Halloween is my favorite holiday of the year. You get to dress up in fun costumes, have an excuse to eat junk food that you were going to eat anyway, and watch a bunch of scary movies. Also, it’s not a traditionally Family Gathering kind of holiday, so it comes with a lot less drama than, say, Thanskgiving or Christmas.
Also, in my house, Halloween is a time to savor truly terrible horror movies.
We will begin Splatterfest 2014 with our first film: Nine Dead.
Nine strangers are kidnapped and locked in a room together. Their abductor explains that he’ll kill one of them every ten minutes until they can figure out how they’re all connected and why they’re all here.
1. This is exactly the kind of mystery that I get all nerdy and excited about. A group of strangers having to figure out who they are or how they’re connected is just such a great setup for a story. The amount of potential is staggering. And yet, these mysteries are rarely — if ever — executed well, and not surprisingly, Nine Dead is no exception.
One of the biggest problems for me? Racist and homophobic stereotypes. I won’t go into details until the Spoiler Section, but wow. There are some serious problems here. I’m talking issues like whoa.
2. Another serious problem?
Melissa Joan Hart is hideously miscast as Kelley. Like, it’s bad. It’s also inevitable because Hartbreak Films, her own production company, is the one producing this shit. And, admittedly, a lot of the writing doesn’t do Hart any favors. Kelley was never going to be a great character, and no actress could have fully saved her. Regardless, she is deeply unconvincing in the role.
I also take considerable issue with some of her backstory . . . but we’ll have to discuss that later, too.
3. Actually, due to the nature of this story, I’m not sure how much I can really say without Spoilers. I can tell you that while this film introduces a fair number of red herrings that lead absolutely nowhere, I’m surprisingly okay with it. After all, it’d be silly if each character immediately knew what they did to warrant abduction and potential execution. They have to talk it out, go through all the shit they’ve ever done, and some of them have done some naughty shit. It make sense that a few characters bring up Big Sins that end up having nothing to do with why they’re there.
4. I also like some of the reactions to the general insanity that’s going on around them.
Okay, some of them are just overacting. William Lee Scott is kind of hilarious, though not always (or even mostly) intentionally. But while few of the characters are particularly likable, most of them have at least a couple of funny moments or completely believable reactions that makes them, if not fully sympathetic, then at least watchable.
And then there’s Kelley.
5. Unfortunately, just too much goes wrong with this story. In fact, one mistake is made immediately: for some reason, we have to watch about half of the characters get abducted instead of just beginning in the Room of Doom. The abductions don’t take long, at least, but they’re pretty repetitive and don’t serve much purpose. Most of the information we can glean from these short scenes is later fed to us, anyway, so I don’t think there’s anything here that provides a crucial clue to solving the mystery.
Similarly, we keep cutting away from the Room of Doom to watch cars — quite possibly the same car — drive by the warehouse they’re stuck in, and I have no idea why. I assumed that this car had to be important by the end, but for the life of me, I don’t see how. And the ending, like the very last shot? It’s pretty terrible. I’ve disliked abrupt endings before, but the way this movie cuts out, it’s like someone completely forgot to put in the last scene, like the camera stopped recording and no one realized before they sent the movie off. It’s hideously bad.
If you’re not going to watch Nine Dead — and be honest, you’re totally not — feel free to continue onward.
All right, let’s see if I can remember how all these people are connected.
Christian, a bartender, aspiring actor, and very first to die, gets a loan from mob moneylender, strip joint owner, and all-around-asshat Sully. Christian plans to use this money for some big drug deal thing. Alas, he is caught and goes to jail. When he gets out, he has no money to pay Sully back, and fearing for his life — or at the very least, his kneecaps — buys a gun from Leon and robs Mrs. Chan’s store. Fortunately for Christian and deeply unfortunately for Mrs. Chan, she mistakenly picks Wade Greeley out of the police lineup. ADA Kelley knows that Mrs. Chan isn’t a reliable witness, though, since she suffered a concussion and is, like, old and stuff. And Kelley desperately needs a win, or she’s on her way out, so she uses her unwitting, married boyfriend, Officer Jackson, to plant evidence. And even though Christian confesses his crime to Father Francis, the priest refuses to break his vows and tell the police what he knows. Thus, Wade Greeley goes to jail, where he is raped by child-molester/murderer Coogan. As if this wasn’t enough, Wade also contracts AIDS from Coogan. When he gets out of prison, Wade applies for an experimental AIDS treatment that’s his only chance of survival, but Eddie denies the claim based on his felony conviction. Thus the miserable existence of Wade Greeley comes to an end, and Wade’s father (John Terry) is seriously pissed.
Okay, now that you know all that . . . man. There are just so many things to discuss. Let’s begin with those stereotypes I mentioned before, and the deeply problematic characters that are Leon and Coogan.
Leon is the only black character in the cast, and of course, he’s this thug guy who runs guns and robs people, not to mention killed his own brother. (And dumped his corpse during a Cinco de Mayo festival because his brother never liked Mexicans. All sorts of fun racism in this movie. Another example: Leon is mocking Mrs. Chan by pulling at the corners of his eyes and making some vaguely Chinese-sounding babble. Mrs. Chan, in turn, lets out a spew of pissed off Chinese, which she chooses to punctuate with the one English word everyone in the room understands. Hint: it starts with ‘n.’) Admittedly, the majority of characters in this film are hardly paragons of decency and compassion, but not everyone is a total waste of a human being, and Leon’s casting wouldn’t have bothered me nearly so much if, say, Insurance Dude Eddie or Kindly Father Francis were also black.
Still, it’s Coogan that bothers me the most.
To remind you, Coogan is a man who both molests and murders children. (He is, apparently, not particular when it comes to girls or boys.) He isn’t the least bit ashamed of this. In fact, he seems rather satisfied with himself. Dare I say sassy. I take no issue with the fact that Coogan is a remorseless, murdering pedophile, or even that he’s occasionally funny. (Because, honestly, he is. I hate how the character’s portrayed, but the actor is clearly one of the stronger talents in the room.) I do, however, take issue with the fact that his every line delivery is just dripping with Saucy Gay Evil — to the point where he’s near-lisping some of his lines. Again, it’s particularly bad when there are, so far as I can tell, no other gay, lesbian, or bisexual characters in this film. Yes, folks, there is only one non-hetero character in Nine Dead, and he’s a pedophile rapist with AIDS.
For fuck’s sake.
On the upside, Mek and I took a few bets throughout the movie (like who was first to die, that sort of thing) and we both kept losing them. It’s impressive when a movie can surprise you, and this one did, a number of times, even. I think the only thing I twigged to super early was that Jackson was a cop, partially because when he’s abducted next to Daniel Baldwin, Baldwin pulls out a gun, and my immediate instinct was, Oh, cop. Even without that scene, though, it’s pretty obvious Jackson is LAPD, what with his repeated insistence that this isn’t some cop ploy to trick convicts into incriminating themselves, and the fact that ADA Kelley, who clearly knows who Jackson is, pointedly asks if he wants to reveal something else about himself. (I would also like to add that these people are morons. Yeah, guys. The cops kidnapped each of you with stun guns and set up this whole elaborate operation. I mean, come on, dudes. This is going a little beyond, “Your buddy’s in the next room, so you better talk fast if you wanna make a deal.”)
Also, Daniel Baldwin is, admittedly, the least well-known of the Baldwin brothers, but he’s still sort of name, particularly in a movie where the biggest stars are Sabrina the Teenage Witch, the second-to-least useful kid from the remake of Gone in Sixty Seconds, and Christian Shepherd from Lost. So, you’d expect him to appear for more than 35 seconds, right? Yes, well, you’d be wrong. I checked. I was sure Baldwin would come in at the end of the film, but apparently he was only cast to say a couple of lines and get tased. It is remarkably bizarre.
Other incorrect guesses:
In a twist, Mrs. Chan secretly speaks English all along!
Nope. Evil Christian Shepherd — as I will now be referring to him — actually gives her a note written in Chinese to explain why she’s here just before he kills her. As I’m pretty sure Google Translate would have failed him (like it fails us all), I can only assume that he had to actually ask somebody, “Hey, can you write this in Chinese for me: ‘You falsely identified my son as a criminal, and he went to prison, was raped, and died from AIDS because of it.’ Thanks a bunch!”)
The black guy would die first.
Nope. It’s Christian, er, Bartender Christian. (Evil Christian Shepherd says the death order is random, but later suggests that it isn’t. This becomes problematic later.) Regardless, Mek said that Sweater Vest Guy (Eddie) would die first, but while neither of us were right and thus have failed to become a dime richer, her guy didn’t die until the very end of the movie. So I clearly won this round.
Kelley had Jackson’s Affair Baby and didn’t tell him she had an abortion.
Not quite. Mek and I were both right about the baby, but Kelley actually kept the kid and just said it was someone else’s.
The priest isn’t a priest because when two different people can’t remember how a prayer goes, he can’t or fails to help them finish it.
Nope. The first time around, it’s Christian who can’t remember the prayer, and the priest is flustered because he thinks he recognizes Christian’s voice from confession. (Kid couldn’t remember the prayer then, either.) The second time, it’s Eddie, and it flusters the priest some more because it reminds him of Now Dead Christian, whose crime is certainly the reason that they’re there, only the priest can’t tell anyone that without breaking his vows.
Once we knew there was a Secret Confession — but before we linked it to the forgotten prayers — I figured it was Kelley telling Father Francis about the abortion, since Kelley seems the most ridiculously desperate to keep her secrets hidden. (Kelley has priority issues, although admittedly, Christian has more, as he laments that he’s going to miss his audition a few minutes before his demise.) She very obviously keeps trying to change the subject from ‘Talking About Our Deepest, Darkest Sins’ to ‘Let’s Kill That Motherfucker, Even Though We Have No Way Out of Here, and The One Guy Who Came Closest to Escaping is Now Dead.’)
I make mention of these failed guesses because there are actually some pretty clever misdirects and red herrings in this movie. The thing with the prayer, for instance, or bringing up Sully’s dead brother, or the fact that Jackson once helped beat and blind a kid because he was a rookie cop too scared to stand up to his superiors . . . these are all pretty effective in keeping the audience guessing. I’m not kidding when I say that there’s potential in this story.
Unfortunately, there are also some plot holes like you would not believe. Let’s go back to Evil Christian Shepherd, who we will now be referring to as Evil Omniscient Christian Shepherd.
The only way this plot makes any sense is if our killer is omniscient. Because, logically, there’s no way he can know how everyone is involved. Sure, he knows that Mrs. Chan identified the wrong man, even if was an honest mistake. He knows that it was Eddie’s signature on the letter that says, ‘Nope, no treatment for you.’ And his son could easily have told him who raped him in prison. Everyone else, though, is a bit sketchy.
I suppose it’s at least possible that Evil Omniscient Christian Sheperd could’ve guessed Kelley was framing his son, and that the cop she was having an affair with was helping her, intentionally or otherwise. But I fail to see how he figured out that Bartender Christian was the real thief in the first place, or that he got a loan from Sully, or bought a gun from Leon. (Especially Leon, since that purchase happened in the middle of the night with no apparent witnesses.) But it’s really Father Francis who seals the deal. Father Francis won’t even tell these fuckers what he knows to save his own life, or theirs. So, how in holy hell did EOCS know that Bartender Christian went to confession, OR what he confessed there?
Other problems arise, too, when EOCS tries to kill poor, sweater-vest wearing Eddie.
EOCS has the gun pointed at Sully, who’s taunting the shit out of him. (I actually sort of love that Sully never feels remorse for what he’s done, that he refuses to die angry or scared, and that he’s mostly just incredulous that he’s gonna die for loaning some asshole five grand instead of any the hugely terrible shit that he’s done.) Sully says, “C’mon, asshole, pull the trigger!”and EOCS is like, “Yeah, one prob. It’s Eddie’s turn to die next.” Understandably, Eddie is a lot less eager to accept death with open arms, but when EOCS fires his gun, Father Francis jumps in the way and dies instead. EOCS is about to kill Eddie anyway, but Jackson reminds him of his own rules: one person dies every ten minutes. So EOCS stomps away petulantly and waits for the clock to rundown.
Here are my problems:
A. If EOCS is now killing based on some order that only he understands, Eddie should be the next person to die after Father Francis. Instead, Mrs. Chan is killed. Why? Well, because we need to keep Eddie alive to learn what his role in the mystery is. Mrs. Chan, on the other hand, has already revealed all of her secrets, so she goes next instead. Unfortunately, that’s not good enough for me. I need an actual story reason Eddie doesn’t die next, even if it’s just seeing EOCS pulling names out of a hat before he enters the room every time.
B. More importantly — and I didn’t actually catch this until after the movie was over — EOCS has whispered (or delivered a note) to every character he kills right before he kills them. Watching how they react is part of the mystery. Bartender Christian’s last words are: “How could I have known that?” Whereas, Coogan’s last words were: “Yeah. That’s a good reason.” Once we know why they’re here, those reactions make more sense. However, EOCS doesn’t tell Eddie why he’s been condemned to die. Why? Well, because Eddie doesn’t die. If Eddie died, then he’d know and be able to share a huge part of the mystery with the others. Basically, the movie would end in the next two minutes. But again, I need an actual story reason EOCS doesn’t tell Eddie why he’s here, and there isn’t one.
The only way Father Francis’s sacrifice play works, I think, is this: someone need to piss EOCS off so much that he forgets his whole whisper ritual thing and just tries to shoot them, only the good Catholic priest gets in the way. In which case, the person shouldn’t be Eddie — who just can’t inspire that kind of rage — but Kelley. I’m not really crazy about the idea of a guy nobly sacrificing himself for the one white woman in the room, but story-wise, it makes much more sense. Kelly is the only other person close enough to Father Francis, and she’s also the one that pisses off EOCS the most.
Because let’s be clear about this: Kelley inspires so much rage for so many reasons.
A good part of it, as I said earlier, has to do with performance. I haven’t seen a less convincing assistant district attorney since Katie Holmes in Batman Begins, and I’ll be honest with you guys: in the battle for realism between Katie Holmes and Melissa Joan Hart, Katie Holmes wins hands-down. Kelley is also deeply unlikable because her first and foremost character trait is that she’s an uber bitch, presumably because she’s a strong-minded, career-first kind of woman, and that unfortunately tends to translate to One-Note Shrew in Hollywood. Of course, that makes no sense to me, because I feel like a character whose primary goal is to preserve her reputation would not be bitching about something every time she opens her mouth, but that’s basically what she does here. And since we don’t learn much about the only other woman in the movie — as she doesn’t speak English and none of the other abductees speak Chinese — well, ladies, Kelley is pretty much our only representation in this movie. Yay, girl power?
And I haven’t even gotten to the Last Minute Rape Subplot yet.
Yup. In the last ten to twelve minutes of the movie, Kelley abruptly decides to tell Eddie and Jackson — the only guys left — about how she was abducted off the street one day and raped in the back of a van, only she managed to get the upper hand and killed the shit out of that guy. Then she went back to work the next day like nothing happened. And maybe you’re wondering if this rape has something to do with Wade Greeley and why she’s here; well, it doesn’t, not at all. As far as I can tell, there are only three possible reasons for this monologue:
A: To garner some last-minute sympathy for Kelley, who survived such a horrific ordeal. (This is probably the least likely reason, considering what happens at the end, but I bring it up because I’ve seen too many TV shows and movies have an unsympathetic or generally disliked character raped in hopes that it will make people feel sorry for her and like her more. I cannot possibly express to you how much I hate this trope.)
B. So that Eddie could hear her story about rape, think to himself, ‘Hey, you know where rape happens a lot? Prison. And Wade Greeley ended up in prison — what if he got raped by one of the many people here who have been to jail, like Coogan. And what if Coogan was HIV+, since he’s the most likely to be, obviously, as a bisexual child predator and all, and shit, remember how I had to tell people once that they couldn’t have our nifty new AIDS medicine if they were convicted of a felony? Holy shit, I solved the puzzle.’
No, really, that’s pretty much how it goes. Two seconds after Kelley has told her story, Eddie makes the rape connection. It is the dumbest thing in all existence.
C. To show that Kelley is a fighter and will survive at all costs. We know this because Kelley wraps up her story by saying, “I will survive at all costs.” This is incredibly last-minute and wholly unnecessary foreshadow for what happens next: EOCS lets the three of them go as promised, but Kelley doesn’t want anyone to know what she’s done, so she kills everyone. (It’s EOCS, you see, that makes up the titular nine dead, not Kelley.) I really don’t believe you need to lay in the groundwork that Kelley has murder “in her” because honestly, don’t we all have murder in us? Are we trying to say that if Kelley hadn’t been raped, she wouldn’t have been able to kill these people, that the rape is the one and only thing that broke her humanity or something? Because that’s some bullshit. That’s another trope I’m not a particularly huge fan of.
But if you feel it’s absolutely essential to add in this whole backstory (and it’s not), then guys, you cannot just shove it in there ten minutes before the end of the movie. That’s ridiculous. If Kelley is going to tell this story at all, it needs to happen much, much earlier, maybe back when people are confessing if they killed anyone or not.
As a side note: I’m trying to decide who got screwed over the most. Jackson had absolutely no reason to suspect the evidence Kelley gave him, so he really didn’t do anything wrong here. Although he’s also the guy that helped blind a dude that one time. Mrs. Chan picking Wade out of the lineup certainly turned out bad for him, but she’s an old lady with a concussion, and there’s absolutely no evidence to suggest she did this maliciously. (Not to mention, it wouldn’t have been enough to convict Wade anyway without Kelley framing him.) And Eddie couldn’t have known that Wade was innocent of his felony conviction, and his company probably wouldn’t have care if they did. (Technically, the priest didn’t do anything wrong, either, but my sympathy for him depends on how much he knew and when he knew it. If he didn’t realize that someone else had been arrested, that’s one thing. If he did know and chose not to speak, I’d actually have a little less sympathy for him than, say, Sully, who’s a total scumbag and yet only related incidentally to the crime itself.)
I bring all this up because — before he dies — EOCS says something like, ‘If you people had only tried to help him,’ and ‘Any of you could’ve saved his life,’ and I think we’re all supposed to feel sorry for EOCS, like he’s not such a bad guy after all. (Especially now that Kelley’s in the picture). But I’m like, “Ehhhhh . . . I think we’re stretching this a bit. For one thing, I don’t actually think that’s true, that any of these people could have saved Wade’s life. For another, while I feel for this guy, let’s not kid ourselves here: this dude is a psychotic murderer. I have way more sympathy for Mrs. Chan than EOCS.”
Anyway, EOCS tells Kelley that it doesn’t matter if she kills him, that the police are already at the building and he’s been recording all of this. I assume this is true, although we never see the police look at any of these recordings. (Or, for that matter, find out if the police tracked the kidnapper down themselves, or if EOCS called them there.) Kelley decides to ignore this, kills everyone, and runs. Well, lightly jogs, anyway, the way you do when cops are chasing you.
This is how the movie ends: Kelley goes down one corridor and appears to be looking down another. The cops run by the same corridor, but nobody is there. And then the movie just cuts out. I think it’s supposed to imply that Kelley escapes the warehouse (because she’s a survivor, she’s gonna make it), but I can’t quite come up with the words to explain just how bad this last shot is. In fact, Mek and I rewound the movie to see if we blinked and missed something, or if something went wrong with the DVD, because it really feels like the last scene was accidentally chopped off and no one noticed. But there was nothing.
I know it’s a low-budget movie and all, but man. That may have been one of the worst film endings I’ve ever seen.
Killer: “Don’t use your son as an excuse. It really pisses me off.”
Jackson: “You put me in a room with you and no windows and no doors, and you’re gonna wish that you were never born.”
Coogan: “Sweetie, we are in a room with no windows or doors, and the only thing you’re gonna do is try to survive, just like me.”
Sully: “I’m not going to give you the satisfaction of me being all pissed off while I die. Of all the shit you could have killed me for. Five grand? Fuck you!”
Eddie: “My name is Eddie Vigoda.”
Sully: “Hi, Eddie!”
Eddie: “Maybe that helps somebody.”
Jackson: “No, Eddie. No. It doesn’t.”
Eddie: “You put yourself up on a pedestal, but you’re here just like the rest of us. So, why don’t you stop talking about why you shouldn’t be here and let’s figure out why you are.”
So much wasted potential. Yet another Bottle Episode Mystery Movie I’d love to rewrite.
Um. I’ll go with James C. Victor, I guess. (Eddie) But the actors who played Sully and, surprisingly, Coogan were also possibilities.
Melissa Joan Hart, no question
Don’t be a dirty rotten moneylender. Or sell illegal guns. Or rob people. Or rape people. Or frame people. Or sleep with people who might conceivably plant evidence. Or take your priestly vows seriously. Or do your job. Or try to identify a guy who stole all your money and gave you a concussion.
Basically, just stay home and watch television. Everyone’s better off that way.