MARCH 9, 2010
Well, I got my wish. Since Lionsgate and their brethren began churning out Saw ripoffs, I have been asking for one that was cribbing from the story more than its death scenes, and Nine Dead is just that film. In fact, if anything it could have USED a few unique murders and/or gore shots, as everyone merely gets shot off camera, which gets a bit tiresome since the scenes in between are all in one location and focus entirely on our cast members yelling at each other.
So once again, a mysterious man has kidnapped a bunch of people and chained them up in some sort of abandoned warehouse/basement/whatever. But instead of putting them thru dangerous tests, or forcing them to kill one another, he simply asks them to figure out why they are all there. Every ten minutes he will return to the room, and if they still don’t know, he will kill one - but they will still have to figure out why that now-dead person was there with them. It’s a nifty plot device, but it also deflates some of the suspense - the first guy to provide some info is the first to die, and so on. Once they have given up what they know and/or how they recognize one of the others in the room, they’ve served their purpose. I think it would have been kind of cool if there was one cipher character whose role was never made clear to the others, only to let us in the audience know at the very end for a little stinger closing scene (sort of like how no one but us knows what “Rosebud” means).
And without spoiling it, the ultimate answer is actually kind of sad. Their captor is seeking some sort of justice for the chain of events that caused him to lose someone dear to him, events that the kidnapped folks were all involved with in some way. As he says, maybe a bit too on-the-nose-y, “His life ended only because he became a part of yours”, which is kind of a bummer. As we learn, many of the people didn’t really do anything horrible - for example, one of them is a priest, who is there because he didn’t go to the police with something he heard in his confessional booth.
On that note, one minor quibble - how does the captor know about all of the things that these people did? If the priest didn’t tell anyone, how did the bad guy know what he was told, or even that the guy confessed to him at all? An illegal gun purchase also factors into the story - how did he know who the gun was bought from? We learn that the buyer didn’t even really know the seller (both are in the room), so for a guy who only became aware of these events years later to know about them seems a bit far-fetched.
Then again, maybe there’s a perfectly good explanation for it that was simply left on the cutting room floor, or never shot at all. The movie has a number of puzzling tangents that never pay off. For example, Daniel Baldwin plays a partner to one of the kidnapped folks, but he only appears, for about 12 seconds, in the scene where the guy is kidnapped. But Baldwin is the only person that witnesses one of the kidnappings, which makes you think that he will be a bigger factor in the film, possibly tracking down what’s going on or maybe putting some of the connections together himself. But nope, he never appears again. Granted, Baldwin isn’t exactly an A lister, but it seems odd to hire him (of all people) for such a thankless, almost mute “cameo”.
There are also a number of shots of a car driving, which again suggest someone heading toward them. But that’s all they are - shots of a car driving. This results in a hilarious moment where one guy yells “We gotta think of something!” (cut to a car driving, then back to the same guy) “I just thought of something.” It’s a moment that resembles when you watch a TV show on DVD and you hear the same line of dialogue more or less repeated because the original 4 minute commercial break is no longer there. Also, an ending that seems like they forgot to film the punchline, some truly atrocious ADR, and a closing credits scroll that doesn’t have any of the usual legal language, an MPAA number, or a copyright date. Add all that up, and you have a movie that was almost definitely compromised, for one reason or another.
But it still works. I was engaged, and I wanted to know how they were all connected, trying to figure it out even without any information at hand. The real time aspect works really well, as do the occasional stabs at dark humor - gotta love that everyone instantly assumes that the priest is a pedophile. And it ends with a song by Course of Nature, an underrated rock band who I enjoy listening to from time to time (their “Caught In The Sun” is a great power ballad).
However, I can’t help but wonder if it would have worked even better with a cast that was all more or less at the same place on the Hollywood totem pole. Melissa Joan Hart and William Lee Scott (not a household name, no, but a familiar character actor all the same) are the “names”, so you know they won’t die anytime soon, and what information they provide early on isn’t relevant or entirely truthful, saving their big reveals for near the end of the film. It doesn’t help that Scott’s performance could best be described as awkward, as he bugs his eyes out and says everything with a sneer; it’s like watching E from Entourage do a particularly bad Taxi Driver impression for 90 minutes. In fact, the people who I had never seen before, such as Chip Bent and James C. Victor, give the best performances. It’s also a bummer that John Terry (another Saw connection - a Lost actor!) plays the masked villain who doesn’t say much until the end of the film; his high billing was a selling point for me.
But it least it was an honest selling point, unlike the box art and the film’s trailer, both of which try way too hard to sell this as a full blown horror movie. The box art has nine bloody bodies lying in a “9” shape, though none of them seem to be the actors from the film (there’s certainly no tiny Asian woman or tall African American guy among the folks on the poster). And the trailer has lots of shots of the masked “killer” at his work bench, cops with flashlights and other assorted shots from the finale, and even a few jigsaw puzzle piece designs scattering around the onscreen text. Come on guys, you have a fairly decent thriller here, why try to sell it as yet another generic Saw-clone?
So the story isn’t as crafty as Saw’s, and it doesn’t offer the gory highlights either, but I think it’s a step in the right direction for these sort of things. I’ve seen a hundred mortal head injuries at this point, but I’ll never tire of trying to solve a story puzzle before the characters do (and unlike 99 Pieces, the story isn’t just a big cheat). With a little script polishing and the budget/time/whatever was needed to tell the story as envisioned, I think this could have been a really great flick, but at least it’s still a pretty good one.
What say you?