It opens not with sights, but with sounds: a cacophonous legion of voices that whisper and wail and accuse and belittle in crescendo, placing us at the dead centre of a schizophrenic episode – or perhaps of something else. The first image that we see is a god’s eye view of an ambulance speeding through the streets at night. On board is a John Doe (Jeremy Childs) who, covered in blood, flatlines shortly afterwards at the hospital, with deep gashes sliced vertically up his wrists and elsewhere on his body. The suicide’s cadaver is bagged and left in the morgue, but suddenly, as the lights flicker, it sits up and gasps – and in a panic, the now living man races naked down the corridor to a hospital bed.
So from the outset, we know that there is something seemingly preternatural going on in The Dead Center, the second feature from writer/director Billy Senese (A Frankenstein Story aka Closer To God). Yet as the John Doe, his wounds now mysteriously bloodless and closed, is found in a catatonic state and transferred to the hospital’s acute psych ward, the narrative, like so many of the disturbed, dissociative characters who populate it, becomes split. In one strand, medical examiner Dr Edward Graham (Bill Feehely) searches for the missing cadaver and investigates the John Doe’s history and final movements; in the other, psychiatrist Dr Daniel Forrester (Shane Carruth, writer/director/star of Primer and Upstream Color) struggles to get to the bottom of who his confused, amnesiac patient might be.
The results are a masterclass in rising tension, as two medical professionals come, slowly and separately, to realise that they are dealing with something beyond the remit of their rational frameworks. The focus is on Forrester, a man committed – over-committed, even – to his patients’ wellbeing and capable of remaining extraordinarily calm in the general pandemonium of the hospital ward. Forrester is also himself something of a psychological powder keg. For, combining the combustible materials of a traumatic childhood and workplace stress, he is, as his boss Sarah Grey (Poorna Jagannathan) says, “messed up.” When, in trying to get the John Doe admitted to his care, Forrester acts out pretending to hear the catatonic patient say that he is suffering from depression and suicidal thoughts, we are aware that this healthy-seeming doctor also, in his way, hears voices, and that mental illness is a spectrum along which we all have a place. Forrester’s willingness to take seriously his patient’s crazed-sounding claims that he has a powerful entity inside him leaves us wondering which one of them is the more unhinged.
As its opening promised, The Dead Center is a horror film, with a rising body count, an ancient mythology, and a spiral-like symbology reminiscent of Akihiro Higuchi’s Uzumaki. Andy Duensing’s sinuous, highly mobile camerawork circles the characters while keeping the most awful spectacle just out of frame to create an almost unbearable mood of unease around events that we are not even sure are taking place anywhere but in the imagination. Yet as we witness Forrester gradually unravel from composed rationalist to manic, wide-eyed raver (himself in need of physical restraint), The Dead Center is also a tragedy of madness and patient-doctor transference, dramatising how mental disease can take possession of anyone, driving them to do the devil’s work. By dividing us between these two conflicting forms – psychodrama and apocalyptic horror – the film occupies the ambiguous, intermediate space of its title, sending us spinning in mental circles around a centre that is, for all its uncertainty, sublimely creepy.
The Dead Center was seen and reviewed at FrightFest Glasgow 2019.