I once claimed to be such a horror enthusiast that I’m able to genuinely enjoy, and positively review, any and all horror movies. People send me suggestions and if I can’t live up to my promise then you win prizes. I’m reigning supreme so far, but I do now also offer consolation prizes for those who take the time to pose me a challenge, should they lose.
Deadline was suggested as a challenge to me by Phil Sloman, thanks dude!
Deadline is the story of a screenwriter who, following her ‘recovery’ of a traumatic life event with an abusive ex, goes to a secluded house to finish a script. Cue ‘ghosts’, spooky happenings, and our protagonist, Alice, dropkicking herself through a maze of terror.
Written and directed by Sean McConville, starring Brittany Murphy and Thora Birch, this movie is about as typical as they come. What I mean by that is that this ‘is she seeing ghosts or is she just losing her mind?’ question shouldn’t even really be a mystery to anyone watching – it’s very clearly a tale of descending madness. Whilst this concept and answer to the ghost/insanity riddle isn’t original in the world of horror, it does so many things well that I can comfortably give it a thumbs up. You won’t get a real ‘haunting or madness?’ mystery because the answer is so obvious, but what you will get is a film that’s comprised of many fantastic filmmaking techniques that elude to our protagonist’s mental state, and a metaphorical journey down the rabbit hole of the trauma she has lost her will to.
The movie opens with some travelling ‘through the windows from the outside’ shots of what appears to be an old-fashioned house. The way this is filmed, as though the viewer is actually spying through these windows, establishes a voyeuristic tone, and sets a wonderful creepy atmosphere because it’s paired with a glorious, haunting soundtrack. You know the kind I mean, the kind you get in ghost films. The kind that if it was on the DVD menu and you left it running, you’d find yourself creeping around your house pretending to be a ghost film protagonist, peering around corners and whatnot. Oh, on that note actually, allow me to issue a warning. Under no circumstances should you ever leave the DVD running on the menu screen if the film in question is The Exorcism of Emily Rose. Holy shit balls dudes, for reals like. I was hiding around the doorway just trying to pluck up the courage to run in there and turn it off before the screaming made my insides dissolve again.
Anyway, as the music reaches its natural end, we go through one of the windows into what is now a modern apartment. This seamless shift through the ‘when’ and ‘where’ of what we’re watching creates a mild disorientation for the viewer, allowing us to empathise with Alice’s already-confused mental state, without actually telling us that that’s what we’re doing. It also immediately clues us in to the function of the time-lapse because it blurs so effortlessly. Someone who’s paying attention will consciously notice this as a clue to the way reality will shift throughout the rest of the film, and someone who isn’t looking that closely will experience the confusion without even noticing. It’s genius.
Early on, it’s clear that Alice is addicted to having a video camera glued to her hand, and her friend/lover even calls her a ‘voyeur’, which implies that what we’re watching is already on a sort of ‘spying’ loop. Perhaps it wasn’t us spying through Alice’s windows at the start, maybe it was Alice and we were watching from her point of view.
When she reaches the house, we get that classic shot of the woman taking her meds, as seen in so many movies of this nature. We already know that she’s suffered a terrible ordeal at the hands of a violent man, that she continues to be afraid of him though he’s in prison, and that she’s previously suffered a breakdown. We also know that the house she is staying in is empty, and that she has insisted on staying there alone. She has even insisted on not keeping her car there, though she is well out of walking distance to any civilization. In short, she is isolating herself. Isolation from others is an unfortunate symptom and result of both mental and physical abuse, so we can infer from this self-imposed behaviour that Alice has not recovered. Not only this, but she is, in fact, treating herself the same way that we can assume her ex treated her. This type of mental conditioning is very severe, so it’s a safe assumption that Alice is suffering a great deal beneath the surface. The movie delivers this message of the effects of abuse in a way that is not only astute, but also subtle, and in my opinion, respectful.
Ghostly activities start to happen (wet footprints, a bath run by itself, ghostly images, etc.), and Alice finds some camcorder tapes of a couple called Lucy and David. As her fear that she is not alone in the house grows, Alice makes several frightened calls to her friend, explaining that she can ‘feel the sadness’ in the house. At this point, whether or not the tapes of the couple are real is undetermined, but what we can safely assume is that Alice is not seeing ghosts. She’s actually being haunted by her own memories and fears. Lucy and David appear to have a similar relationship to Alice and her ex.
Alice receives phone calls where all she hears are echoes of a woman crying – this woman is most definitely an ‘echo’ of her own suffering, rather than a ghostly Lucy. To solidify the notion that Alice is, in fact, haunting herself, she even wears a white cuff throughout the entire film, which is very similar to a hospital band. It’s a constant reminder to the viewer that this woman is not well. She falls asleep at random points of the day and suffers terrible nightmares of the couple, so it becomes more and more difficult for the viewer to distinguish between what’s a nightmare, and what’s real (to Alice, at least).
Lucy and David’s story, as Alice watches on the tapes, is one of woe. David is paranoid and jealous and believes his unborn child to be someone else’s. He drowns Lucy in the bathtub. This mimics what happened to Alice, so we know that these tapes are not likely to be real, but Alice’s imaginings. They’re fictional characters created by her sub-conscious to process her own trauma – watching it happen to someone else is less painful than dealing with the reality that it happened to you.
Alice receives a message from ‘Lucy’ claiming ‘he won’t let me leave’. This is an obvious projection of Alice’s fear that she will never truly escape her ex. It was made clear early on that she fears that he will come for her when he leaves prison.
When Alice searches for Lucy’s grave and finds it, this is symbolic of the death of her former self. She is a new, but broken version of who she once was and has not yet managed shake the impending fear of her own demise.
Her entire exploration into the Lucy and David story (which turns out to be her latest script) is her way of analyzing what she went through, but through the lens of someone else’s life. Not able to deal with her pain, she has created these characters in order to relive and process her pain. In doing so, she gains a better understanding of her ex, and herself, but instead of healing her, it continues to break her.
The movie ends with her friend turning up and finding her soaked in the bath. Alice has recreated what her ex did to her as a means of processing, but she’s still convinced that these characters are real and that they have haunted her. Her friend finds her camera, and it transpires that Alice has been watching videos of herself filming her friend the whole time.
This is not a ghost story, but an analysis of a woman with mental health problems caused by a trauma. Unlike a lot of these types of movies, however, this film does not end on the protagonist reaching peace and understanding, but rather it ends on the full mental destruction of the character. She was beaten by her psychological demons and thus, the monster won. This puts the movie firmly into the ‘horrific’ category, particularly because the monster is real and could attack any one of us. We are all potentially vulnerable to a psychological hammering, and this is what this movie is here to show us.
This film isn’t for those who want a full-on ghost spook experience (though it has its spooky moments for sure), but it resonates in reality and will be enjoyed by those who like to ride the psychological horror wave.
You haven’t beaten me this time, Sloman! If you’d like to send your details to me, your consolation prize will be on the way!
So who wants to Challenge Kayleigh next? Leave your terrible horror film recommendations in the comments below