One Great Li'l Idea Can't Sustain An Entire 90-Minute Feature
Mar 13, 2014
I’m a big fan of zombie films. I’ve always loved stories that have tinkered in this world wherein the dead aren’t quite dead – not, at least, the way they should be – and I think there have been many good films as well as there have been great films to explore the subject matter from a whole variety of perspectives. What frustrates me about the smaller zombie films is almost one problem I see universally: there’s only the germ of an idea. In other words, there really isn’t any story; rather, there’s a collection of incidents or vignettes carefully strung together in the attempt to coerce a story where there truly isn’t one. Sure, the idea may be grand, but – lacking a legitimate through-line – it’s still only an idea when the credits roll.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the kind of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
Depressed from a lull in her romantic life, young Samantha (played by a pleasantly fresh-faced Najarra Townsend) decides to go to her friend’s party and live it up. But a chance encounter with a possible sexual predator leaves the woman making the worst possible decision: she engages with unprotected sex with the first mysterious man she happens across. What starts out as some mild physical discomfort suddenly warps her body into something much deadlier as she spends the next three days paying the ultimate price for a momentary lapse in judgment.
OK, let’s get this out of the way up front: I know every one of us – you, me, your mom, etc. – we’ve all made a bad decision. I’m not talking about turning right when we should’ve turned left. I’m really more interested in those kind of decisions that we always wish we could’ve taken back. It doesn’t have to be anything life-threatening; but it’s still something we wish we could’ve done differently and saved ourselves a lot of headache, heartache, or stomach ache along the way.
That said, there’s the great little germ of idea in CONTRACTED, and – the way I see it – it kinda/sorta boils down to this: writer/director Eric England had this clever (if not comical) idea of where zombies truly come from. Without spoiling it (though the product packaging actually does that fairly well if you read it), let’s just say that it involves a little bit of what would be normally harmless necrophilia and one night of casual sex.
Still with me?
OK, right there, that’s clever. It’s even a bit inspired. It probably isn’t going to win any awards by itself, but it shows that some honest creative thought went into a process that ended up getting committed to celluloid, and now you’re here reading about it.
Now, is that idea strong enough on its merits to sustain the interest of a 90-minute motion picture?
Well, so far as this critic is concerned, England’s story here isn’t. Sadly, there’s far too much chickified emotional baggage that firmly holds down the first half of the film as we explore Samantha’s everyday life and wade through some personal circumstances that aren’t riveting enough to have us wait for the stuff of real substance to occur. From what I learned, she’s going through a bad break-up; she’s definitely struggling with her sexuality; and she lies to a personal physician about a very private matter. (Never a good idea, Samantha, no matter how embarrassing your screw-up was.) In fact, we spend so much time exploring Sam’s bad choices that, at one point, I started to wonder why we were even watching her at all … then I remembered there was that whole ‘contracted’ illness thing that was promised in the offset, so I stuck it out.
Once it becomes clear that this is no ordinary STD, then the picture elevates to appreciable heights, but that’s fairly late in the 90 minutes. Dare I suggest what I’ve done many times before that CONTRACTED would’ve been vastly more entertaining as a short film? It has a very TWILIGHT ZONE-esque feel to all of it, and, as frightening as it was to watch poor li’l strugglin’ Samantha come more and more apart psychologically she was vastly more ‘becoming’ as a character once I knew for certain we were leaving her behind and, in her place, was something more exciting? I mean … what does it say about us culturally when we finally uncover that, as zombies, the lives we’ll lead may be vastly more interesting than what we did as ordinary human beings?
That’s the real chiller, if you ask me. Yes, it’s a cautionary tale, but that part of it’s been done before … and much better.
CONTRACTED (2013) is produced by BoulderLight Pictures and Southern Fried Films. DVD distribution is being handled by MPI Media Group on behalf of the IFC Midnight label of flicks. As for the technical specifications, my suspicion is that this nifty little indie production benefitted from a respectable budget, as the picture does contain some very good quality sight and sounds as well as a good handful of practical, in-camera effects and make-up work. Lastly, if it’s special features you want, then buckle up: the disc offers two separate commentary tracks as well as a ‘making-of’ short, some behind-the-scenes fodder (nothing all that grand there), the animated pitch, Ms. Townsend’s audition tape, and the theatrical trailer. That is a nice package, indeed, for those wanting to know more about the world of CONTRACTED.
(MILDLY) RECOMMENDED. If you’re as die-hard about your zombie flicks as I am, then you’re likely to sit through this despite the turgid pacing. Methinks writer/director England was trying to say something about either life or relationships or maybe even one-night-stands in our communicable-friendly world, but I gotta say I missed it. Instead, what I did see was a great idea poorly shackled with the emotional baggage of Katherine Heigl’s next direct-to-DVD stinker. Townsend’s performance? That’s actually pretty solid, though I’d find it hard-pressed to see how her work here might open any doors for her.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at MPI Media Group provided me with an advance DVD copy of CONTRACTED by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.