Horror Movie Review – Play Dead
Chloe fakes her own death, breaks into the morgue, and discovers that the coroner is involved in a twisted business with a group of malicious and dangerous shady customers.
Release date: 17 March 2023 (UK)
Director: Patrick Lussier
Box office: 356,840 USD
Distributed by: Voltage Pictures
Release Date: June 17, 2023
Play Dead opens as almost all movies do these days, with an aerial shot that serves no other purpose than to give us a vague idea of where we are. From the quick glimpse we get, I would guess it’s somewhere outside of Las Vegas, NV. But location matters very little in a flick where we’re going to end up spending all of our time inside a morgue.
I mention this opening shot only to illustrate how pointless such establishing shots are, especially when they do so little to develop an aesthetic, or present us with a sense of people and place. The swooping omniscient aerials of the late Joel Schumacher’s The Lost Boys or William Friedkin’s adaptation of Bug this is not.
Remember when they taught us that the key to selling a script was to start out with a killer scene on page one? Well, forget all about that. The creative minds behind Play Dead ignored this advice and plunged us right into a largely featureless and stunningly mundane opening scene.
We meet the perpetually troubled Chloe (the always excellent Bailee Madison) as she comes home to a notice of foreclosure. A phone call with the bank (?) provides us all the character development this middling thriller will need—Chloe and her brother live in their dead father’s house, but they can’t afford the bills on the mortgage (? again, information is delivered like an IV drip to a morphine addict).
We then meet T.J. (the above-average AnthonyTurpel) and Ross (the equally solid Chris De’Sean Lee), two young dudes sitting in the parking lot of a weed dispensary. The former stutters through a paranoiac if largely accurate speech about how Orwell’s 1984 has become a manual for how to keep the public enslaved through brainwashing.
This colorful—and relevant—conversation would have felt more meritorious if, say, the movie revolved around ideas from Orwell’s book or the filmmakers found some other way to utilize T.J.’s paranoia to drive the plot. Nope! That’s the entirety of T.J.’s thoughts on the matter as his mini- monologue is cut short by Ross who wants to get his head in the game. And that’s it, we never hear another word about it.
See, Ross expects TJ to be the Clyde to his Bonnie. TJ is to stay behind the wheel of the getaway car, while Ross sticks up the weed dispensary with… a plastic BB gun. Yes, these wannabe criminals are this stupid, and, yes, things go every bit as bad as they should in that scenario.
The dispensary owner (a burly white dude with a bushy white beard, natch) comes out shotgun blazing and Ross takes a bullet that leaves things bloody. TJ peels out, leaving his buddy to bleed out in the street, and rushes to the home he shares with Chloe, his sister.
The story only gets more hinky from thereon out; apparently, the technology-averse paranoiac was the one whose Smart phone was in Ross’s possession during the commission of their attempted crime. Chloe thinks TJ will face years in prison if the cops discover it was his phone (yes, white stuttery boy with no criminal record gets life in prison after weed robbery goes south, leaving dispensary owner whole and criminal perpetrator dead).
What follows is the most out-of-leftfield cellphone rescue mission you are ever likely to see on screen (or anywhere as this shit would never happen in any form of reality). Lame twists and predictable surprises crop up around every corner, while Bailee Madison does her level best to ground the film with her first-class acting.
Play Dead is produced by two of my favorite modern filmmakers (Adam Mason and Johannes Roberts; the latter worked with Madison on his sequel The Strangers Prey at Night), but for some reason neither is in the director’s chair for this one. Instead, that dubious honor goes to Patrick Lussier, an editor- turned-director whose directorial canon suggests he should have stayed relegated to the post-production bay.
Play Dead is the kind of movie where the camera attempts to mimic the hallucinatory experiences of a drug even while the lens is pointed at the person on that drug. It’s the kind of movie where a twentysomething criminology student (because what else?) knows all about the inner workings of a morgue—and police precict—on the wrong side of town.
Play Dead is the kind of movie where the same whiz kid who can’t afford to save her inherited house from foreclosure manages to score an IV drug that will render her all but dead by slowing her heart rate to just north of nothing. It’s also the kind of flick that leaves you wondering what it might have looked like in different hands.
Lussier, who cut his teeth editing films for the likes of Ron Howard and Wes Craven, does an aggravating job of aping his forebears; several parts of Play Dead feel lifted in their entirety from the People Under the Stairs playbook, including a scene where the protagonist must electrocute herself to incapacitate an attack dog. However, none of Craven’s shine appears to have rubbed off on the cat behind the My Bloody Valentine reboot.
That isn’t to say that Play Dead is without its charms. Madison’s acting eclipses her performance in the abovementioned The Strangers sequel and further establishes her as a force meant for the role of fright flick survivor. However, the parts of this movie that could have been played straight come across as goofy instead of sleazy, while the parts that could have been dialed up to full camp are instead handled dead serious.
The Coroner (Jerry O’Connell in an uncharacteristically subdued role as a solitary maniac) calls himself “The Cure” because this movie lost count of how many ways it could be unintentionally ridiculous. This reminded me of Fisher Stevens’ many references to himself as “The Plague” in the 90’s cyberpunk thriller, Hackers, a movie that will surely age better than Lussier’s latest.
O’Connell’s cold storage creep says things like, “Rats in the walls,” which even sound like they were left on the cutting room floor during the making of Craven’s far superior The People Under the Stairs. The choice of bathing much of the flick in blacklight seems like another “homage,” but to what would be hard to divine since every crime movie since Korine’s Spring Breakers seems to be drowning in neon.
The story, as it were, doesn’t really present itself until a quarter of the way into the proceedings, at which point we learn that The Coroner’s big insidious crime is harvesting the organs of the dead and selling them on the black market. One can be forgiven for feeling relief when finding this out, as the film’s description suggested something far more nefarious (and, probably, necrophiliac) in nature.
Were The Cure simply saving people’s lives by supplying organs they wouldn’t otherwise get, Play Dead would play more like a humanitarian drama, but he isn’t and it doesn’t. O’Connell’s slab rat is obviously disturbed from the start and his operation at this improbably remote coroner’s office includes a conspiracy involving the life support of unwilling organ donors and a whole lot of laughably anachronistic props (why does a solitary coroner have a telemarketing headset?).
Play Dead ends as it played out—improbably. But hey, you can’t fault a flick for consistency… or can you?
By the time this one fully goes off the rails in the third act, you’ll likely be suffering from exhaustion. Do yourself a favor and don’t have a rest on one of The Cure’s tables. He’ll bore you to death with stale Biblical references. Come for the Bailee Madison bad-assery and stay for the weak laughs.
Bob Freville is a writer, producer and director from New York. His LoFi vampire film Hemo was released by Troma. His X-rated bikersploitation novella The Filthy Marauders is available from The Evil Cookie Publishing. He is the writer-producer of the forthcoming Norwegian drug comedy The Scavengers of Stavanger. Look inside his head: @bobfreville