Dir. Sean McConville
When a screenwriter travels to a house in the middle of nowhere to finish her latest project, sinister occurrences ensue. Given that said screenwriter is recovering from a recent nervous breakdown, staying alone in a big old house in the middle of nowhere probably wasn’t the greatest idea ever. However it means that director McConville can play that old ‘is she really seeing ghosts or just losing her mind again’ card.
I enjoy catching random horror films on late night TV. Sometimes you’re rewarded for idly flicking through the channels until something catches your eye – favourite films I’ve discovered this way include Cat People, Halloween, The Pit and the Pendulum and Dawn of the Dead. When you see that a horror film starring Brittany Murphy as a nervous writer staying alone in a creepy house has just started – you just have to watch it. Deadline seemed to me to have a lot of potential; a nice (if not wholly original) idea, a pace and tone that initially suggested slow-burning creepiness, some moody cinematography, and the names Brittany Murphy and Thora Birch in the titles. Sadly, while it possesses a quiet moodiness, Deadline is also so lumbered with clichés and obvious signposts it never generates any suspense.
Throughout the crawling running time we’re subjected to cliché after cliché - doors slowly creaking open, baths overflowing, wet footprints appearing, someone playing Moonlight Sonata in the dead of night. That sort of thing. The sort of thing you’ve seen in every other horror film ever. As this is a contemporary horror film, the protagonist is also armed with a video-camera, and while this is a handy plot device and ensures McConville can treat us to grainy POV shots aplenty, it makes no sense. But wait! Not long after some spooky stuff happens, Alice (Murphy) finds a horde of DV tapes while exploring the scary attic, which is handy because she just happens to have a DV camera to watch them on. Cue house’s violent backstory and typical underuse of Thora Birch, as Alice watches the gradual breakdown of the marriage of former residents Lucy and David; which David handily documented on his DV camera. Here the narrative splits between us watching Murphy who is watching the tapes – and Birch – the young married woman featured on the tapes, whose husband is becoming increasingly possessive and hostile. And filming it all.
|Things to do in a haunted house: Take a bath.|
|Things to do in a haunted house: Take another bath.|
The plot thickens as Alice begins to suspect that the house is haunted by Thora Birch. More clichés abound as spooky messages appear on her laptop, half glimpsed figures dart past the foreground or appear in mirrors, and countless slow tracking shots around the house remind us that Alice is all alone. When she isn’t watching the tapes or wondering why the bath is overflowing, or indeed, just sitting in the bath pouting and gazing off into the distance looking confused and a bit sleepy, she wanders around the house looking quite confused. There’s an eerie nursery with an empty cot, naturally, and all the while the house creaks and moans - probably under the weight of the clichés that are languidly unfolding within it.
|'How spooky. The bath is full of water. I should probably take another bath.'|
|Thora really wishes Brittany would stop hogging the bath.|
An emaciated Murphy seems unsure of herself – it’s quite hard not to read into her somnambulistic performance given the tragic circumstances of her life around the time this film – one of her last – was made. Birch is typically wasted and Marc Blucas elicits about as much menace as Alice’s laptop. Meanwhile as Alice is increasingly convinced that “there’s someone in the house” (no, really?), she starts downing the medication and upping the ambiguity of whether or not she’s really being haunted or just slipping back into a psychological breakdown. Talk of her abusive ex-boyfriend’s release from jail doesn’t help, nor does it generate any suspense as the film just plods along to its twisty, jaw-droppingly stupefying climax.
Deadline is a wasted opportunity. Its muddled script wastes the talents of Murphy and Birch – who are given so little to work with – and McConville’s reticent direction fails to generate any tension or illicit any emotional reaction from the viewer. This should have been a creepy slow-burner, not a tedious burn-out.