Aside from David Cronenberg, Canada doesn't seem to have a true handle on horror. Granted, part of the reason for this random assessment derives from a lack of exposure to the Great White North's wealth of wicked pictures. We in the lower 48 are so inundated with are own home grown, hit or miss macabre that we barely raise our heads for examples outside our borders. In fact, unless it has an Asian or Mediterranean bent, we believe in our own fright superiority and continue forward with our own terror tunnel vision. Sadly, this means we miss a lot of the world's tremendous dread. One filmmaker trying to change this myopic view is independent writer/director Brett Kelly. Working with noted distributor Tempe Entertainment, and staging his stories within many recognizable fright formats, Kelly has built a creative cottage industry out of juggling genres. His latest effort is a possible pitfall – the zombie comedy. But thanks to a terrific script, and a skilled cinematic touch, My Dead Girlfriend comes across as satiric…and scary, not stupid.
Steve is a professor at the local college and today is a big day. His grad student gal pal Amy is preparing to move in with him, and our smitten instructor is even thinking marriage. Unfortunately, a freak accident leaves Amy dead and Steve devastated. Through the application of some of Amy's patented paranormal black magic (she was a literal student of the dark arts), Steve manages to revive his lover. But Amy's not quite the same. She's awkward and pasty, and keeps clamoring about how "hungry" she is. Hoping to escape the prying eyes of his building super, Steve packs up his undead babe and heads off to a cabin in the woods. But before he can get settled in, a group of his drunken friends – Ziggy, Vanessa, Carl and Patty – show up with liquor and drugs in hand. They want to party. Steve wants them to leave. And Amy? She wants to FEED! It will be tricky to keep his living dead girlfriend from chewing up his chums, but Steve must try. After all, he's made a commitment to his flesh craving fiancé – for better, and in this case, for a whole lot worse.
Like a far less substantive Shaun of the Dead, My Dead Girlfriend is a quirky little comedy that gets by on great big globs of goodwill and a sunny script that's more slacker silliness than uproarious horror. Canadian outsider auteur Brett Kelly, responsible for several of Tempe's indie entries, including The Feral Man and the Bonesetter series, tries something decidedly different here. Instead of pouring on the brooding, atmospheric elements of your standard living dead horror film, Kelly finds the funny center to a scary situation and then cranks up the irony a couple of clever notches. The result is a sometimes clever, sometimes cloying attempt to avoid the standard zombie clichés while making the frightening and the funny pay off in ways that are noticeable, not nominal. Though we never completely connect with the characters onscreen, and have a hard time getting a handle on the "mythology" aspects of this monster movie, the overall effect is one of witty experimentation in melding genres, as well as confirmation that there is more to Kelly than slasher retreads and unexceptional creaky creature features.
My Dead Girlfriend does suffer from a slow start. Kelly is so desperate to get us to like his professor/student pair that he even films their first moments together in a kind of corrupt meet-cute. The uneasy feeling of sexual harassment soon shifts over into obvious in-joke territory, but for a while, we are unclear as to where this whole seemingly sordid situation is going. Once we get to the first act catalyst – the wholly ridiculous "accident" which creates our cannibal corpse – the movie moves outside the normal narrative bounds and becomes a self-referential spoof. Then it's just a matter of waiting for the next nutty circumstance to arrive. A visit to a 40 year old momma's boy (screenwriter and actor John Muggleton) is very funny, as is the initial confrontation between Steve and his soused buddies. Kelly, as an actor, may be a little too deadpan for outright farce, but along with a cast of considered experts, he can deliver a clean, off the cuff quip with the best of them. Frankly, the humor in My Dead Girlfriend is not laugh out loud hilarious. Instead, it's wit painted in small, mostly memorable moments.
Such a consistently shifting tone is tricky, and as a director, Kelly almost succeeds in keeping things straight. During the final act search of the woods, a situation we've seen hundreds of times in horror films, Kelly keeps us guessing as to what will come next – a gag or a garroting. Unlike other attempts at melding murder with merriment, My Dead Girlfriend is not some kind of goofy, gratuitous gore fest. The use of blood here is restrained, and very effective – especially a last moment arm bite that is extremely nasty. By reserving both the sexuality and the sluice for another, more 'meaty' motion picture experiment, Kelly keeps the genial atmosphere he obviously hopes will sell both the scares and the snickers. He's generally correct in such an assumption. Entertaining, even in spite of itself, and quite capable of utilizing the genre's inherent dread to deepen the experience, My Dead Girlfriend may mark a kind of creative comeuppance for Kelly. Where he was previously attempting to mimic movies that came before, forging his own identifiable horror icons out of costumes and folklore, this monster mash-up actually manages to fulfill both of its cinematic duties.
As with most homemade movies, especially one's created under less than perfect fiscal circumstances, My Dead Girlfriend has some minor technological issues. The 1.33:1 full screen image is speckled with grain, is occasionally too dark – especially during the opening and closing exterior sequences -, and sees some significant color correction problems part way through. Still, with the level of economic commitment for such a project, and the inherent limits of digital vs. celluloid filmmaking, this movie looks pretty good. Kelly handles his framing and compositions well, and even when his actors fail to fulfill their onscreen promise, the direction is practical and professional.
It's Canadian accents ahoy as part of the Dolby Digital Stereo mix provided. Dialogue is clear – if occasionally rushed – and the inventive score by Howard Sonnenburg shines throughout. The use of some alt-indie-rock-pop tones during transitional moments does sort of stand out however, especially since the songs are so much louder than everything else in the movie. Still, My Dead Girlfriend does provide a potent aural presentation.
On area in which Tempe typically excels is the inclusion of added content to their DVD offerings, and My Dead Girlfriend is no exception. As part of the package, we get an audio commentary featuring Kelly, Sonnenburg, effects man Ralph Gethings and ancillary crew member Jodi Pittman. As you can imagine, this discussion is loaded with self-deprecating put downs, mentions of mistakes, and an overall air of fun and frivolity. While light on the actual production procedures used, this is still an insightful and interesting conversation. We are also treated to a set of cast and crew interviews, a selection of deleted scenes and a few funny bloopers. All are well worth your time. In addition, we are given a chance to see one of Kelly's short films, a two character prison drama entitled The Pretty Lie. Subdued, and somewhat talky, this exercise in moody black and white artistry is somewhat stilted, but still satisfying. Toss in some Tempe trailers and you've got a well rounded digital presentation.
In the realm of independent production, effort does count for something. Sure, many critics (including this one) easily dismiss the movies made by amateur auteurs because they pale in comparison to their big budget studio counterparts. But when you see how effortlessly My Dead Girlfriend entertains, when you recognize that, aside from all the typical technical stumbles, there is a real effort to engage the audience, you can easily overlook the less than polished particulars. While it may seem like a stretch, this Brett Kelly comedy easily earns a Recommended rating, and might even be worthy of a "higher" score, if you're so inclined. One thing is for certain – it is head and shoulders above other attempts by so called serious filmmakers to manufacture a memorable mirthful movie macabre. As long as Kelly remains original, and stops trying to ape the horror films of the past, he can continue to be a vanguard of Canadian creativity. All subjective stumbles aside, this is an enjoyable fright/funny combo.
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