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.
The Video and Audio
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.