Sunday, December 6, 2009

Deadline (2009)

Screenwriter Alice (Brittany Murphy) has lived through some hard times with her ex-boyfriend Dan. During the course of their relationship Dan developed a very unhealthy amount of jealousy and finally tried to drown Alice in the bathtub, killing their unborn child in the process. She survived, but has had a major breakdown, and doesn't remember anymore what exactly happened between her and Dan, only how hard it hit her.

Now, after some time (and presumably a lot of therapy), Alice has decided it's time for her to start working again. Her new girlfriend Rebecca (Tammy Blanchard) doesn't seem all that convinced, though. Be that as it may, Alice is positive that spending a writing week alone in a Victorian mansion somewhere in the boons is just what she needs to find back to her old self again.

Once she arrives at the mansion, it doesn't even take a whole evening until the first strange things begin to happen. It is your typical ghostly stuff - strange voices, wet footsteps, a mysteriously self-filling bathtub, the shadowy figure of a woman, the works.

While she is freaking out more and more, Alice distracts herself with some camcorder tapes the ghosts have lead her to find. On them, she witnesses the deterioration of the marriage of Lucy (Thora Birch) and David (Marc Blucas) Woods. At first, the relationship seems healthy enough, but David's love passes the point of obsession and dangerous jealousy. That, just as it was in Alice's case, a baby is on the way only seems to make the problem worse.

Alice identifies herself more and more with Lucy, until she has trouble telling reality and dream apart, quickly reaching a point of crisis.

Sean McConville's Deadline is a very traditional ghost story, perhaps trying a little too hard to be also an artsy drama. You could argue that the film's ending betrays the ghost story for pure melodrama, although I think it keeps everything admirably open, never exactly defining how much of what we have seen has happened in Alice's head and how much outside of it.

McConville's directorial style is slow, moody and a little conservative. There are no flashcuts, no whooshing noises and no shaky cam to be found anywhere (even the home videos are shown as conventional film scenes), and it is the right way to direct for the story the film is telling. There's the characters and a little plot, and McConville is intelligent enough to not get between the audience and those.

Deadline concentrates much more on Alice's mental state as mirrored in Lucy (or is it the other way round?) than on being all that scary, so people only looking for scares in their horror will probably be quite disappointed by it. Instead of trying to frighten its audience, the film uses its ghosts as amplifiers of Alice's mental state, which doesn't mean that there are no disconcerting scenes to be found at all. The second half of the film has some moments that make good use of the psychological horrors of the tale to unsettle the viewer.

I was pleasantly surprised by the actors. I don't necessarily expect great work from Brittany Murphy, but her performance as the brittle woman getting more and more disturbed is really quite good. Not as surprising, but equally convincing is Thora Birch; even Marc Blucas' typically flat affect fits nicely into his role here.

For some, Deadline will probably be boring - there's no action to speak of, the spooking is very conservative and the film is interested in character and not much else. I for my part think that this is a good direction for a ghost story to go in. There should be space enough for something a little old-fashioned among the gore and the spring-loaded cats that seem to be making up much of the horror genre today.


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