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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Diagnosis: Death
Diagnosis: Death
Lionsgate Home Entertainment // R // December 29, 2009
List Price: $26.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Tyler Foster | posted January 20, 2010 | E-mail the Author
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I've mentioned before that many writer/producer/directors lack the perspective to understand that their screenplays don't make any sense, and that allowing an unbiased outsider to give their two cents can make a big difference. Diagnosis: Death doesn't have that familiar stench of ego that would suggest co-writer/director Jason Stutter refused to seek out said perspective; instead, it seems like people were too nice to bring up the relatively little things slowing his movie down. It's not a particularly bad film, like an iMurders, but it is merely a series of genial-but-not-quite-funny scenes, interspersed with genuine attempts to scare. As far as the latter goes, it's a good job, an "A for effort" at the very least, but despite the presence of several funny people, Stutter's movie remains comedically inert.

The clunky plot gets going in an uneven, awkward fashion when schoolteacher Andre Chang (Raybon Kan, also the film's other co-writer), who we meet in two brief and vaguely unrelated scenes, learns he has a terminal form of cancer. At the last-minute suggestion of his doctor (Rhys Darby), he joins an experimental drug testing study that may prove effective. There, he meets and befriends charming student Juliet Reid (Jessica Grace Smith), and the two bond over Scrabble and schoolwork. However, as the testing continues, the two become increasingly suspicious of the bizarre nurse Bates (Suze Tye) and somewhat distracted doctor Cruise (Bret McKenzie), and begin to suspect that the hospital they're in is haunted by something sinister.

Several readers no doubt instantly recognize Bret McKenzie's name in the above paragraph; he's one half of the folk-comedy duo Flight of the Conchords, while Rhys Darby also played the band's manager in both the group's BBC radio sketches and HBO TV show. In fact, the other half of the band, the endlessly deadpan, one-time Outback Steakhouse spokesman Jemaine Clement, also makes an appearance (Clement was the star of Stutter's other feature-length film, the Aussie cult flick Tongan Ninja, as well as several of Stutter's shorts). As a result, Lionsgate has oh-so-cleverly stuck all three of these guys on the front cover of the DVD, in order to trick fans into renting or buying a copy for some FotC action. The truth is that Clement and Darby's roles are brief cameos, and McKenzie is a somewhat infrequent supporting actor. Not only will this annoy people, it also leaves all the heavy lifting to Kan and Smith. The former is occasionally pleasant but clearly exceeding his abilities by taking on a starring role, while the latter's charm and enthusiasm smooths over a handful of stilted line readings.

Stutter chooses an interesting directorial tactic when tackling his project: more focus on the horror, less on the comedy. I wish the final product was better, because the technique is actually somewhat inspired. Presumably, if you have a good script and/or talented comedians, you can leave it in the performers' hands and try to make the movie scarier -- the area in which the vast majority of horror/comedies fail. Stutter is no groundbreaking visionary, and a handful of his early attempts at terror are limited to soundtrack bursts and hallucinatory quick cuts that are more confusing than scary, but occasional creepy shot sneaks in, and bits of Tye's performance are unsettling. Really, Tye's mysteriously dead-eyed nurse is one of the better parts of Diagnosis: Death, even working perfectly with the direction in a few instances (Tye's face, obscured by shadow as she ominously prods Kan and Smith for answers about their activities is particularly creepy).

As the movie heads into its third act, plot mechanisms take over for the limited amount of directorial style, and the film quickly falls apart. Computer generated skeletons appear for no real reason and the movie suddenly ramps up the gore. More and more time is allotted to the details of the haunting, which are impossible to take seriously in the face of the otherwise broad comedy (and even if the jokes weren't so silly, it's hard to imagine the audience would have ever been particularly invested in how it all turns out). The last 15 minutes feel especially slapdash, tying up the movie's various loose ends as hastily and sloppily as the movie begins, relegating the slight notions of Diagnosis: Death as a vaguely interesting rental back into a sea of best-forgotten below-the-radard releases.

The DVD, Video and Audio
This DVD-R copy of Diagnosis: Death came in a paper sleeve, with a generic, home-printed label, so I can't confidently grade A/V quality or packaging for this release. The back cover image I found online suggests the final version includes a 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation, Dolby Digital 5.1 audio, English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing (potentially TV-generated rather than encoded on the disc), and Spanish subtitles.

The Extras
None.

Conclusion
Diagnosis: Death is not a poorly-made movie, but it isn't a successful one, either, and Conchords fans should avoid being suckered in by the movie's misleading packaging. There are also no extras, so just skip this one entirely.


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