VOD film review: The Dead Center
Neil Alcock | On 31, Oct 2019
Director: Billy Senese
Cast: Shane Carruth, Poorna Jagannathan, Jeremy Childs
It’s probably fair to say the majority of people seeking out Billy Senese’s The Dead Center will do so not for its director, but for its lead actor. Only not for his acting, but for his directing. Confused? That’s just how he likes it. Shane Carruth is the poster boy for knotty, cerebral sci-fi fans, who’ve fallen in love with him despite his almost comically low work rate. Since 2004, he’s made just two films: low-budget time-travel head-scratcher Primer, and – nine years later – slightly less low-budget mind-control head-scratcher Upstream Color. Carruth wrote, directed and took lead roles in both films, but since 2013, he’s only made one big-screen appearance: a cameo in Daniel Radcliffe’s farting corpse film Swiss Army Man.
So in the depressingly prolonged absence of a new film directed by their hero, Carruthophiles will have to make do with The Dead Center, which at the very least proves he hasn’t disappeared off the face of the earth. A low-budget mystery-horror-thriller, it stars Carruth as Daniel Forrester, a psychiatrist who takes on an unusual case: a man (Childs) whose unusual behaviour (amnesia, aggression, apparent possession by a supernatural entity) stems from the fact that until recently he was zipped up in a body bag, having killed himself. While Forrester – unaware of his new client’s recent reanimation – attempts to untangle this John Doe’s disturbing mental condition, a separate plot thread sees Medical Examiner Edward Graham (Feehely) take the detective role when he learns of the fresh corpse that unexpectedly wandered off.
Things only get more sinister when John Doe embarks on a killing spree that leaves his victims partially desiccated and open-mouthed, as if they’ve had their very life force sucked out through their chops. Answers to the mystery come slowly and not entirely satisfyingly: the two men investigating the case do so entirely independently of each other, as if they’re in two different movies. That frustration is symptomatic of a film that, while classily shot and acted and perfectly capable of thickening the air with its weighty sense of foreboding, doesn’t quite have the strength of ideas to make it worth recommending to anyone outside of the Carruth massive.
Forrester is an interesting character: a burned-out doc on a psych ward who’s no fan of his hospital’s policies regarding who should receive treatment. He harbours a dark past, and the script hints at a more-than-just-professional relationship with his boss (Jagannathan). But these threads go untugged by Senese, who seems determined to further frustrate his audience by revealing vital information to them but withholding it from his main characters. If there’s anything he should have learned from his leading man, it’s that budget is no obstacle to great ideas; unfortunately The Dead Center is low on both, and makes you wish Carruth had channelled his energies into a new project of his own instead.