Monday 19 November 2012

The Dead Inside (2011)

Director: Travis Betz
Stars: Sarah Lassez and Dustin Fasching

After Dust Up and Lo, I knew I needed to track down The Dead Inside, the film that Travis Betz made in between those two and which will finally see a home release tomorrow on DVD. It has more in common with the latter than the former, being less of a single coherent story and more of an experimental piece of art. Like Lo, it plays around with genres and tones within a wider framework. This goes even further, if anything, throwing still more genres into the mix, but like Lo, it can't quite nail the consistency it needs. Like Lo, it creatively addresses the lack of budget by embracing restrictions rather than fighting them. Almost the entire picture unfolds within a single house and is performed by only two actors, Sarah Lassez and Dustin Fasching, although they each get multiple roles and they're not always recognisable under heavy makeup. Like Lo, it's great fun, but eventually falls short of the masterpiece Betz will surely one day create.

It opens with a couple of zombies trying to figure out how to get into a locked room so that they can eat the woman inside. They're not your usual zombies; these ones are lucid, romantic, droll, able and willing to self examine their lot in life. And, as we quickly discover, they're not actually the leads in our story, Fi and Wes, or at least they're not quite. They're the gruesomely made up experimental projections of one of them, Fiona Cella, author of a series of zombie novellas called The Dead Survive, who uses the concept to figure out plot progression. Or not, given that she's suffering from acute writer's block, hence the inability of these zombies to get at their food, and she's very easily distracted indeed, which means that they're hardly the focus that they ought to be. Her boyfriend Wes tends to get home nowadays to find her lying on the floor, searching for patterns in the ceiling, or hiding inside a fort she's built out of the furniture. Anything but writing.

I could say that she's letting the fourth novel in her series, The Dead Inside, get to her far more than she should, but it would be a glaring understatement as she's rapidly and effectively losing her marbles. Wes is the rock that her creative soul depends on, but he's not coping particularly well with life himself, being a talented photographer who's having to rely on wedding pictures to pay the bills. It doesn't help when Fi cuts off her own finger with a pair of scissors and then tries to stab Wes in the heart with them. Off to the psychiatric facility she goes to recuperate, but on her return we find that she's not quite the same. Apparently in her weakened mental state, she's been possessed by a dead girl called Emily, and we start to wonder who's actually insane in this picture. Is it Fi or Wes or both of them? Is this him fuelling his creative instincts or her reacting to the changes in her writing? There are certainly parallels.

Thus far, it's been a interesting ride, because it's a lot of different things all wrapped up into one approachable bundle. It's an offbeat zombie comedy. It's a drama about a young couple under a different sort of stress to what is usually depicted in film. It's also an insight into creative juices at work. It's a horror movie, what with the zombies and possession and such. It's an effects film, not only through the excellent makeup work on Fi's zombie couple but through scenes in which she and Wes come to life in photographs on the wall. And, I should point out, it's also a musical, because we get songs about how great the zombie apocalypse would be because they could just stay at home together or how Fi reaffirms control over her body to persuade herself that she's not possessed by a ghost. Unfortunately these songs are fun more for the lyrics than the tunes. Let's just say that while I appreciated the clever lyrics, I wouldn't bother to pick up a soundtrack.
While many comparisons could be made to Lo, and I made a whole bunch in the first paragraph, the biggest difference may be in that this feels like a more personal film for writer/director Travis Betz. It can certainly be enjoyed on the surface as just a freaky weird story, but there's a lot here of substance about creation, innovation and experimentation, words which arrive quickly on the tongue whenever Betz's name comes up. Much of his experimentation is due to his budgets, or rather the lack of them, but I'm sure they're not the only reason. He obviously likes manipulating film in surprising ways, morphing one thing into another when it's least expected, somewhat like a cinematic version of Mr Bungle. Of course, the more outrageous a change is, the more likely it is to fail, but when it succeeds it can succeed magnificently. It also means that to fully grasp the bigger picture, you can't just watch films like this once. They need to be returned to.

From one viewing, I caught a lot of depth. The title has many meanings, for a start: The Dead Inside not just being the latest book in Fi's zombie series, but also a biting metaphor for the lead characters, given the ruts that they're stuck in. More literally, it also speaks to Max and Harper, the undead surrogates inside Fi's imagination, and the ghost that possesses her. Obviously, the theme is the parallel between life and creation, an easy concept for any writer to grasp, as their job is to bring life to their work. The use of zombies though suggests that the opposite of life isn't necessarily death but undeath, a state in which walking and talking continues on but the ability to do anything of substance vanishes. A zombie isn't only unable to do anything meaningful, it's also unable to acknowledge that inability. In their creative ruts, Fi and Wes are no less zombies than Max and Harper, making it appropriate that they're played by the same actors.

I wasn't particularly impressed with Sarah Lassez in Lo, where she may have been the leading lady but a relatively inconsequential MacGuffin of a leading lady who had few opportunities to shine. Here, she gets a great deal of opportunity, not only as she has a lot to do as the leading lady but because she also has plenty to do as the leading lady possessed by a ghost. On top of that she gets to ham it up under makeup as Harper, the metaphysical zombie who may well be the key to the entire story, given that the directions she takes are mirrored in the real world by the character who imagines her. She does very well, much better than she did in Lo and better than her male counterpart here, Dustin Fasching, who is still decent as Wes and Max, though he has less to do as either. He's the one who's let down by the writing this time, as he doesn't get the time and depth that Fi or Harper do.

I expected him to come to life halfway through, thinking that the film would pivot and shift from Fi to Wes, but it didn't. It shifted from Fi to Emily instead, with Fi always floating metaphorically in the background waiting to return. The picture slows down at this point, when it really ought to have kicked it up a notch, lagging for much of the second half before getting back on track by the end. Perhaps the source of the problem is the budget, not directly but because it meant that a few people got to share a lot of roles and, in turn, that Betz got to edit his own work. I'm sure that had he stayed on as writer and director but stayed out of the editing room, the issues with the second half could have been countered. Such are the pitfalls of low budget filmmaking. The benefits are the freedom to make films like this, which could never happen in Hollywood. Betz is a joyously creative indie filmmaker and one day he's going to really nail it. Just not quite yet.

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