A lot of hardcore horror buffs are going to hate "Dead Mary" for the very same reason I liked it: it's more of a character-driven chiller, with minimal gore and a decidedly slower pace. In fact, for the first twenty-plus minutes of the movie, you'd never know you were watching a horror film at all, and it's yet another twenty-plus minutes after that when the spooky stuff really kicks in. This is bound to set off many viewers eager for faster, bloodier thrills, especially those who were attracted to the direct-to-video movie because of DVD cover artwork that falsely hypes the picture as a demons-and-slashers bloodfest.
The film opens with a lingering bit of nothingness: Kim (Dominique Swain) is waiting oh-so-impatiently in a stranded car in the middle of nowhere. She fiddles with the radio (no signal), she pokes through the glove compartment (a flare gun, some maps), she grabs a CD case (empty). There is no music here, just the occasional sound of nature.
This is a bold move, opening a horror film with a whole lot of not much. But it draws us into the story in ways a more traditional scary opening might not, as we're intrigued by the silence. Kim's boyfriend (Jefferson Brown) finally arrives with two cans of gas, and immediately they start bickering; we later learn that they had broken up, yet still decided to attend a reunion vacation together, which seems to them like it will be the only stressful part of the weekend.
The reunion is that of a group of college buddies now pushing 30, and they've rented a cabin in the woods to relax, reminisce, and complain about trying to become grown-ups. There's nothing sinister about anything that happens here - director Robert Wilson and writers Peter Sheldrick and Christopher Warre Smets provide no foreshadowing of the evils to come, no cheap fake-out scares to keep reminding us that it's still a horror movie. For most of the first act, we're simply watching a drama about a group of old friends.
The plot heats up when, in hopes of lightening a conversation that has turned to argument, one of the women mentions the old kids' game of Dead Mary. "Isn't that Bloody Mary?" one asks; another replies, "Bloody Mary is the lame version." Actually, it's the same thing, except there are already several horror movies called "Bloody Mary," so the writers had to improvise a bit. One by one, the characters run off to the mirror to say "Dead Mary" three times. Nothing happens, they all have a laugh, and new round of beers is passed around.
Ah, but then, late at night when all are asleep, one of the guys awakens to noises outside. He investigates, and we've seen this moment before: he turns to a shadowy figure, whom we do not see but he recognizes, greeting with a friendly "hey." We now fade to black. We will not be allowed to see what's coming next, but we're sure it's not friendly.
Yes, Dead Mary has been set free, or, at least, her spirit is now out to infest the souls of these six unlucky campers. What follows is John Carpenter's "The Thing" by way of Eli Roth's "Cabin Fever" and many movies in between, as isolation sets in and paranoia grows out of control. Who will be next? Who's already a victim? That sort of thing.
What's curious about the remainder of the film is how it maintains its focus on character, instead of abandoning everything in favor of ghostly thrills. One character is found dead, only to spring back to life despite his mutilated condition. Your average shocker would have him claw his way around until he's somehow defeated; here, he stays rather still, using words, not action, to terrorize his former friends. He spits accusations, who's-cheating-on-whom, and that burns deeper than the idea of actually having to kill him again (which someone is forced to do, slamming a shovel into his face - we don't see it, however, keeping in line with the movie's restrained tone). The spirit of Dead Mary knows it's one thing to scare the bejeepers out of you by running around in someone's undead body, but it's even better to drop a bit of unshakable doubt into the minds of your victims. (Oh, and when it comes time to start killing off said undead friends, it's easier to jab gardening tools into his face if you already hate the bastard.)
By being more psychological in its frights, "Dead Mary" manages an extra layer of spookiness, but it also risks losing less patient viewers in the process. "Dead Mary" is a daring work that intentionally avoids the obligatory horror movie traits, attempting something a little different. It still manages to be derivative in spots (some shots and ideas come straight out of Carpenter's works), but the picture still comes off as fresh and intelligent, always refreshing in the horror field.
Genius Entertainment is releasing "Dead Mary" in an "unrated" edition, although since the thing never played in theaters, the whole concept of it being a new, more extreme version of the film is just plain stupid.
Video & Audio
The woods look plenty sinister in this anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1) transfer that handles the black levels quite nicely. The soundtrack is a serviceable Dolby 5.1, but if you're like me, you're bound to forget you turned it up a bit to hear the quiet dialogue, thus blowing out your eardrums once the jump-scares begin.
"The Making of Dead Mary" (26:10) is a collection of generic cast interviews mixed with overlong clips from the film and some random on-set footage. It's as bland as it sounds.
Evolved Monkey's "We Are Here," a pretty decent tune used over the film's closing credits, appears in music video form (4:09) to help hype the band.
Trailers for "Dead Mary" and three other Genius releases round out the disc.
All bonus material is presented in 1.33:1 full frame, with movie footage properly letterboxed.
Your reaction to "Dead Mary" all depends on what you want out of a horror movie. Me, I enjoyed the whole thing and admired its desire to sidestep the traditional horror trappings. Recommended to those who will feel the same and enjoy looking for something smarter in your creature features. To the rest of you, bound to grumble at the lack of blood and guts, I remind you that you'll find what you want in just about every other chiller cheapie out there.