At first, Samantha (Najarra Townsend) doesn't notice anything really wrong with herself. She was out drinking late last night, still upset about the growing distance between herself and her girlfriend Nikki (Katie Stegeman), so she had more to drink than she would've liked, and -- whether she wants to admit it or not -- slept with a guy for the first time since she started seeing Nikki, so she writes her headache and stomach pain off as the usual hangover business. Then she wakes up, covered in blood from the waist down, and her ears begin ringing at work. She goes to see a doctor, who can't find anything wrong with her, aside from a vaginal rash and a hint of an ear infection, which he chalks up to a head cold, but something is definitely wrong. Blood vessels running up and down her side turn blue. She nearly collapses at work. Meanwhile, she hears from Alice (Alice Macdonald), the friend who threw the party, that the police are looking for her one night stand. What kind of bug has he infected her with?
Just the other day, I was lamenting good movies that manage to screw themselves up, and here we have another example in Contracted. On a technical level, it's a gem, capturing some of the most stomach-churning, physically unsettling body horror I've seen in a long, long time. I'm not the kind of guy who gets queasy that often at horror movies, especially considering how many I've seen, but something about the way Samantha slowly begins to break down is genuinely horrifying on a gut level. Thematically, however, the film is a mess: not only is the film packed with signifiers that don't really mean anything, the most coherent messages the film sends are rather unfortunate.
Personally, the destruction or disintegration of the body, especially when the damage is transformative in a permanent way, is something that really captures the imagination, and Contracted taps into that with impressive skill. When considered clinically, the symptoms Samantha exhibits aren't that extreme: some blood loss, an eye turning red, sickly skin. Yet, director Eric England executes these developments in such a visceral way that just recounting them in writing, hours later, is enough to activate my gag reflex. One particularly evocative choice is his treatment of the person who gives Samantha the disease (Simon Barrett) as a distant, out-of-focus figure. By refusing to clarify the carrier, even though England reveals to the viewer where the disease comes from in a cleverly edited 30-second opening sequence (you may be unsure you've seen what you think you've seen, but your first guess is probably right on the money), the festering virus or infection moves from real to surreal, becoming as awful as the viewer can envision. As an STD, England is also prevented from showing us "ground zero" for the infection, and it adds a layer of upsetting intimacy to the affliction...but it's also here where Contracted starts to go wrong.
Outside of the disease, everything going on in Contracted suggests some sort of subtext that isn't really there. Samantha is a recovering addict, and her mother (Caroline Williams) believes that Samantha's erratic behavior and ill appearance means she's relapsing. She's also a lesbian, and her decision to sleep with a man would be the definitive end to a relationship that only Samantha is keeping alive...except, actually, Samantha didn't choose to sleep with Patient Zero. The most distracting thematic red herring of all comes right at the beginning, in that Samantha is date raped by her diseased lover. On top of this, there are two would-be suitors in the form of Nice Guy Riley (Matt Mercer), who was rebuked when Samantha revealed she's into women, and Alice, who Nikki believes is into Samantha.
The fact that England manages to cram in this entire compacted soap opera in between the outbreak horror is an exercise in narrative efficiency, but none of it adds up in a dramatic or thematic way. Tragically, the closest the film comes to describing its central conflict (through Nikki, a doctor, and Samantha's mother) is that Samantha's responsible for her own situation because she slept with someone she shouldn't have, even though a horrible person roofied her and then raped her at a party. There's no reason to believe that message is intentional, but in the absence of any other viewpoints, it's hard to argue the viewer should be taking something else away from the film. The story is further complicated in the last 15 minutes, when Samantha jumps the rails into insanity. Even as the film rises to new levels of effective repulsion, Samantha makes decisions that are emotionally baffling, mainly one involving Riley that seems outright vindictive. It isn't until the film arrives at its final beat that it seems clear none of these details are meant to comment on the characters or situation; they're just color on a well-executed story that staves off genre fatigue by pretending to be something more interesting until the last minute.
Contracted has evocative art that almost makes Najarra Townsend appear androgynous, and effectively highlight's the film's creeping contagion. The one-disc release comes in a transparent Amaray (as is IFC's usual practice), which is slid inside a matte cardboard slipcover featuring the same artwork. There is no insert inside the case.
The Video and Audio
Surprisingly, I have few quibbles with Contracted's 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation. Low-budget films, especially low-budget films shot on digital and that take place in natural or low lighting are almost certain to be consumed by banding, but there is very little visible on this disc outside of the occasional glimpse of some on out-of-focus background objects. Detail is quite impressive for a DVD, especially in extreme close-up. The colors are intentionally a bit muted, but appear to be accurate, and I didn't notice any significant artifacting -- when there are really deep blacks, the compression is well-managed. Sound is a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio mix that really gets under the skin with all sorts of evocative squishing and squelching. Each slimy moment of body horror is fully supported by this mix, eager to send stomachs churning. Music and other sound effects are also handled with precision, including the occasional moment of mental haziness. English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing and Spanish subtitles are also provided.
Two audio commentaries are included, the first with Eric England and composer Kevin Reipl, cinematographer Mike Testin, and editor Josh Ethier; the second by England, Najarra Townsend, and Matt Mercer. Neither of these tracks are particularly essential; although I expected the former to have some good advice for aspiring filmmakers, at least, it leans toward anecdotes about details and the occasional thematic comment about the music. The other commentary also trends toward anecdotes and stories from the set, and there is overlap between the two tracks right from the beginning. England actually alludes to a third commentary (on the cast commentary, he references a "director's commentary" to be recorded, but refers to the "technical commentary" as having been recorded already).
A couple of video extras are also included. "The Making of Contracted" (16:47) goes more into what I was looking for in the commentary, which is England's thematic concept for the movie, which is unfortunately not that revealing about the finished film. Still, as a making-of featurette it's probably a cut above; the cast and crew are excited and talk it up nicely despite the traditional "interviews, B-roll, and clips" format. This is followed by two full-length segments glimpsed in the featurette: Najarra Townsend's audition tape (7:11) and a 1950s sex-ed spoof (2:16) initially intended to be used as a Kickstarter pitch, before traditional financing was found. The latter is amusing, but further reinforces the underwhelming truth about the thematic meaning of England's film.
Trailers for Plus One (+1) and Dark Touch play before the menu. An original theatrical trailer for Contracted is also included.
Contracted undoubtedly, unquestionably has something going for it. It's a technically proficient, extremely evocative film on many levels. Unfortunately, its thematic messaging is far more muddled, and it ultimately resorts to shock tactics to keep the audience on its toes. It's far too good to tell people to avoid it, but not nearly good enough to fully stand behind it. A rental.
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