JULY 8, 2010
A list of every failed horror-comedy would probably be longer than a football field, so the success of Diagnosis: Death is even more impressive when you consider that it also works somewhat as a drama (our two leads are dying of cancer). Pulling off two basic human emotions (fear and laughter) is hard enough, but a third (sympathy) as well? Even if the movie isn’t perfect, that is pretty dang laudable. Kudos to all involved.
The comedic approach is the most successful, as it’s packed with the sort of dry, random humor that I love. I particularly enjoyed the scene where our hero finds out he has cancer, as the doctor is hopelessly blunt about the facts, and perhaps a bit too honest (“They say you have about 12 weeks to live, but I’d say it’s more like 8.”). They also score a big laugh by pointing out an inherent flaw in any of these “ghost needs living person to help them get revenge” scenarios. See, the dead woman is a horror novelist, and she’s been leaving vague clues like flowers around in order to guide them in the right direction so they can solve the mystery. “She’s a writer, why can’t she just write this down for us?” It’s true though - ghosts can often manipulate the environment, yet they’re always so hopelessly obtuse (he also makes a joke about how it’s just like her novels - all about the subtext).
As a horror film it’s a bit slight, but it’s still a decent enough mystery, and the film is too short (83 minutes) to get boring. It’s the same sort of scenario we’ve seen in a zillion J-horror films (wrongful death of a child, an evil family member), but the odd backdrop (they are stuck in a hospital trying out an experimental cancer drug, which may be causing them to hallucinate) makes it work, and the two death scenes are surprisingly nasty/gory. Plus, it’s actually been a while since I’ve watched something along these lines (The Echo?), so it was nice to see a little creepy ghost kid again. And again, the humor is largely successful, so it worked to keep me off guard a bit, allowing the scares to work as well. And the rather depressing fact that both of these folks might die at the end of the film gives the action a bit of a melancholy feel - they might survive the ghosts, but die of an incurable disease. There are also a few other somewhat depressing moments, such as when they discuss what songs to play at their funerals. Raybon Kan (who also co-wrote with director Jason Stutter) looks a bit young for the character’s age (he’s supposedly been teaching for 15 years, but he only looks about 30), but that’s not his fault, and it makes these scenes work, as they’re both “too young to die” and all that, not to mention extremely likable. It’s rare you can find yourself rooting for the main characters in a horror film under two completely different circumstances. Beat the ghost! Beat cancer!
Incidentally, the least effective idea in the movie is to show cancer itself as sort of a ghost “infecting” our two heroes. I get the point, but it’s a really goofy effect, and even sort of confusing - it took me a while to realize that the ghost that they were seeing in the hospital wasn’t related to the one who “gave” them cancer. I actually thought that the ghost had intentionally brought them there or something, and the fact that we almost never see any of the other patients (there are a dozen or so trying out the drug - this has a hilarious punchline by the way) made this theory even more plausible.
Kan also writes himself dangerously close to unlikable early on - he accepts a bribe from a parent to raise their child’s grade, pushes a woman into sex on the first date, etc. This stuff is funny, sure, but like the cancer ghost, it kind of sets the wrong tone for the movie at first. Once he begins a friendship with Jessica’s Smith character, he sheds this slight douchiness, but it’s still somewhat unfortunate - I wasn’t really into the movie at first. And given the low attention spans of today’s audiences (you wouldn’t believe how many times I’ve heard someone trash a movie only to later reveal that they only watched the first 20 minutes), it could be damaging. Indeed, the film’s IMDb rating is much lower than I expected. Usually for DTV/foreign horror films I agree within a point of whatever the average is, but this was about 3-4 points below what I’d rate it. Can’t help but wonder if a lot of that is just from people who saw the Boo Berry-esque cancer ghost and gave up.
The disc has no extras whatsoever, not even the trailer, which is a shame, as Stutter and Kan have worked together several times and thus would probably have an enjoyable repartee on a commentary. The film also features cameos from the stars of Flight of the Conchords, so if they were roped in such a track would be even funnier. And it seems that they had a real hospital (or at least clinic) to work in, so that sort of stuff is always interesting to hear about (plus it’s an New Zealand movie, so it’s not the goddamn Linda Vista). At any rate, it’s still a charming genre blend that really worked for me, and I hope these folks return to the genre(s) soon.
What say you?