By JENN ADAMS
Take the slasher formula, but make it real. It’s a premise that’s been toyed with since the sub genre’s birth, but the film DEATH CAST fully explores the concept. Playing out like found footage, writer/director Bobby Marinelli’s genre-busting film is an intriguing exploration of a genre so typified, we’ve begun to take it for granted. Six young actors sign on for a mysterious experimental film, hoping to catch their big breaks in a The Blair Witch Project style hit. But as they begin the immersive filming, they quickly learn that by signing on to the project, they’ve inadvertently signed their death warrants. The killer stalking them is no stuntman. His knives, arrows, and cameras are as real as their inevitable deaths will be.
An opening title card proclaims an ominous warning and disclaimer absolving the filmmakers of any crimes presented on the videos. They are simply the facilitators, not the creators of the images. Next Marinelli cuts to casting videos of our six core characters. Young actors, hungry for their first break and willing to take on questionable work for a high paycheck or the chance at a big break. It’s an ambitious shoot, total immersion, no cuts, but they’re up for the challenge and excited to be attached to such a novel project. Their hunger for that illusive star-making indie hit causes them to ignore concerning factors, like a set with no crew and a van driver with no information other than their drop off location. Like them, he has limited and anonymous instructions, absolving him of any responsibility in the upcoming massacre.
Arriving at the house, Gabe (Andres Erickson), Tiffany (Lacy Hartselle), Mallory (Hedy Nasser), Bg (Marvin Laviolette), Stefanie (Danielle Stratton), and Elway (Kyle Swanson) begin their assignments, some more committed to the strict rules of filming than others. But once the first arrows fly, they realize there is no director, no production crew, no one to call for help. They are trapped in a movie made real. Abandoning their assigned roles, they begin a desperate fight for their lives as the film shifts into a highly orchestrated meta-slasher. Aware of the stock characters they’ve been hired to play, they now revert to their actual personas. The cast’s performance here is stellar and the subtle differences in their acting styles lend a verisimilitude to the action playing out on screen, the scripted and the anti-scripted.
The film itself is a mix of found footage and reality TV as the actors are followed by drones and a never ending supply of hidden cameras in the remote cabin and surrounding woods. Marinelli takes an idea often kicked around and follows it to its logical conclusion. The verisimilitude is so high that one could believe it actually is real. The downside to this ambiguity is a slightly messy and incoherent final act. Marinelli is so committed to remaining an anonymous presence in the film, that he sacrifices a cohesive message, resorting to vague symbolism and ambiguity. But any moments of stilted action and clumsy dialogue can be excused by the fact that what we’re watching feels entirely believable.
DEATH CAST is an interesting examination of the slasher sub genre and its fandom, adding humanity to a blood filled formula. The killers, also actors hired to play a role they know little about, are coerced with badly needed money. We watch the carnage play out through the lens of a constantly following drone and a multitude of hidden cameras. In a particularly effective sequence, the drone films high above the trees, having temporarily lost track of the actors. We listen to their unseen conversation due to mics wired to their wardrobe. Watching the drone triangulate locations until finally finding the cast is fascinating and chilling in it’s coldness.
The director soon becomes a faceless eye of the drone. Omnipresent and searching, it observes everything but offers nothing. By removing a physical director from the story, Marinelli posits that the real director is us, the audience. We are frustrated when our final girl doesn’t act according to our long held narrative patterns and we root for the sensational death scenes the cast refuses to give us. We long for a satisfying conclusion and Marinelli confronts us with the fact that the stories we’ve grown up watching are a far cry from reality. It’s an ambitious project for a first time feature director and a captivating examination of a beloved, but well-worn sub genre.
DEATH CAST is an interesting look at the juxtaposition between horror fiction and reality. When presented with the actual motivation a slasher narrative provides, the killer tries to kill while the victims try to survive, the characters are hesitant to fulfill their roles. It’s one thing to imagine what you would do in a given scenario, how far you would go to save yourself, but quite another to actually carry those actions out. Many of us are more squeamish than we believe ourselves to be and pain is a very powerful motivator. Though slasher narratives may be cathartic and entertaining, DEATH CAST reminds us that the final girls we connect with are the exception rather than the rule. Marinelli’s film confronts us with the reality of what we would actually do in a slasher situation, asking how willing we would be to carry out the classic roles demanded by the subgenre.
DEATH CAST premiered at Salem Horror Fest 2021.