In October of 2019, publisher Arrow Films released a purported supernatural thriller called The Dead Center, directed by Brian Senese. Shane Carruth (Upstream Color, Primer) stars as psychiatrist Dr. Daniel Forrester who attempts to help a mysterious patient known only as John Doe, played by Jeremy Childs (Closer to God, Preacher). Billy Feehely (Second Chance, Blood Rogues) plays Edward Graham, a medical examiner who searched for clues to John Doe’s past, and present. It’s kind of a mashup of familiar tropes for the genre, but there are plenty of interesting twists and turns throughout.
The storyline [spoilers!]
A suicide victim vanishes from the morgue when an ancient demonic entity inhabits his body. The reanimated man, known only as John Doe, gets admitted to a hospital psych ward in a catatonic state. As the morgue’s M.E. Graham seeks to find their corpse and learns the horrors of his death, Dr. Forrester, a curious psychiatrist, is admitting him to his ward. After two people are murdered in the psychiatric wing of the hospital, Dr. Forrester becomes suspicious that John Doe is more than just a man. When he presses John Doe for answers, he tries to kill Dr. Forrester, but he’s interrupted and doesn’t finish the job.
M.E. Graham discovers John Doe’s identity and delivers the devastating news of death (and missing body) to his family who meet him with mixed reactions. The mother shows him troubling things, John Doe has historical clippings of mass deaths, a depiction of a swirl-faced ancient demon paired with the writing, “I am the mouth of death. None are beyond my reach,” and a large, eerie swirl on the basement floor.
Simultaneously, Dr. Forrester attempts to drug the demon-man for an interview but ends up raging when the demon won’t talk. He chokes John Doe, but the medical staff quickly intervenes, sedating and handcuffing Dr. Forrester to a bed. Afraid of malpractice suits, the hospital releases John Doe. Graham catches on but arrives just in time to see him being wheeled out by his father. He races to the family home, but all hell has broken loose.
Upon waking, Dr. Forrester learns John Doe has been released. He, too, tries to stop the patient release but is too late. When he arrives at the family home, he finds unimaginable death and destruction. Several houses and dead bodies later, he finds John Doe and annihilates him with a crowbar. As the movie closes, darkness creeps across his cheek leaving an open interpretation on whether he or the demon is in control.
Is it good?
The TL;DR, it’s 50/50. That said, it has taken me WEEKS of mental torture to come to that conclusion. The Dead Center a psychological thriller in a way I never knew existed. It’s kind of hard to pin down, but I’ll try.
First, there are some problems.
The way the main plot (Dr. Forrester) and subplot (M.E. Graham) switched back and forth constantly was super frustrating. This coupled with lack of transitions and hard jump cut scenes made for some egregious timing issues. There was no way to estimate how much time had passed and it almost seemed to flow at random on occasion. While it didn’t hinder the storyline per se, it hindered my ability to stay within the moment and feel gripped by suspense.
There were things that completely went over my head, too. I watched the movie twice and I still have no clue what Dr. Forrester is trying to do when he steals a bunch of stuff from the pharmaceutical closet to drug John Doe. Why it was necessary for him to steal the items and what goal was he ultimately trying to achieve? Why do the early murder victims just look like a horrific version of themselves, but in the later deaths they are twisted and total blood baths? I found myself giggling at one point with the idea that the “blood” budget must have been close to slasher movie level for just a few scenes. And what exactly is the spiral thing on the floor supposed to be?
That leads me to my biggest complaint. I wanted to see more backstory on this demon spirit. Where is it from? What is it doing when it kills- soul sucking? What’s worse, they show him murdering millions of humans across a huge span of time but it feels like we were just thrown into the middle of a mythology with no background. It was such a cool idea; I wish it had been fleshed out more. It left me wanting more and I’d definitely be interested in a movie that touched back to The Dead Center explore it a bit more in depth.
Hauntingly taunting me
Honestly, if I wasn’t taking the time to write about this movie, I might have written it off as “just okay,” but having to reflect on it has pulled me down a rabbit-hole of sorts. It’s gotten deeeep under my skin but not for the right reasons. I’ve literally stayed awake at night fretting over this movie for weeks, consumed by trying to understand why it taunts me. It boils down to this: The Dead Center is a beautifully created, lovingly crafted film, but it feels restricted by…itself. It won’t make sense until you watch it. You can see the vision and feel the greatness beaming from it- the potential is there. It’s so close but falls just a hair short…and that’s what’s eating away at my psyche.
Despite all that, this movie was still okay. The cinematography was great and the music was fitting. I think the staging of scenes was immaculate- people in the right places, perfect lighting, brilliant acting. It wasn’t too scary, but it had moments of suspense that were pretty intense. I really enjoyed the tease of a scare that never came; it added to the creepiness level. I love that the effects weren’t overdone or over “CGI’ed,” if you will. I really enjoyed the movie despite the fact that I struggled to maintain a suspension of disbelief when watching it, which is the whole point of a psychological thriller.
Ultimately, give it a shot. There’s a lot of good to be found in this film, even with plenty of gripes. I want to love this movie, but I don’t…and yet in some weird, chaotic, fresh-level-of-hell sort of way (that’s totally unrelated to the entire storyline), I kind of do. Maybe you’ll fall down that rabbit-hole, too- no worries. Come on in, I’ll put the kettle on.