Directed by Patrick Lussier
Rightly or wrongly, horror as a genre often gets ridiculed for having characters make downright daft decisions to move the plot along. Think of the many times they can leave somewhere dangerous but don’t, or when they knock a killer out, then immediately stop hitting them. In Patrick Lussier’s latest, a young and financially struggling criminology student, Chloe (Madison), decides to fake her death to get inside a morgue. This is to get her brother TJ’s (Turpel) accomplice’s phone to hide the evidence of a robbery they foolishly planned together over text messages. TJ got away, but Ross (also Chloe’s ex) was shot in the act. A quick injection of propofol later, which slows her brain activity, and she’s on a one-way ambulance trip to him. So far, so silly. However, once inside, she learns the coroner (O’Connell) has a grim side hustle.
Play Dead is a frustrating film that never commits to the promise of its far-fetched premise. Instead, it’s played more as a middle-of-the-road thriller where I think it should be a shlocky black comedy complete with inventive kills and a playful sense of its preposterousness. Had Lussier gone down this route, as he did in his My Bloody Valentine remake or Drive Angry, I reckon this could have been a dumb but fun black comedy. But it’s almost like he’s holding himself back, and we’re left with an unexpectedly slow, repetitive slog that occasionally shines but mostly struggles to find its rhythm. Yeah, things happen, though it doesn’t build to much, save for a few moments in the second act when the maze-like location offers an atmosphere of dread. There are too few characters to generate much suspense and too few set-pieces for it to be exciting. It doesn’t help that, as a plot, it’s the kind of movie where it seems so obvious where it’s going that you almost expect a twist that never comes.
Alas, it ends exactly where you think it will with few surprises. The villain is doing roughly what you think he’s doing for reasons you’ll probably guess. And though there are some attempts to escalate the horror towards the end, and some good if infrequent gore, it simply isn’t tense or bold enough to land. Watching it, I can’t help but feel there’s a decent short here that’s been stretched far beyond its limit to over 100 minutes. To be fair to Jerry O’Connell, he does pretty well with some iffy material, leaving the lovable young lad from Stand By Me a distant memory. For the most part, he’s a silent stalker who is physically imposing and suitably menacing – it makes me wish he was in something better. However, his best efforts are not enough to hold the movie together for its needlessly long running time. Attempts to give him motivation are on the nose too, with some melodramatic and shallow social commentary peppered throughout in his well-delivered monologues. Still, despite waffling about his philosophy a lot, he isn’t developed much beyond being psychopathic.
Similarly, Bailee Madison arguably over-performs, too – injecting a lot of natural charisma into a potentially generic part. Her concern for her brother seems genuine enough and their bond provides the film with some much-needed heart. Horror is all about championing the underdog, and she’s down on her luck and as well as being hugely likeable. Similarly, while the dialogue which relays the siblings’ precarious economic situation is forced, I still found myself emotionally invested in their survival – the brother’s heist almost seems logical (even if his decision to do it over mobile isn’t). As such, it remained a watchable, if ultimately unrewarding, horror. Not quite lifeless, but it may fool some coroners.