Movie Review – Deadgirl (2008)

Discussion of a film like Deadgirl (2008) is the kind for which the phrase “trigger warning” was created. After watching it, considering its disturbing nature, I couldn’t shake a certain notion that I felt shouldn’t be there. I asked a friend to view it, warning him of the premise, so as to give me a second opinion. Despite its subject matter and all of its flaws, we both agreed, surprisingly, that the viewing had been worthwhile.

Two disenfranchised teens, Rickie (Shiloh Fernandez) and J.T. (Noah Segan), skip class and decide to break into an abandoned mental asylum. After drinking warm beers and vandalizing the premises they are chased by a stray dog into a remote section of the building from which there is no clear exit. They pry open a rusted door and find a woman naked, tied to a gurney and covered in plastic – and still alive. The two characters diverge at this point as Rickie wants to get help and J.T. wants to keep her as a sex slave. J.T.’s dominant personality wins out and Rickie, though not participating, keeps J.T.’s actions a secret. Audiences will certainly have their opinion of this movie germinating at this point, and much of this will rely on their ability to buy into the quick, horrific decision made by J.T. As a side note, I live in a fairly quiet New England town where, when I was in high school, a teenage girl was kidnapped, raped, drowned in a river, and had her corpse violated by her supposed peers – teens that remind me in many ways of J.T. As morally corrupt a decision as this character makes, it is certainly a possible one, and perhaps that’s what makes it truly horrific.

Soon J.T.’s violent nature leads to the discovery that the girl cannot be killed and that she seems to have an uncontrollable urge to bite anything that comes near her mouth. If the viewer as not figured out what she is at this point, maybe they’re not ready for this film. The situation, naturally, spirals out of control, and the plot takes the form of both the predictable and the surprising thereafter, including an unexpectedly hilarious kidnapping attempt gone awry.

Deadgirl is a film that deals directly with rape culture and the effects of misogyny. These teenage males have been raised to view women as commodities. “She’s like something out of a magazine,” says J.T. when first feasting his eyes upon the dead girl. He later takes this a step farther by placing a magazine photo over her battered face. Women are prizes to be won and possessed. Even Rickie, who should be our protagonist, wants to be a hero but is allured by the dark side. His attempts to help the dead girl and later his unrequited love, Joann, are motivated less by sympathy and more by an outdated chivalrous notion which sets him as a female protector. Manhood is continually defined by the males as having sex with women, and they are pressured to “man up” and not refuse to take advantage of the writhing corpse strapped to the gurney, no matter how cold, dry, or foul smelling she may be. This is not so much misandry as it is showing the terrible effects that misogyny has upon both women and men. In a world inhabited by a living dead girl, the teenage males become the real monsters.

Deadgirl still
Jenny Spain in Deadgirl.

Other themes are explored in interesting ways, contributing to J.T.’s malicious motivations. Rickie and J.T. come from poor families, and though they appear to be on different paths, with Rickie looking to a life beyond his meager trappings and J.T. resigned to it, they are both too afraid to be alone to leave the other behind. Rickie’s pining for Joann, who dates jocks, is seen by J.T. as Rickie trying to rise above his class, and thus leave him behind. When trying to convince Rickie to choose the dead girl over Joann, J.T. declares that “this is the best we’re ever going to have!” For J.T. the dead girl’s chamber becomes his domain, and it’s appropriate that it’s located in the basement. For once he is in charge, no longer subject to the standards of school or society. “Think about it,” he tells Rickie, “Folks like us are just cannon fodder for the rest of the world. But down here we’re in control, and we call the shots down here, man. It feels good, doesn’t it?” The dead girl is J.T.’s trophy, a symbol of manhood his fellow male teens will recognize.

Lastly, Deadgirl is about that stage in a teenager’s life when they realize life won’t turn out the way they’ve dreamed. This realization has a profound effect upon Rickie, and gives insight into the seemingly strange ending which at first appears out of his character.

Deadgirl, written by Trent Haaga and directed by Marcel Sarmiento and Gadi Harel, is a movie that manages to rise above some of its more mediocre elements. It begins a bit shoddy but progressively becomes more eloquent and enveloping during the second half. Noah Segan won the 2009 Fright Meter Award for Best Actor for his performance as J.T., an award for which Shiloh Fernandez was also nominated. And of course, Jenny Spain’s performance as the titular dead girl is brave, compelling, and disturbingly convincing.

It’s not a film for everyone. If the subject matter it too disturbing, it is an easy film to pass up. But for those who do watch it, they may come away feeling surprised, and perhaps more than a little uneasy and guilty, for having enjoyed it.

Grade: B-