By ANTON BITEL
Starring Sarah Rose Harper, Brandon Thane Wilson, Katie Foster, Torey Garza, Clare Kramer, Muse Watson, Amelia Talbot, Michael James Levy, Shannon Cusack, Shane Tunney
Directed by Jeremy Kasten
Written by Zach Chassler
THE DEAD ONES opens with a film-within-a-film—a video uploaded to YouTube entitled Locker Room Dungeon Boy which depicts vicious bullies forcing the underwear-wrapped head of a male schoolmate down a toilet as they repeatedly call him ‘fa**ot’. The video has 11,240 views—a very 21st-century brand of hazing where half the humiliation is its filmed, publicly available nature. Then, we see a young woman desperately crawling through an air vent, intercut in rapid montage with scenes of what appears to be a school shooting. These two prefatory sequences constitute a harrowing diptych, as one kind of inexcusable school brutality is associated with, and perhaps leads to, another—and both play out in a manner that is distressingly contemporary, in an age when, for good or ill, children lead much of their lives online, and when, post-Columbine, school violence has taken an ever more deadly turn.
A teacher (Clara Kramer) drives four pupils to Arcadia High School, where they are to spend the last week of their summer break cleaning the “amazing:” mess they have made in its halls. “You’re here to stay as punishment, repairing the damage you’ve done,” says the teacher, who intends to wait in her office until the Sisyphean task is done. It is a set-up familiar from John Hughes’ THE BREAKFAST CLUB (1985), as misfit students, stuck together on detention, reveal something of themselves and their vulnerabilities hidden beneath veneers of delinquent toughness. Meek, good-hearted Alice ‘Mouse’ Morley (Sarah Rose Harper) has suffered years of abuse from her father (Muse Watson). Scottie French (Brandon Thane Wilson) has done time in juvie for violent retaliation against a bullying jock. Artistic, disturbed Emily Davis (Katie Foster) is a cutter, and is on strong medication for mental illness. And weak-willed, angry Louis Friend (Torey Garza) is going out with Emily, but in thrall to Scottie.
Yet there is something else going on in this high school film, hinted at not just in the opening scenes, but also in the fact that their teacher is called Ms. Persephone, or in her insistence that the four “start fixing this… unless you want Ammit to eat your little heart.” After all, Persephone is a goddess from Greek mythology condemned to spend half of each year in the Underworld, while Ammit is an Egyptian monster who devours those dead souls judged unworthy of immortality—and the stage is set in the school’s theatre for a production of Dante’s Inferno. In other words, these halls, still marked with blood and bullet holes, have assumed the aspect of a Stygian limbo, or purgatory (from the Latin word for ‘cleaning’, which is the specific activity imposed as atoning punishment on the pupils). When a quartet of masked figures, styled as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, lock the ground floor’s doors and windows and enter the premises with explosive devices and weapons, and when grotesque ghosts haunt the corridors and bathroom cubicles, it becomes clear that our four main characters are undergoing what Scottie calls “head games” and “stress-testing” to confront them with the consequences of their own forgotten misdeeds. Soon their confused journey through the school’s labyrinthine interiors will play out in parallel with flashbacks to the horrific school shooting incident glimpsed in the prologue, and their status as both victims and aggressors will be weighed up to determine where the hell they will go next.
Directed by Jeremy Kasten, THE DEAD ONES is a juddery, disorienting trip into the psyche of the school shooter, as well as a catabasis into the mor(t)ality of crime, punishment, and maybe even redemption. In keeping with its title, THE DEAD ONES is a mystery in more than one sense. There is a formal twist of sorts, but the film barely conceals it, preferring instead to make it the elephant in the room, obvious yet too ethically unpalatable for characters and perhaps even viewers to accept and face head-on. And so this ghost story depicts the combustible elements that make the American school a hell of ever-recurring violence from which it is almost impossible to escape. The script by Kasten’s regular screenwriter Zach Chassler (who also collaborated with Kasten on THE THIRST, 2006; THE WIZARD OF GORE, 2007; THE THEATRE BIZARRE, 2011) was in fact completed in 2009, but since then, in grim demonstration of the film’s thesis, a revolving series of school massacres in real life has kept getting in the way of the production, as different financiers were frightened off by fatal facts on the ground. All this is a symptom of both the film’s urgent relevance and its provocative power, as it portrays a scenario whose outcome already seems prescribed, but where a crawlspace offers a small amount of wriggle room for change, escape and a rejoining of humanity.
THE DEAD ONES has its domestic première at San Francisco’s Another Hole in the Head Film Festival, 9pm December 14th 2019 at The New People Cinema.