"Contracted" - Cronenberg Interruptus
For all the bouncing boobs and sex scenes in eighties slasher films, there is actually an inverse relationship between horror and sex. The two are inseparable on a deep level, but the more sex and real horror get intertwined in a movie, the more people will repulsed by the very idea of the film. Over the last decade, their have been a few filmmakers brave enough to jump right over this line. "Teeth" (2007) springs to mind immediately; "Inside" (2007), "Thanatomorphose" (2012), and "American Mary" (2012) are most relevant here. "Nekromantik" (1988) is worth mentioning.
"Contracted" aims to be among their company. Samantha (Najarra Townsend) is roofie-raped at a friend's party and discovers the morning after that her body is strangely afflicted. There's a whole lot of blood down there, and it keeps coming out. A dark rash is spreading upwards from her pubic area, and she starts having a hard time focusing on anything. Things get worse. Parts fall off. Maggots appear. Sponteneous bruises. Her doctor can't help and she is mostly in denial to begin with. As she had been living as a lesbian prior to her date rape, she has a hard time admitting that she even had sex with a man. The worse she gets the more she isolates herself. Her religious mother is convinced Samantha, a former drug user, has fallen off the wagon. Her life falls apart as quickly as her body deteriorates without any clear reason why or how.
Samantha is not really a likeable character. You feel sorry for her, of course, but it gets harder and harder to sympathize with her the more she ignores the obvious problem. When the film enters the third act, she is much more a monster run rampant than a long afflicted person struggling to survive. Think "The Fly" with sex instead of a teleporter. Partly this is because the story gives us few reasons to root for her, but as much of the blame lies with Townsend's performance of her. She comes of as whiny, shallow and incapable of taking action at all. This is not Ripley. She's pretty much a feminist film theory disaster. When her lesbian ex-lover shuts her out, we can't really disagree with her. We've all known this woman and seldom would we think we'd want to watch a movie about her. Unpleasant screen characters have to be interesting,there has to be a reason to keep watching them. The only emotional suspense in "Contracted" is waiting to find out how much of her body falls apart before she really tries to save herself.
Despite this, it's not all bad. Director Eric England is brave enough or naive enough to stick his camera in places most men wouldn't ever want to go to. (I subconsciously chose to watch this back-to-back with the "Carrie" remake and was struck with the similarity as well as the massive gulf between the two.) So, there is plenty to horrify men as well as women. Horror is the key to this, because the film relies solely on the "ick" factor to drive it's anxiety. There's nothing terribly deep or really unsettling about these scenes, but there are plenty of bodily gross-outs. The post-coital maggots were a nice touch. The details of her transformation are rendered well enough by director and cast, but again, there are no stakes and we don't know how far this is all going to go.
You can hope for an all-out onslaught of decay at the end of this, but sorry, it's not going to arrive. I won't deliver the spoiler, but I will say the ending of this film takes a really sharp turn into mediocrity just when it needed to go all the way the previous seventy minutes were headed toward. This doesn't really offer anything you won't get in any number of low-budgie zombie flicks, sadly. As an independent filmmaker myself, I really wanted this film to succeed despite itself, but it didn't quite make it. I love seeing a filmmaker with limited means make a mind-blowing, original horror movie, but "Contracted" isn't quite there.
The production is perfectly competent, if a little pedestrian. This film was shot in L.A. and it shows in every single frame of this. I realized that I really never ever want to see mainstream Los Angeles in another movie again. For such a cultural center, it sure is remarkably bland and uninspiring to look at. The film's style was equally reserved, not straying too far from conservative film form to tell its story. Maybe the director wanted the normal nature of the production to act as counter-point for the challenging material, but it left me thinking something crucial was missing. What would Cronenberg do, Mr. Anderson?
I really should mention that the sound design tried really hard to do something really fucking cool. Sometimes, the sound department (Duncan Mathieson and Phillip Bladh) got it really right, but too often the layers came out as blaring cacophony. I can imagine this sounded different in a full surround mix, but the filmmakers would be well-served to remember that many of us still live in a stereo world. Also, if your go-to for ratcheting up tension is to crank the volume, you should really rethink the structure of the film itself.
To be honest, I have a masochistic habit of watching the dregs of horror offerings on Netflix, wondering how long I can watch them or marveling at how something so wrong can still get distribution. My reaction to most of these film is "Why?" Why were they made? Why were they finished? Why were they distributed? Why does this look more like the future of filmmaking then an abundance of riches? I didn't find myself reaching for "Why?" during "Contracted".
I know exactly why it was made and what it was reaching for. Unfortunately, the film sheds just enough light on the goal to highlight the exact gulf between the illusions of desire and the nitty-gritty of the act itself.