pfenning), Dominic grudgingly agrees to host a bigger party at his father’s secluded wilderness cabin. After drinking and partying through the early evening, Rumor suggests the group play a game called “Dead Body," but three rounds in, the players start finding actual dead bodies and realize that the killer may be one of them.The beginning of Dead Body is a bit rough around the edges, in terms of both performances from its cast and the tone it’s trying to establish. It takes a bit for each aspect to really find its footing, but after the murders start happening both the acting and the overall mood of the movie ratchet up. As a first-time feature director, Ramsey imbues shots with an unnerving eeriness in tandem with cinematographer Anthony J. Rickert-Epstein — especially once the group leaves the safety of the cabin and ventures into the woods. Elements like fog and unconventional light sources make things feel all the more unsettling; one murder takes place in the red flood of brake lights, drenching the entire scene in sanguinary horror. In another scene, a character happens upon a bed of bodies while a TV screen full of static crackles and buzzes behind her, serving to illuminate while also offering a creepy diegetic soundtrack. Aesthetically, this movie has plenty of gorgeous visuals to feast your eyes on, even when the script itself is periodically lacking.
In that vein, there are some missteps that shouldn’t go without remark. At the start of the movie, we learn that Dominic is playing host to Mariko and Kenji, who are exchange students. Apparently they’re his friends, although he doesn’t really seem to like either of them. But his treatment of them goes beyond simple annoyance. Not only does the script reduce them to troublesome stereotypes, leaning into the outdated trope that they barely speak English, but they’re also on the receiving end of frequent scorn, ridicule, and, occasionally, outright racist remarks from certain members of the group. Moreover, Mariko and Kenji are the first two characters to die, which makes their inclusion in the story all that more pointless, given that they serve no real purpose other than to be lampooned and then murdered in quick succession. It’s a tone-deaf side plot that really feels out of place with the rest of the film and, frankly, should’ve been scrapped altogether. In retrospect, the only purpose these early scenes really serve is to give further hints as to the identity of the killer — especially since that character, in particular, is the one giving voice to the most problematic dialogue.
Taking that failure into account, the strengths of Dead Body’s script rest on the way it fosters paranoia and doubt between its characters — emotions only exacerbated by the mood Ramsey creates for the viewers with each moment. Things are fine at first, and everyone’s calm and relaxed with drink in hand, and that’s readily apparent in the way Ramsey structures the first half of the movie, one particular scene slowed down as if to emphasize the feel-good sentiment one experiences after consuming way too much alcohol. As the night goes on, however, and the group figure out that they have a killer in their midst, that buzz is quickly harshed, and soon everyone is pointing fingers at everyone else. It may be easy for some to figure out the killer's identity, especially those of us familiar with the typical horror twist, but it’s still fun getting to that point — and watching each character, especially Ilsa, question who she can really trust to survive until daybreak.It’s also entertaining to watch the characters attempt to solve the plot in the midst of all the scares, which is probably where the biggest comparisons between Dead Body and Clue can be drawn. Shortly after the bodies begin piling up for real, the surviving members of the group each arm themselves with a unique weapon — but there are no candlesticks or ropes to be found here. This time around, Dead Body arms its teens with a hacksaw, a shovel, and a nail gun — each of which play a role in some of the film’s grisliest moments. Again, credit where it's due to Ramsey, who has a seeming knack for knowing when to show viewers just enough blood and guts without it feeling gratuitous. One standout scene, in particular, revolves around Eli, the killer, the hacksaw, and a very cleverly staged angle that implies more than it outright depicts.
Dead Body is by no means a flawless movie, but in the field of indie horror, it’s not a bad way to spend your evening. It’s just original enough to be entertaining, with arresting visuals and a story that improves significantly as you keep watching. If nothing else, it proves that Ramsey is a director to watch out for. Fingers crossed she’ll return to the genre for a script that’s even more worthy of her phenomenal talents in the future.