Another in a long line of recent horror entries chronicling an everyday individual possessed by an evil entity, The Dead Center sparks initial interest simply through the presence of Shane Carruth, the writer-director-star of both Primer and Upstream Color, and the hope that his participation signals some baseline of quality. Here, he takes on the starring role of Dr. Daniel Forrester, an emotionally troubled psychiatrist at a Tennessee hospital who discovers that a patient presumed dead is still very much alive and suffering from severe trauma and bouts of violent rage. As Forrester becomes obsessed with figuring out what ails our John Doe in the present, a medical examiner goes on an investigative journey into the man’s past, leading him toward a confrontation with Death itself. As that synopsis would imply, there is nothing here you haven’t seen before. Luckily, writer-director Billy Senese (Closer to God) is able to both create and sustain a palpable sense of dread remains gripping and steady across the film’s runtime.
This is very much the definition of a slow burn, but one that ultimately works to the film’s advantage, as it has atmosphere to spare, with its sound design a particularly notable asset. One does wish, though, that Senese had shown such finesse with a few of the other technical aspects: the score is downright oppressive at times, while his choice to represent the film’s malevolent spirit though shock cuts, claustrophobic close-ups, and shakycam is both obvious and annoying. Yet, surprisingly, the biggest blemish is Carruth himself, delivering a performance that is community theater-level bad. His very appearance in this, and its lack of quality, feels like form of procrastination, a way to avoid working on his next long-rumored directorial project. It’s true that he could have picked far worse projects to star in, so it’s unfortunate that his participation, rather than elevating, actively weakened what is ultimately a serviceable little genre diversion.
Published as part of October 2019’s Before We Vanish.