Although I heard a little about Deadgirl on its release, it had quietly disappeared onto my ‘list of films I might one day see’ – that is, until I picked up on the decidedly mixed reviews it has been getting. Although there have been numerous very favourable reviews, I was struck by the fact that this film has generated genuine anger in some quarters – most notably for its ‘misogyny’ and ‘sexism’. Well, these opinions may not have been intended to encourage viewings, but that’s the effect they had on me – so I picked up a copy.
Deadgirl is most definitely an unpleasant film, but to me it is the central message of the film which trumps all else. The casual acceptance by several otherwise ‘normal’ people of a warped situation in which they can forget all social boundaries and norms, regressing into a demi-monde of their own making? This is what packs the punch, and – although the film plays this out in an admittedly grotesque fashion – it’s not quite as fantastical a phenomenon as we’d like to think.
“Think about it, we’re just cannon fodder for the rest of the world. Down here we’re in control. We call the shots down here….you don’t have to be the nice guy…”
In the film, two lifelong friends, Ricky (Shiloh Fernandez) and J.T (Noah Segan) are on the verge of leaving school: social outsiders, they really only have each other, beer, and various ways of dissipating their time – like trashing the town’s remote, disused sanitorium. One day, as they explore the basement of the building, they discover something – the dead body of a young woman, naked, and chained to a trolley. But is she dead? When the two boys approach, and despite her obvious postmortem state, she moves slightly. Before Ricky can follow his first instinct to call for help, J.T suggests they follow his – and keep her, as ‘their secret’.
For the first time, the two friends are divided. Ricky refuses to violate the girl and continues to try to engage with the ‘real’ world, a world of thwarted romance for his first love, JoAnn (Candice Accola) and beatings at the hands of JoAnn’s boyfriend – whilst his mother is entirely absent from the film and he’s left only with the predictable, jaded advice of his deadbeat stepdad. J.T on the other hand is now master of all he surveys. Ricky is invariably drawn back to the basement – both for the sake of his only friend and his fascination with the dead girl – but, soon things unravel, as J.T is all too willing to ‘share’ his find with other school misfits.
I hope it’s not overstating the case to say that this film works well on an (admittedly sleazy) allegorical level. In many fairy stories, children can retreat from the awkward world of rules and regulations into fantasy realms – different worlds where the unfairness of encroaching adult life can be forgotten. I don’t think it’s any accident that at several points during the film the characters mention things that happened when they were eight years old – this is when the two boys became friends, and when Ricky first became interested in JoAnn. Childhood adds an unpleasant contextualising factor to this film. So, when these two alienated young men, unhappily coming of age, fall under the sway of a fantasy world, it is an unpleasant, distant place and a complete withdrawal from the real world which is so problematic for them – as J.T says, it is somewhere where they can ‘call the shots’. The dead body is the site of, apart from obvious sexual gratification, both power and wish fulfilment – sex, power, and control – everything unattainable to the boys in question.
There are, however, obstacles to this set-up: besides Ricky’s determination not to behave the same way as his friends, there’s another possible allegory, in the form of a rabid dog. It’s the dog that first pursues the two boys into the room where the dead girl is, and then at intervals it intercedes between them and the girl’s body. J.T is particularly irritated by the dog; he says he wants to keep the door shut so the dog can’t get in to ‘mess with’ the girl, and in a late scene where the dog quite literally stands between J.T and the girl, it is the girl herself who bites and kills the animal. J.T might not have a conscience, but there’s a snarling hound there to present a problem where his conscience ought to kick in (and the object of his lust just happens to win out). And, as J.T proves he is not ultimately in control, neither is his more resistant friend – in a deeply pessimistic ending which puts the boot in after the hammer-blows of the rest of the film. After all, when you finally have to admit to yourself that you’ll be pumping gas until you retire, a way out of those shackles might make someone else’s shackles seem a bit more tolerable.
Ultimately then, this is a misanthropic rather than a misogynistic film: it just happens to make its point via sexualisation, something which modern viewers will both comprehend and yet, because of its presentation here, want to reject (only Deadchild would pack a similar punch in our society, albeit for different reasons). Deadgirl gives us a hell of a gruesome display but its message is more gruesome – and more timely – than the sum of its parts.