For teenagers and storytellers alike, it is a cliché to say that high school is hell. The Dead Ones takes this concept rather literally, in the first of a series of clichés featured in this problematic and not very scary teen horror. A central quartet, who appear to hail from the same archetype roster as “The Breakfast Club,” are on their way to detention after apparently trashing their high school. Emily (Katie Foster, “Deadwood Falls”) is a blonde prom queen type who goes on and off her medication. Alice “Mouse” Morley (Sarah Rose Harper, “You Have a Nice Flight”) is exactly what her nickname suggests — quiet and mousy with a “like, y’know, whatever” vibe. Scottie French (Brandon Thane Wilson, “Fishbowl”) is a denim vest-wearing bad boy, smart, cynical and not to be messed with. And Louis Friend (Torey Garza, “The Company We Keep”) is a poorly constructed combination of both the high school jock and the bad boy such as Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich) from “Scream” or JD (Christian Slater) from “Heathers.” If you’re wondering why there are one and a half bad boys in this group, it might be because like so much else of the film, the characters are overdone.
Driving these annoyances, sorry, adolescents, to their penance is Ms. Persephone (Clare Kramer, “Road to Hell”). Kramer’s presence recalls “Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a TV show that also took the trope of high school being hell as more than a metaphor. Unlike that show, however, The Dead Ones is sorely lacking in wit, invention and tension. There is plenty of gore and some horrific moments, but there is also convolution for the sake of convolution and a rather tasteless handling of subject matter that warranted greater sensitivity as well as dramatic weight.
The film’s problems come from both the script and direction, which is frustrating because the basic premise is interesting. Zach Chassler’s script offers the potential to explore teen angst and violence, through the stereotypes on display here. There is also an ambiguity throughout the film, which invites the viewer to unravel what they are seeing as well as why. Chassler incorporates classical allusions such as Ms. Persephone taking her name from the queen of the underworld in Greek mythology, references to ancient Egypt and Dante’s “Inferno,” not to mention a mysterious gang who turn up at the school dressed as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
Despite the potential, director Jeremy Kasten fails to create tension due to a constantly discordant and jarring visual style. The opening of the film features found footage of a bullying prank gone too far, as well as rapidly edited images of bloodied faces. As a starting point this works to unsettle the viewer and let us know something bad is happening, but Kasten maintains jarring edits and unmotivated push-in shots throughout. Bunch of characters standing around talking? Whip pan between them, cut to another angle, cross the 180-degree line, sudden push-in shot to someone’s face. Dark-clad figures preparing equipment including chains, guns and a bomb? Quickly pan between them, cut to another angle, cross the 180-degree line, sudden push-in shot to someone’s face. The visual aesthetic of the film lacks control but seemingly for the sake of emphasizing “there is no control!,” a point underscored in dialogue at one very heavy-handed moment. Effective horror includes tension, often achieved by long takes and wide angles, which allow menace to develop within the frame. Even without these particular visual tropes, many a successful horror film works because of deliberate pacing, where normality is presented, ready to become disrupted by the intrusion of a threat. From “The Exorcist” and “Halloween” to “It Follows” and “Get Out,” careful pacing and precise use of visual techniques help to build tension, suspense and ultimately fear.
With his constantly violent style, Kasten fails to establish normality, which means that the film has nowhere to go. This front overloading extends to the characters, as the four leads are not only clichés but also glaringly constructed as outsider freaks. Emily self-harms and cuts patterns into her skin, which you could be forgiven for thinking might have occult significance (they don’t). Scottie is such a bad boy that he spent time in “juvie,” where he acquired conveniently appropriate knowledge. Fans of “You’re Next” might anticipate Scottie utilizing special skills that he learned in juvenile detention; they will be disappointed. Mouse has a story about a mouse called Mouse (convolution for convolution’s sake), and is a victim of parental abuse, presumably to make it clear that she is REALLY MESSED UP, except that she comes across as no more or less disturbed than the other three. The most interesting thing about Louis Friend is that his name is the same as one of Dr. Hannibal Lecter’s anagrams (iron sulfide), which might make the viewer wish they were watching “The Silence of the Lambs” instead.
As the narrative unfolds, we come to understand the character histories, but the brushstrokes are so broad as to be uninvolving. It is a sign of a bad film if you start worrying about the weird plot choices, such as why this apparently week-long detention is happening at night. If you are wondering about that before the big reveal, that suggests that you never settled into the film. That is because there is no normalcy to settle into, everything is garishly unsettled from the beginning. Therefore, the only place to go is into gruesome gore, most of which prompts a response of “Yuck!” rather than “Yikes!” With a lack of character depth to engage with and atmosphere to step into, the film is emotionally inert despite its visual dynamics. An injection of humor might have helped, as seen in the utterly deranged and very funny “Ghost Killers VS Bloody Mary,” but wit and comedy are as lacking as scares, while a final act redemption feels like a cop-out. There may be some pleasure to be had in unraveling narrative threads that sometimes seem synchronous and at other times parallel, but the device ultimately feels mechanical and forced.
Beyond its dramatic deficiencies, there is also a disturbing flippancy with the film’s attitude towards social issues. If a film is going to present a controversial issue it is not unreasonable to expect a genuine engagement with that issue. The topic of high school shootings is deeply contentious and can be dealt responsibly, as seen in Gus Van Sant’s “Elephant” as well as Lynne Ramsay’s “We Need To Talk About Kevin.” The Dead Ones treats this difficult subject in a manner that seems irresponsible and exploitative. Horror films and exploitation films alike are great for exploring social issues, such as teenage violence and identity politics, as well as giving the audience a fun roller coaster ride. However, films that are nasty for the sake of being nasty come across as cheap and unimaginative, and give the rest of the genre a bad name. This is the case with The Dead Ones, which despite its flashy visuals offers as much life as those its title refers to.