Upon the death of his great grandfather, Brandon Davis (Ben Browder, Farscape, Stargate SG1) a wedding photographer inherits an antique camera famous for taking Victorian death photography. After photographing his subjects they start to die from horrible, bizarre deaths, then reappearing as eerie death portraits. One by one Brandon begins to lose people very close to him as he struggles to uncover the haunting mystery behind the cursed camera. When his eleven year old son goes missing, Brandon discovers the camera has supernatural powers and has trapped his son inside of it. He must now risk all and journey beyond the realm of all imagination, to fight the hideous entities within, save his son and reverse the deadly curse that plagues them before they all become....Dead Still.
THESE MEN'S PANTS ARE ON FIRE!
"Liar liar pants on fire" I shout in their general direction, because they must be taking liberties with the truth, there's no other explanation of how they managed to make "Dead Still" on an alleged $2 Million budget. "Dead Still" is the story of Brandon Davis (Ben Browder of Farscape fame) whom like many generations of his family is a photographer, only not doing quite so well out of it as his predecessors. We join the story just before he inherits a haunted house within which is a much more haunted Victorian Camera. The Camera in question belonged to his great-grandfather Wenton (Ray Wise of Robocop, Twin Peaks) a master of the "Death Portrait", turning corpses into photographic art with the aid of some rather inventive contraptions and even more inventive D.I.Y. surgery.
That really is the bones of the story as what we have initially is only a little of the background. The meat on the bones is that owing to a curse placed upon him Great-Grandpa Wenton isn't quite done with being alive yet and now inhabits the camera. Using the Camera is not advised, as anyone living whose portrait photograph is taken by it is destined to die a gruesome death shortly afterward and become a hideous work of art on the glass plate. Okay, so far the idea could come across as a little bit clichéd, and it is, but in this instance it takes on a whole new dimension as there's a 'race against time' element to it with Brandon's assistant Ivy (Machete Kills) figuring out what's happening and trying to stop Brandon using the camera to take a picture of his wife and son.
What happens next is like a cross between an episode of the "Twilight Zone" and "Silent Hill". The first "Silent Hill" had an approximate budget of $50 million and it shows in the overall production. This is why I believe the Booth brothers are being economical with the truth, because they are offering a similar quality of CGI visuals used throughout to great effect but never overdone. They used what I believe to be 'practical' special effects and makeup effects too, which are highly effective and expertly done, especially in the Father/Son scene early in the film. It does raise the question of why the bigger budget films are so expensive to make when a film like "Dead Still" can produce a way above average looking horror for a fraction of the budget of something like the recent "Evil Dead" remake's $17 Million.
If I seem obsessed about the money side of things I'm sorry, but to be honest I would much rather see what $17 Million in the hands of the Booth brothers could do than watch yet another remake of something which didn't require one.
Is "Dead Still" perfect? Hell no. I've yet to see something which is. However there's some damned fine acting with Ben Browder never less than ideal in his role as Brandon, and Ray Wise is everything one could want from the maniacal Wenton. Elle Lamont works her Goth glamour naturally, making the most of her somewhat minor role of Brandon's assistant and I wouldn't be surprised if she becomes a legendary 'scream queen' in the not too distant future. As Brandon's son Bobby, Gavin Casalegno (Recently seen in 'Noah') has a heavy job to do in a mainly non-speaking role which for a relative newcomer he handles well and I dare say he'll be a future talent to watch for. Seemingly no horror these days would be complete without a creepy little girl in it and as Lela the delightful Evelyn Boyle ('Revenge of the Bridesmaids') inhabits the stereotype in a role which unfortunately doesn't quite have enough focus, which isn't her fault as the acting is what one would expect of someone twice her age but the role really doesn't stretch her. All other characters were so minor as to be fleeting and to be honest their acting skills appeared to be in-line with their screen time, which in many cases hardly seemed as if they were necessary at all. Oh! Now I know where the budget went… Silly me. This is what I meant about the $17 Million. The Booth brothers clearly had a dilemma, to spend most of the $2 Million on the overall production and look of the film or cut back and spend a significant amount on the actors. I think what they did was for the most part the right choice. With Browder and Wise in particular they sure get their money's worth, as with Gavin, Elle and Evelyn. The other speaking part supporting cast members being largely expendable, and maybe a saving in that area could have been used to sort out the one part of the film which was truly grating.
The plot was in general well planned with very minor holes in it and nothing which can't be forgiven. The script was for the most part fine too, except for the bit-part roles as previously mentioned. There is however one exception in the role of Professor McKlaren, an expert in the field of photography and fan of Wenton's macabre work. In spite of having some good dialogue to deliver Eric Ruff as McKlaren sliced his ham so thick I almost choked on it. One less scene with walk-on characters in it and they could have saved enough to hire an out-of-work screen legend to bring the role some sorely needed gravitas.
In spite of that, "Dead Still" gets my vote as something I'd watch again. I liked the basic concept, the set design was gorgeous, visual effects spot-on, special makeup effects worthy of big budget movies and was overall a creepy way to pass 94 minutes from the opening credits to the subtle twist ending. I would recommend keeping an eye on the work of the Booth brothers as they could be the next big thing in horror.