StreamFocus: Deadline

Runtime: 89 min, Grade: C, Netflix Page

If you're going to remember a haunted house film from 2009 involving video cameras and domestic bickering, it's probably going to be the low-budget smash Paranormal Activity and its take-the-world-by-storm viral marketing campaign. But wait, there's another: Sean McConville's Deadline, a stiff and static spectral drama that attempts to blur the line between reality, fantasy, and mental anguish by way of a handheld camera. Taking the route of visual polish and start-to-finish eeriness, it's not the most vigorous film of its type; but the vein of mystery behind its story, not to mention a handful of punchy, traditional scare gags, conquer its lack of relentless scare tactics. On the other hand, you'll never dodge the fact that you've seen Deadline before, just in fragments from other, healthier closed-setting ghost yarns.

Those who have experienced writer's block can attest to the fact that it stinks. You'll try and find any way imaginable to latch onto inspiration when desperate. Screenplay writer Alice (Brittany Murphy, 8 Mile), suffering from this herself, decides to haul her laptop and camcorder up to a dark, abandoned house in order to discover her muse. When asked by her "partner" Rebecca (Tammy Blanchard, Bella) if she wanted to write about her past experiences, she simply states she doesn't want to write a "horror story". Little did she know that she'd discover a disturbing story herself within some videotapes schlepped in a shoebox. Popping them into her camcorder, she attentively watches the crumbling, murderous relationship between Lucy (Thora Birch, American Beauty) and her camera-toting, obsessive husband David (Mike Blucas) unfold -- all while some rather strange noises fill the house in the process.

Sure, it's a stretch in logic to assume that a rattled author with a boyfriend recently released from jail would willingly elect to stay by herself in a middle-of-nowhere, creepy house -- not to mention having a female partner that'd feel comfortable dropping her off, with medication in tow, to operate on her own -- but that's the admission price for entering into Deadline. For this leap in logic to work, it's got to have the right lead to convey the sense of semi-claustrophobic fear. Brittany Murphy certainly looks the part by carrying over some of her Sin City-like appeal; thin, almost gaunt, with a wide-eyed and sallow disposition, watching her facial mannerisms and movement satisfies our curiosity in looking at a psychologically-rattled heroine. It's in her reflexive characterization that we're left wanting, as her dialogue delivery and reactionary disposition fall universally flat. Thora Birch suffers a similar fate as the tormented wife, with weak dialogue crippling her otherwise suitably awkward character. She reminds me a bit of what her Enid character from Ghost World would be like if we caught up with her many years after her graduation, sporting toned-down sass without her Catwoman mask.

Deadline elicits shades of The Ring, Peter Medak's The Changeling, and even a few doses of What Lies Beneath and 1408 in trying to craft the right mood, focusing on a darkened sense of atmospheric eeriness that comes across more stagnant than stimulating. That's not necessarily a bad thing, as a large chunk of the picture focuses on making certain that we see Alice's mental cloudiness -- and edginess -- drag her through a psycho-emotional gauntlet. Seeing her take a dank bath, try to get sleep, and watch those prophetic videotapes builds the film into a swollen framework that's prime for suspense. Sean McConville's two biggest assets for the film are the dark yet beautiful Louisiana house interior used as Alice's stewing pot for mental breakdown, and the gracefully restrained eye from cinematographer Ross Richardson. Stirring, still, and alternately cold and warm in many sequences, there's a controlled visual tonality achieved here that outreaches the script's meager demands.

And, in a handful of sequences, it also nails down some effective (albeit cheap) jumps by way of distanced sound effects used for the whole spook-out effect -- unnecessary, sure, but they work due to the stillness of the abandoned house's manner. Ultimately, Deadline will only satisfy those accustomed to the breed of Ju-On and other J-horror types of ghost-based drama, as it unfolds with a composed aptitude in causing goosebumps instead of a real sense of dread. Or maybe that's simply the reaction from feeling like we're watching a collage of elements that's been done to superior degrees in other productions, I can't be certain. It's the type of film that emphasizes a silky stream of eeriness in listening to Moonlight Sonata connect a scene from the camcorder videotapes to Alice's real-time events, all while stitching together mild clues and pushing at emotion all the way until a heavily-baked conclusion.

Now, the way Deadline wraps up at the end mixes a bit of disbelief with an indelibly clever twist, much like the construction of the film itself; it's got a realized, abstract concept at the core of Alice's instability, but the process of bringing it to fruition shows off a bit of sloppiness. Though flawed, the conceptual quality of its big reveal brings everything -- from the qualms about Alice's mental health and the activity in the house, to her odd relationship with her lover Rebecca -- to a clever boiling point. Some might find it about as easy as a flashback of dream sequence, but the nuance that Sean McConville took to heart in piecing together its ideas should be impressive enough to dodge that stigma. It's neither much of a horror film or a dramatic success, but the level of spooky suspense it musters up makes the mystery compelling enough to wedge it into an adequate gray area.


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