Alice Macdonald, body horror, Caroline Williams, Charley Koontz, cinema, Contracted, Deadgirl, decomposing, drug abuse, dysfunctional family, Eric England, film reviews, films, homosexuality, horror film, horror films, horror movie, independent film, indie dramas, Katie Stegeman, Matt Mercer, Movies, Najarra Townsend, necrophilia, rape, self-abuse, sexually transmitted diseases, Simon Barrett, special effects, writer-director-producer, zombies
It’s no secret that sex and death have always been intrinsically intertwined in horror films, although some films have made it more of a context than a subtext. The figure of Count Dracula, after all, is an explicitly sexual one, as are Clive Barker’s Cenobites. Slasher films have always been focused on sex: we could fill up pages discussing the various phallic symbols in everything from Halloween (1978) to Friday the 13th (1980) to Maniac (1980) but it would be just as easy to point out that the quickest way to get killed in any given slasher is to have sex. As soon as ol’ Jason or Michael Myers get a hint that horny teens are in the vicinity, we can assume that the bloodletting will follow. Some films even manage to flip the script on the whole “have sex and die” philosophy: Andy Warhol’s Blood for Dracula (1974) features a hunky gardener who attempts to deflower virgins as fast as the toothy Count can identify them, while Cherry Falls (2000) features a serial killer who only targets virgins. Fastest way to survive in those instances? Toss on some Barry White, cuz things are about to get romantic in here.
While sex and death have always shared a connection in horror films (after all, haven’t the French always referred to the orgasm as “the little death”?), most of the connections have revolved along the lines of “Have sex and die.” As our modern era keeps chugging along, many of the familiar tropes and archetypes of horror have, likewise, been in a state of near constant flux. As “traditional” slasher films have fallen largely by the wayside (especially when compared to their late-’70s-mid-’80s heyday), examinations of the natural connection between sex and death have changed from “maintaining purity at all costs” to the grimmer, more bleak realization that “sex kills.” With the “free-love” era well in our rearview mirrors by this point, the threat of sexually transmitted disease and sexual violence have taken the spotlight. In the old days, the kids looked like they were having fun…at least until the inevitable spear or machete, of course. In these modern times, however, no one is having much fun. Writer-director Eric England’s most recent film, Contracted (2013), makes the explicit point that not only can sex kill but it can turn one into a killer. If the final destination on this trip ends up being a familiar and largely cliched one, the journey itself is unpleasant, tense and just disquieting enough to make the whole thing worthwhile.
We first meet our protagonist, Sam (Najarra Townsend), as she makes an entrance at one of those ubiquitous “indie-movie-parties” where everyone drinks out of red cups and stands around chilling underneath assorted backyard Christmas lights. She’s rolling stag to the party, since her girlfriend, Nikki (Katie Stegeman), has to work late. We get a hint of some conflict here, since Nikki never answers Sam’s repeated calls and Sam seems to get progressively drunker and more unhappy as the night continues. We also meet her “best friend,” Alice (Alice MacDonald), a thoroughly unpleasant, loud-mouthed troublemaker who pressures Sam to get wasted (despite her continual protests) and makes a public mockery of Riley (Matt Mercer), a stereotypical “nice guy” who pines in not-so-secret for Sam, even though Alice’s boyfriend, Zain (Charley Koontz), tells him that it’s no use, since Sam doesn’t “swing their way anymore.”
While at the party, Sam is approached by a creepy guy named B.J. (Simon Barrett) who hands her an obviously drugged drink. We can assume this pretty decisively, since the opening of the film strongly insinuates that B.J., who works at a morgue, has just had his way with a corpse. Obviously, we’re dealing with a pretty sick individual and these fears are confirmed once we witness B.J. raping Sam. The very next scene begins with a “Day One” intertitle and we’re off to the races. As we follow Sam around, we gradually get to know a little more about her: she’s an expert floral arranger and has entered some kind of prestigious competition; there are conflicts with her mother (Caroline Williams) who seems to disapprove of Sam’s “choice” of lifestyle, as well as her previous inclination to hurt herself; her girlfriend, Nikki, is a cold, manipulative and possessive person who seems to care little for Sam and dislikes straight men with a passion; and Riley has been stuck on Sam for quite some time, to the point where he’s a regular at the restaurant where she serves. We also notice that Sam is looking worn-down and tired. By the time Day Two rolls around and Sam wakes up in a bloody bed with strange, prominent blue veins popping out on her body, we have a good idea that this won’t end well.
As Sam’s condition gradually worsens, no one seems to be able (or willing to help her): her doctor is baffled, considering this to be some sort of cross between a sexually transmitted disease (Sam tells him that she’s only had sex with one guy in quite some time but can’t recall if they used protection) and “female troubles.” He prescribes moisturizer to help with the dead skin that he notices while examining her but seems genuinely confused. Sam’s mom thinks she’s either back on drugs, hurting herself again or both, while Alice comes to believe much the same thing. Sam knows that somethings wrong, even if everyone else doubts her. And she’s right, of course, but the realization will do nothing to help her or her loved ones. In the world of Contracted, there is no such thing as love: there’s only the face of Death, whether grinning or solemn.
For most of its run-time, Contracted is a fairly unpleasant but bracingly original film about a young woman who is, literally, falling apart. Propelled by an outstanding performance from Townsend, the movie wrings a tremendous amount of pathos out of her struggle. Unlike more generic characters in horror films, Sam is dealing with an almost overwhelming amount of baggage: she’s an ex-junkie/cutter who’s just been raped at a party, is in a loveless relationship and faces constant condemnation from her own mother over her sexuality. At one point, Sam’s mother is about to say something and Sam fills in the blank with “dyke”: it’s obviously not the first time she’s heard the slur coming from her mother. She’s being stalked by a male acquaintance and her only “friend” appears to have nothing but ulterior motives. In any “normal” film, this would be enough to crush a character. Toss a degenerative disease into the mix that can best be described as a female-centric form of leprosy and Sam suddenly resembles that fabled sad-sack Job.
Unfortunately, writer-director England ends up taking a fairly unique, female-centric viewpoint on horror and ends up at a thoroughly predictable location. Like similar films such as Deadgirl (2008) or The Woman (2011), Contracted works elements of feminism into its central framework but, unlike the aforementioned films, the feminist angle ends up being largely a MacGuffin. By the time we get to the finale, we end up seeing Sam’s “condition” from a wider perspective and it’s one that any horror fan should be more than familiar with, by the point in film history. It’s a shame, too, because Contracted seems to have quite a few interesting tricks up its sleeve, yet we end up with a film that is, more or less, just a zombie movie. Compared with Deadgirl, which actually featured real zombies yet used them as “props” to discuss the poisonous nature of rape culture and patriarchy, Contracted ends up feeling unnecessarily slight. It’s the classic case of a strong film which peters out by the end, limping into the finish line. Although Contracted’s most nauseating moment is its penultimate one and fairly original (If you’ve ever seen Cabin Fever (2002), this will seem familiar) , what follows is the most basic, by-the-book ending possible.
For the most part, Contracted looks great. Early on, particularly at the party, the cinematography is actually quite beautiful and evocative. There’s a slow-paced elegance to the first half of the film that comes across like a rather unholy melding of the aforementioned Deadgirl and American Beauty (1999): even the necrophilia scene that opens the movie is shot in a way that speaks more to brittle beauty than to in-your-face exploitation. As Sam’s condition progresses, the look of the film gradually changes: the vibrant colors from the beginning and Day One fade in intensity until we get to the ugly, green-tinged look of the final day. It’s a smart, simple effect and one of the strongest in the film. Likewise, the sound design is exceptional and does wonders to make the film, by turns, feel both overwhelmingly lonely and overly kinetic.
The acting is pretty strong across the board, with Townsend being a near revelation as Sam. I wasn’t as taken Katie Stegeman’s offhand, bored portrayal of Nikki: there’s a big difference between acting bored and “being” bored and it doesn’t seem that Stegeman lands on the proper side of that equation. In particular, the scene where she rebuffs one of Sam’s would-be male suitors is extremely awkward and tone-deaf. Although his part isn’t more than a cameo, genre writer Simon Barrett (the scribe behind Dead Birds (2004), A Horrible Way to Die (2009) and You’re Next (2011)) does a superb job as B.J., the terrible human being who kickstarts the whole bloody mess.
Effects-wise, Contracted is pretty exemplary: weak stomachs or those averse to the sight of blood are advised to stay far, far away. While this isn’t the same kind of “melting person” film as The Incredible Melting Man (1977), it’s a much more realistic, biology-based approach and pretty strong stuff. In particular, the penultimate scene is a real corker, even though it’s noticeably less explicit than previous scenes in the films: sometimes, the idea is worse than the image (actually, all the time).
On the whole, Contracted is a really well-done, intriguing and surprisingly female-centric take on the body horror subgenre. If I wish that the destination had been as original as the journey, I suppose that’s a small price to pay. Ultimately, Contracted ends up being “feel-bad” horror at it’s (almost) best: put this on a double-bill with The Incredible Melted Man and bid those unwanted house guests farewell!