By Elias Savada.
From this long ago shoot in Kasten’s home town of Baltimore, the film reveals itself to be a nimble, fleet (73 minutes) and well-crafted entry.”
Mix a touch of Sam Raimi low-budget horror with bizzarro inspiration from sleazemeister John Waters and what do you get? Perhaps The Dead Ones, a low-budget horror entry shot in Charm City over a decade ago yet still feeling as fresh as if made their last week. Or at least as recently as just before the pandemic shut down our educational system.
Jeremy Kasten’s now Los Angeles-based career has seen him directing a half-dozen features over a 20-year span. Among those works, seen by a small yet appreciative audience, are The Attic Expeditions (2001), All Souls Day (2005), The Thirst (2006), and 2007’s remake of the horror schlock classic The Wizard of Gore, first done by Herschell Gordon Lewis back in 1970. Why so long for Kasten’s latest? Lots of post-production, digital effects, west coast pick-up shots, edits, etc. “A long, long road,” according to Kasten on one of the commentary tracks. The wait was definitely worth it.
No matter. From this long ago shoot in Kasten’s home town of Baltimore, the film reveals itself to be a nimble, fleet (73 minutes) and well-crafted entry. During less than 3 weeks filming in the hot-as-hell summer of 2009, The Dead Ones was all about making a statement — to shock people into (more) awareness about the too-real problem of school violence and bullying. Some viewers may think it’s a cheap shot at gun control, but while the Sandy Hook and Stoneman Douglas killings may have factored into the film’s long-gestating release, the coronavirus situation has allowed the United States a respite from these unfortunate acts of murder.
As a commentary on the shootings and killings in our school system, the film approaches these issues like a campfire ghost story on steroids, clouded by supernatural notions. You know; school is hell. And this purgatory, with its wickedly oozy effects, offers a rather bumpy ride without a map or GPS, so you’ll have to figure out what’s going on. You will need to pay attention, and repeat viewings will help you spot the stuff you missed in that first watching.
So, Elias, stop your blabbering and tell us what it’s about!
Sorry, my bad.
Four teenage friends at Arcadia High School have detention, with only their principal providing limited supervision. At night. And the building’s a mess, from some unknown catastrophe that the kids apparently helped create, so they are ordered to clean it up. Immediately things start going paranormally awry, while a sadistic, black-booted gang calling themselves the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, sporting guns, machetes, bombs, some fierce weaponry, and macabre face masks (with electronic voice modulators) locks everyone inside. The hunt is on. It feels like a nightmare, or it might be a time/space twisting tale that reflects the school’s motto, “Understanding the Past To Embrace the Future…,” or yet some crazy variation of Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit, especially the Hell references. There are also references to the mythical Persephone and the River Styx story (the only other top billed actor, Clare Kramer, plays the principal, Ms. Persephone), and Dante’s Inferno, to have been staged in the school’s auditorium. The set’s backdrop provides one of the more hellish effects.
From within this structure, though, a weirdly intriguing picture flows, and the four main actors, who had some luxury of rehearsing together before filming began, truly excel in their interactions. Sarah Rose Harper, Brandon Thane Wilson, Katie Foster, and Torey Garza as the mostly quiet Alice “Mouse” Monroe, ex-juvenile delinquent Scottie French, pretty-in-pearls skin cutter Emily Davis (with some intriguing scarification tattoo created by Tattoos by Misha), and her boyfriend Louis Friend all bring each character’s issues to the front as written in co-producer Zach Chassler’s extraordinary, convoluted screenplay.
Kasten layers in lots of subtle touches to heighten the intense mind games afoot. I love the unworldly sports trophies in the school sports showcase. Or the exit signs with the numbers 7734 (how “hell” might look in numbers upside down). Paintings that melt. I suspect production designer Jeffrey Pratt Gordon was stockpiling these little gems while the creators spent about a year in pre-production, rewriting the script, and doing a staged reading.
There are also the basic tropes you expect in a film like this. Telltale signs of violence, then plenty of blood and gore. Flickering lights and darkness, nicely captured by director of photography Christopher Blauvelt. Impressive editing by Maxx Gillman, with more than a few nice transitions that bring the story into its proper focus.
The film’s body count escalates as it’s seemingly multiple timelines start to compress on one another. Oh, and it you think what you’ve seen is not already gross enough, wait till you see the maggots!
The Dead Ones is quite the madhouse and you have to admire Kasten’s journey into teen darkness. Want an escape into high school purgatory? Here’s your chance! Oh, and be sure to watch it in the dark! Genre fans will not be disappointed.
This compelling high school horror film arrives (finally!) on Blu-ray on September 29th through Artsploitation Films. The widescreen feature in either 5.1 DTS-HD audio mix or 2.0 Dolby Stereo (with optional English and Spanish subtitles) is accompanied by a few bonus features: two recently made (as in 11 years after filming first started) commentary tracks – one with the 4 principal cast members and the director, the other with the director, editor, and executive producer (Niels Harboe) – which provides behind-the-scenes banter and plenty of trivia about the film’s making. There’s also a 5-minute special effects featurette with the late special make-up effects artist Elvis Jones (his fifth and final collaboration with Kasten) and his excited, nervous intern Jax Smith (listed in the feature’s end credits as Jax Stern), an informative 4-minute set tour with production designer Gordon at the abandoned West Baltimore school where principal photography too place, and trailers for other creepy Artsploitation releases (Dead Dicks, Welcome to the Circle, Red Christmas, Blood Paradise). Sorry folks, but it does not include the film’s original 140-minute first cut.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the new documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (a revised edition will be published by Centipede Press).