By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Heston Horwin, Jillian Harris and Matt Keyes
Written and directed by Chris Bavota and Lee Paula Springer
Postal Code Films
The only thing wrong with DEAD DICKS is its title. When you read or hear it, you’ll probably think it’s one of a couple of different kinds of movie—perhaps something smarmy or goofy—and it likely won’t be the one you expect. What it is, is an uncommonly smart, engrossing and dramatically ambitious independent horror/drama, and a major discovery at this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival, where it had its world premiere.
DEAD DICKS is a best-case scenario of a pair of writer/directors—Montreal-based Chris Bavota and Lee Paula Springer—making the absolute most of the microbudget filmmakers’ traditional one-location/one-night parameters. Actually, there are a couple of other briefly seen settings during the movie’s opening, which introduces us to Becca (Jillian Harris), who’s thrilled to have just been accepted to a graduate nursing school, though she’s concerned about having to leave the caregiver job she’s had for a good part of her life: looking after her bipolar brother Richie. Not long after getting the good news, she also receives messages from Richie compelling her to pay him a late-night visit.
Upon her arrival, music is blasting from Richie’s top-floor apartment, and an encounter with his annoyed downstairs neighbor Matt (Matt Keyes) makes it clear this is a regular disturbance. Once she’s inside Richie’s place, she discovers something much more disturbing: There’s a dead body in the closet. Even more unsettling: The corpse looks just like Richie (Heston Horwin), even though he’s still very much alive. Jillian is understandably upset and confused, and Richie insists on demonstrating exactly what’s going on. Once she has witnessed this strange occurrence for herself, the question is now how to deal with it, and the answer becomes knottier as the night goes on and further complications pile up.
One of DEAD DICKS’ many qualities is that these developments keep changing the stakes in different ways, and they all feel plausible once you’ve accepted the paranormal, and visceral, phenomenon at the story’s center. (The special effects, sparingly deployed, are simple and completely convincing.) Even with just three characters in the single apartment—since Matt keeps inserting himself into the situation—Bavota and Springer consistently find ways to twist and turn the plot in ways you don’t see coming. They effectively modulate the tone as well, punctuating the generally grim and disquieting atmosphere with moments of black humor at just the right points.
What really makes the film work is the way the writer/directors modulate the relationship between Becca and Richie, and the performances by the two leads. No matter how outlandish the proceedings become, the core of DEAD DICKS is a woman trying to maneuver through her conflicting feelings for the brother she loves but who also frustrates her in both her emotions and goals. We experience this strange story through Becca’s point of view, and Harris convinces us of her acceptance of this bizarre reality, so that we can believe in it as well. Even better is Horwin, who eschews typical “crazy” tics to portray an individual who’s obsessive and desperate and just doesn’t seem to understand how inappropriate some of his behavior can be, while having a good heart—he’s maddening, yet you can also see why Becca tries to protect him from both himself and the weird circumstances they’ve become embroiled in.
Clearly made with extremely modest means, DEAD DICKS is just as clearly the work of filmmakers, a cast and craft team with talent to burn. It delivers on the creep factor and keeps us off-balance and intrigued while rooting us in the concerns of its central duo. And while the movie doesn’t have distribution yet, one can hope and expect that it will really go places. Certainly its creators will.