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First Look Pictures // R // December 1, 2009
List Price: $29.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted December 4, 2009 | E-mail the Author
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Alice (Brittany Murphy) has a deadline bearing down on her, and what's a budding screenwriter to do...? Sure, she could hole up in her apartment until it's done, but then her fresh-out-of-prison psychopathic something-or-another might hack her up into bloody, fist-sized chunks. But hey, there's always that sprawling, completely out-of-the-way plantation her multimillionaire producer buddy has the keys to. Hermetically sealing herself inside, Alice has a week's worth of food and 31 flavors of nothing to distract her from hammering out her screenplay.

Well, I mean, there aren't any distractions unless you count the restless spirits of the undead. See, this plantation used to be the home of newlyweds Lucy and David (Thora Birch and Marc Blucas), but they dropped off the face of the earth a few years back. The only trace in the house that they were ever there is a stack of HDV cassettes that Alice stumbles upon in the attic. As someone or something claws at her from the other side, Alice digs through each and every one of those tapes, hoping to find some clue as to what could've happened to these lovebirds. Obsessively documenting every last moment of his pregnant wife's daily routine and relentlessly barking out accusations of infidelity, these tapes reveal David's shaky grasp on reality continuing to slip more and more, and Alice finds some disturbing parallels between herself and this voice from beyond the grave...

Though he's had plenty of experience on the technical end of filmmaking, Deadline marks Sean McConville's first time behind the camera as a writer/director. Unlike a lot of freshman horror directors that lean on spastic quick-cuts, mallcore-grade nu-metal, and second-rate CGI as a crutch, McConville instead opts for something much more atmospheric. The film prefers shadowy visuals and eerie ambiant sounds to glossy special effects, there's no blood or gore to speak of at all, and it's even anchored around a lead who has very little dialogue and isn't constantly ensnared in the usual deliriously over-the-top hysterics. As admirable as that more classic approach may look on paper, though, Deadline is never really able to mold it into anything all that intense or unnerving.

This understated approach to horror would be more compelling in a film that's intensely focused on its characters, but Deadline is too distracted by the nuts-and-bolts of what little story there is to infuse much more than "crazy!", "embattled!", or "supportive and maybe sapphic!" into any of them. Its opening stretches are lethargically talky without dangling much of a hook into any of these characters, and an ominous shot of a baby crib and phone calls of nothing but static seem faceless and uninspired. As for scares like a ghostly reflection in a mirror, a chair falling over (twice!), and dripping characters on a laptop screen...they just don't coax any real reaction. It's not that I need mammothly overbudgeted CGI or buckets of
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splatter -- after all, my favorite haunted house film of all time is The Changeling, and it unnerved me with something as simple as a rubber ball bouncing down the stairs -- but Deadline isn't propelled by any energy or intensity. None of its characters are particularly interesting, and neither is much of anything that happens to them.

While McConville has assembled a recognizable cast for his debut as a feature filmmaker, the results are kind of uneven. Marc Blucas has it the worst as David. He's too cartoonish to seem like a credible threat, and the sight of someone scowling with a camcorder in hand just isn't even a little bit menacing. It's tough to feel all that invested in that story-within-a-story because we don't get to see his sanity slowly crumble like some sort of Jack Torrance for the Best Buy generation; he's unhinged pretty much from word one. Deadline takes a stab at building another mystery by gradually revealing what Alice's deeply troubled past with her ex was, exactly, but even that's not fielded all that well. He's an afterthought for much of the movie, and in one oddball conversation, Alice is shocked to hear that he'd just shown up at his old apartment. (How her friend Rebecca even knows this, I have no idea, considering that the whole catalyst for the plot is that she had to go out of town, leaving Alice alone.) Anyway, Alice barks back something like "...and you didn't think to tell me this till now?" into the phone, to which 'Becca responds, "oh, but he has a court order to stay a mile away. He can't get close enough to do anything." ...the hell? The guy just showed up at her apartment! I don't know what the square footage of the place is or anything, but if Alice had been home at the time, I'm pretty sure she'd would've been well under a mile away from Ben. Stupid, stupid rat creatures. By the time the twist waiting for you at the end rolls around, I'd long since lost all interest. It's clumsily handled anyway, especially after a final denouement for David that's anticlimactic and really just looks ridiculous.

Deadline really does have a lot going for it: a strong sense of atmosphere, accomplished cinematography, terrific set design, and a more classic approach to the genre rather than hypercaffeinated sensory overload. Still, the movie's forgettable and disappointingly routine, devoid of any lingering suspense or even any effective cheap scares. Saddled with a fairly generic story, thinly sketched characters, and a complete lack of tension, Deadline is competent but much too unremarkable to recommend. Rent It.

Deadline falls somewhere between "okay" and "pretty good, I guess" on Blu-ray. The scope image is generally clean and clear, particularly when the camera is closed in tightly. Although it's obvious with even a passing glance that this is high definition, clarity and detail aren't at quite the level I'd expect from a newly-minted Blu-ray disc. It may be worth noting that the choice of film stock can be grainy when the lights are dialed down, not that this should be considered a flaw with this Blu-ray disc, and contrast also has a tendency to flatten out under limited light. I spotted a few instances in which the leftmost and rightmost edges of the frame looked unusually noisy; this wouldn't be noticeable with any overscan at all, but in dot-by-dot mode, it can be mildly distracting. Black levels are generally punchy, though, and the film's dark, gloomy palette helps heighten its sense of atmosphere. Overall...? Deadline looks unexceptional but perfectly fine in high-def.

Deadline is presented on a single layer Blu-ray disc, and its scope visuals have been encoded with AVC.

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Deadline sports an intensely atmospheric 16-bit Dolby TrueHD soundtrack, complete with all of the dripping water, creaking floorboards, and squeaking doors you'd expect out of a haunted house flick. Ghostly yelps and cries also attack from every direction, and the film is littered with low-frequency stings when punctuating its scares. The sounds of the aging plantation settling also coax some heavy bass from the subwoofer. The actual placement of sounds can be off-kilter, though. The most glaring example of this comes early on as Alice and her...companion open a door that's directly in front of them, yet the sound of the lock and tumblers rattle from the rears...? Its dialogue is rendered reasonably well, though, and the lossless soundtrack delivers the sort of distinctness and clarity I'd hope to hear on Blu-ray.

A Dolby Digital stereo track (192kbps) has also been included alongside subtitles in English (SDH) and Spanish.

The only real extra is a short behind the scenes featurette (SD) that clocks in around 8 minutes minus credits. The talking heads interviews breeze through some of the film's themes -- insecurity, voyeurism, and obsession -- along with touching on cinematography, set design, and the score. There are a few intriguing notes, such as how Deadline was originally envisioned as a microbudget $50,000 shoot and how its cameras were lugged over to an actual plantation in Louisiana, but it's all a bit too cursory to really explore anything at length.

Also included is a 7 minute reel of trailers for other First Look releases. These plugs are all in standard definition, and a trailer for Deadline itself didn't make the cut.

The Final Word
For a haunted house flick, Deadline is competent but routine. Its understated approach brings to mind The Changeling, only...y'know, without any of its resonant characterization or unnerving tension. It's not a bad movie by any stretch, but Deadline is too flat and forgettable to recommend with any real enthusiasm, unfortunately. Rent It.
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