Robin Wood’s “The Wicker Man” casts a giant, well, wicker man-shaped shadow over horror cinema, especially folk horror. From “Deliverance” to “Get Out,” from “The Blair Witch Project” to “Kill List,” the conceit of confident people from “mainstream” society going to a distant location and regretting it has yielded great results for horror filmmakers. Director Darren Lynn Bousman’s Death of Me references “The Wicker Man” both covertly and explicitly, as the central characters reference that film by name. But at the risk of offending horror fans everywhere, Death of Me is more effective than that earlier classic, offering more in the way of atmosphere, a more immersive style and a balance of themes. More importantly, it’s actually scary!
The plot concerns a couple, Christine (Maggie Q, “Fantasy Island”) and Neil (Luke Hemsworth, “Westworld” TV series), vacationing on an island off the coast of Thailand. The opening sequence immediately creates a disconnect, as we see idyllic islands in the sun, but the soundtrack features mournful singing and ominous music. Mark Sayfritz’s score throbs throughout the film, helping to create an oppressive atmosphere that becomes ever more unsettling. A fisherman on a jetty is the object of a hidden and possibly predatory gaze, before the camera pans around to show holiday cottages. There is a pleasant blend of indigenous architecture and modernity in these small buildings, but as the film makes increasingly clear, there’s trouble in paradise. The camera continues its steadily shrinking range, capturing Christine and Neil in their cottage, seemingly recovering from a crazy night out. The scene sets the tone for the film as a whole, as there are mysterious elements within the room, including dirt on their hands and a mysterious pendant. Concerns over the previous evening are quickly pushed aside as they realize they are late, and the viewer gets the sense that whatever happened last night, it will come back to haunt them.
From this arresting opening, Bousman skillfully navigates a brooding and sometimes shocking combination of various horrors. Screenwriters Ari Margolis, James Morley III and David Tish construct Christine and Neil as engaging, balanced and flawed people. Sometimes they snap at each other, other times they are deeply affectionate, often they are confused and terrified. Q and Hemsworth have warmth and chemistry, giving a sense of a genuine relationship. The film also treats the conceit of Americans abroad with nuance. Christine and Neil attempt to speak the local language and treat people respectfully; at other times they fall into the stereotype of yelling in English as though this will make them easier to understand, while waving their phone or money around as though this grants them special treatment. While it may be easy to mock the out-of-their-element westerner, the viewer might want to consider their own position — if we were lost, confused and increasingly frightened, would we behave any better? All cinema, and horror especially, taps into the primal feelings of its audience, and these can manifest in unsettling ways.
Speaking of unsettling, the film does teeter on the edge of racial stereotyping and eroticized exoticism in its presentation of the island and its inhabitants. Overhead shots of the outskirts show houses in the midst of the jungle, indicating a move further away from the familiar. But is this also moving into wilderness, implying that the local people are savages? Bousman includes many cultural signifiers to indicate the presence of local culture and belief, and an American who has settled on the island, Samantha (Alex Essoe, “Passion Play”) serves as something of a white representative. But the overall tension is not resolved and the film’s racial representation is problematic.
As mentioned, however, horror is a great genre for challenging established beliefs. Amidst their confusion, Christine and Neil maintain their conviction for an explanation that fits their belief structure. This is typical of folk horror, placing beliefs in opposition to expose the flaws in both. As Christine and Neil learn more about the island’s culture, including its being untouched by a typhoon in 200 years, mysterious symbols and effigies that look remarkably like Christine, they become ever more convinced that the beliefs are “bullshit.” When they talk to professionals including a doctor and the police, they become increasingly agitated (as characters in films always seem to do). Most significantly, even when confronted with apparent evidence, they refuse to believe it.
This evidence is significant: As the fear of the film kicks off Christine and Neil find footage of the night before on Neil’s phone. Notably, they watch this more than 15 minutes into the film’s runtime, which is when the title Death of Me appears, providing a jump scare for the audience. Additional found footage crops up later, but our heroes continue to operate on the basis that it cannot be true. Despite their certainty, the film style becomes increasingly distorted: As Christine exhibits strange symptoms, jump cuts and overexposure indicate her fracturing reality. Eerie sights appear and disappear, including figures with mutilated eyes and mouths as well as disturbing inserts of malevolent surgery. These moments are contrasted with repeated shots of Christine and Neil sitting on the idyllic beach, which should be reassuring but only serve to make events more uncertain. Bousman blends body and psychological horror with the folk horror milieu, as Christine’s mind and body start to revolt against her. We have also seen some drug taking, and sometimes Neil seems less than trustworthy. Is Christine really going mad, or is she being gaslit? The film incorporates these gender concerns as well, as Samantha expresses concern over spousal abuse and there are various attitudes towards maternity.
The last of these attitudes comes late in the film, as events start to escalate. An approaching storm arrives (what was that about 200 years?), images become increasingly freaky, Christine appears to pass out and wake up several times, and the bodily harm gets worse. From disembowelment to self-mutilation stabbing to gunshots and car crashes, the violence escalates to the point where the viewer can likely predict where we are going. But while Death of Me sometimes succumbs to cliché (including random phone calls, knots that are not tight enough, bleating over free will and even burning torches), the film ultimately works because of its empathy. Although we know where we are going, Christine and Neil’s journey is one of such increasing desperation that we could well ask ourselves if we would fare any better. Even the final jump scare is more “Oh no!” than “Oh yikes!” Death of Me takes the viewer along for a frantic ride with its characters, ensuring that we remain as confused, and as scared, as they are.