Let’s just get this out of the way. Dead Dicks is the surprise hit of this year’s Fantasia Film Festival — an ingeniously engineered slash of modern horror that doubles as a poignant family drama addressing topics of dependency, identity, and mental illness.
I would imagine that given the title, the dark humour, and the subject matter (not to mention the occasional dismembering of dead bodies), Dead Dicks won’t appeal to a large audience — but that’s ok. Those of you searching for truly original work, look no further. This impressive first feature from Montreal-based duo Chris Bavota and Lee Paula Springer is one of the most unusual films ever fashioned out of the fears of depression. The script alone is a marvel of subtlety and intelligence, and for a micro-budget film made in a span of only ten days, Dead Dicks is funny, unexpected, and engaging. There’s something about the solemn, heartfelt, often overwhelmingly powerful experience of watching Dead Dicks that I didn’t expect. Love it or hate it, this is a hard movie to forget.
The plot is simple; well sort of. Dead Dicks follows Becca (Jillan Harris), who’s recently been accepted to a medical school but hasn’t quite mustered up the courage to break the
good bad news to her mentally unstable and suicidal brother, Richie (Heston Horwin), who relies on Becca to support him whenever he has a meltdown (which happens all too frequently). After leaving several cryptic messages on her voice mail asking for help, Becca runs to his rescue only to arrive at his dilapidated apartment and discover Ritchie’s corpse in the closet. Overtaken with grief, Becca doesn’t know what to do, but before she has time to react, she discovers another version of Ritchie walking around fully naked and insisting that he came back from the dead. Soon after, Becca realizes that there isn’t just one dead body lying around in the apartment, but several more dead versions of Richie. It seems no matter how hard he tries to kill himself, Ritchie just can’t stay dead.
Here’s where it gets weird.
The cause of this problem seems rooted in a strange vaginal-looking portal hovering over Richie’s bedroom wall. Each time Ritchie kills himself, the mysterious shape acts as some sort of gateway in which Ritchie is reborn. Aside from suffering from short-term memory loss, Ritchie returns back to full health, but unfortunately for him, his new self is unable to physically leave the premises. Now Becca and her brother must try to figure out how to break the loop in order to escape the cursed apartment before things spiral out of control and more bodies pile up.
Jillan Harris and Heston Horwin
There have been countless horror films about mental illness dating as far back as the genre’s cinematic inception, but Dead Dicks may be the first outside of Cronenberg’s own to put a Cronenbergian spin on the subject. Beyond the body horror and absurd humour, however, Dead Dicks is first and foremost a heartfelt story about the toxic — albeit loving — relationship between two siblings whose peeled-back layers reveal unexpected heroism towards the end. It’s rather impressive how Bavota and Springer are able to shed humour on such a dark subject, most notably thanks to the impeccable comic timing by supporting player, Matt Keyes. But what really makes the film special is the stalwart performances of Heston Horwin and Jillian Harris, who play the dysfunctional brother and sister. No matter how hard she tries and no matter how badly Ritchie messes up, Becca just can’t walk away from her brother when in need. The extent as to how far she will go to make sacrifices in order to help her brother is truly heartbreaking.
Kudos to Bavota and Springer for making the absolute most of the limited resources and a reportedly minuscule budget. With a small cast, the single apartment, and some subtle special effects, Bavota and Springer consistently find ways to surprise the audience. This is a work of scatterbrained originality with twists and turns you won’t see coming. More importantly, it will resonate with anyone who’s ever suffered through depression.
That’s not to say that Dead Dicks doesn’t have its share of flaws, because it does. The second scene in which Becca discusses her future via a terribly lit Skype conversation had me thinking that this would be the sort of film I would hate. Somehow, the editing team also decided on using what may be the worst looking font for their opening credits, and even though I liked the first shot, I was left questioning whether or not someone could actually suffocate themselves in that fashion. These are minor nitpicks, but there is something to be said about first impressions, and the opening of Dead Dicks doesn’t do much to convince someone who may be skeptical about watching the film to stick around till the end.
As mentioned above, Dead Dicks was shot in less than two weeks, and from my understanding, the filmmakers had less than a month to edit the movie and submit it to Fantasia in order to meet the festival’s deadline. Yet despite the lack of budget, Dead Dicks left a bigger impression on me than any other film at the fest this year. Truth be told, the rough, gritty, DIY quality surprisingly works in the film’s favor given the subject matter and the raw emotion, feeding off the Heston Horwin’s courageous performance. Dead Dicks has its flaws, but these are outweighed by the film’s many, mighty strengths.
Dead Dicks is the hidden gem at this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival, where it had its world premiere. It is clear that Dead Dicks is also a deeply personal film, and one can feel the passion and love that went into making each and every frame. While it does not yet have any distribution, I hope this isn’t the last we see of the husband and wife directorial team. Dead Dicks is at once funny, touching, compelling, and morbidly watchable. It also boasts one of the best screenplays this year; intelligent, strange, and well, let me stop gushing before I run out of superlatives.
- Ricky D