The most controversial and shocking horror film of the year is Deadgirl, a dark drama about two dysfunctional teens (a confused nice guy named Rickie and his bad boy pal JT) who discover a young woman chained up in the basement of an abandoned asylum. Rather than rescue and release her, they proceed to use her as their sex slave. The Deadgirl (bravely played and endured by newcomer Jenny Spain) seems barely alive and has the ability to heal from all the abuse her body sustains, which makes Rickie and the other boys he eventually brings into the sordid affair feel justified in their actions, even though what they’re doing is vile and inhumane. Disturbing and delirious, Deadgirl touches upon issues of sexuality, power, gender and class, and it also explores the blurred lines between adolescent love and lust and the confusion that those feelings bring. It’s also difficult to watch and will spark off debate before you’re even done watching it.
A.D.D. conducted an exclusive interview with co-directors Marcel Sarmiento and Gadi Harel just prior to their film winning “Best Villain” (Noah Segan as JT) at last month’s Chiller Eyegore Awards in Los Angeles. Rape and torture have been brutally depicted in such cult films as I Spit On Your Grave and Last House On The Left, and while those movies are more graphic in their portrayals — and, some would argue, irresponsible and exploitative — Deadgirl sinks into your psyche because of what is often implied and not shown, leaving your imagination to run wild into places you’d rather not venture. The film, which has received press from The Washington Post, the Hollywood Reporter and MSN, is both engrossing and repugnant, something it’s creators are strongly aware of.
What response have you gotten to the movie so far?
Gadi Harel: The response from the DVD release has been pretty awesome. Just the fact they we’re winning this [Chiller-Eyegore] award next to Rob Zombie and the SAW franchise is kind of unbelievable. Being in that group is pretty spectacular. We had a big premiere in Toronto, and it really helped make our small movie into something more noteworthy. It’s gotten a really great release from Dark Sky Films. We see it reviewed in the Washington Post and see it on Netflix within the first week and a half — 27,000 people have ranked or voted on the movie. The response has really been great. How do people personally respond to the movie? It’s usually [split] right down the middle, but they’re noticing it and definitely seeking it out. It’s been a really exciting time for us.
I was fascinated and appalled by Deadgirl at the same time. It’s one of those films that you can like and hate equally. You can see the intent of the film, but at the same time it’s really twisted and disturbing.
Marcel Sarmiento: We had the same reaction when we read the script. At first we were like, “Holy shit, you’ve got to be kidding me.” Then we couldn’t quite get it out of our heads and started talking about how there was something really intriguing about this idea, why it’s so relatable in a twisted way, and was there a way we could actually make this movie and make it watchable?
When you were casting for the part of the Deadgirl, what were your responses to the different actors who were auditioning for the role?
Marcel: I think we knew that we would have to get someone very special. We started with the route you might expect, with certain kinds of people that would have no problem with nudity coming to audition, and we thought we were in trouble. We did not want the kind of people that we were seeing, and we really didn’t know what to do. We thought we might not actually be able to make the movie because she is so vital obviously, but then we heard about this actress Jenny [Spain] who lived in the Midwest somewhere and had never really acted before. She really got the script, was really enthusiastic about it and got what we were trying to do. She had great instincts, and I think we really lucked out with her. It was a kismet moment because we really didn’t know who to cast and how to cast the part.
Gadi: Jenny brought a lot to the part. The greatest thing she brought wasn’t just comfort with nudity. She brought more. It requires a lot more than that. We did get lucky.
For me, the scariest image in the movie is when Rickie is having an erotic fantasy about the woman he really likes, JoAnn, and then it turns into the image of the Deadgirl chomping at him. JoAnn represents the love side, and the Deadgirl represents lust. And the Deadgirl comes off as the scary image in that particular montage. Were you trying to contrast the confusion between adolescent love and lust?
Marcel: Yes, and it’s also scary and new. Intimacy is terrifying when you’re a kid. I think as much as you want to have sex, even if you really don’t know what it is, there’s something really scary and dangerous about the unknown. I think a lot of Rickie’s feelings have to do with wanting this thing, and maybe it’s JoAnn, but at the same time what it represents is terrifying.
Gadi: In the same way, what Rickie is thinking about JoAnn is what JT is thinking about the Deadgirl. They’re both imagining and objectifying find this ideal — twisted or not twisted, normal or not normal — of what love and sex is. Both stories are the same, and that’s the real connection — being young and figuring it all out, and obviously we take it to a hyperreal place.
I’ve discussed with directors like Dario Argento and Stuart Gordon the concern about how a lot of horror is viewed and criticized as being misogynistic. Gordon admitted to me that he thought a lot of horror was based upon the fear of beautiful women. A lot of genre filmmakers seem to have that issue, for some particular reason. Have you faced criticism on that front, particularly from people who don’t see further into the film than what’s on the surface?
Gadi: Yeah. Half the people just say that we’re living out some crazy rape fantasy that we have and dismiss it, but the other half really takes the time and sees a lot that we intended. Sometimes people see things that we didn’t intend. Feminists come out for it, and feminists come out against It. it’s just one of those movies that lays a lot out there for you, and a lot of people are open to it and a lot of people shut down immediately because of the subject matter, which we completely understand, too. Over the past year we’ve heard every reaction that someone can have to this movie.
Marcel: When you do a story like this, you know going in that a good chunk of people are going to easily dismiss it or label it because its [viewed at] face value. But that’s true of any movie. We just have a movie that you can get upset and excited about if it rubs you the wrong way or you don’t get it.
I’m a big heavy metal and horror fan, and I have discovered that some of those fans don’t get irony or symbolism. For example, you can have an anti-war song done from the perspective of a war monger to show how ugly the mentality is, but there are many people who will take it for literally what it sounds like. There are many horror fans that will go deeper into what’s happening in the genre, and then there were those that literally watch it for the gore and violence and don’t think about anything that’s going on underneath. Do you worry about people misinterpreting what you’re doing?
Gadi: We don’t worry about it because we know it’s going to come with it. We are really thrilled and excited at the number of people who are able to give the movie the attention and thought that we think it deserves. You never want somebody to dismiss something that you put a lot into and believe in and that you think says a lot. We had a screening where a mother and daughter talked about how much it moved them and captured the essence of being young and the fears, and they really responded to it. That’s really exciting.
Marcel: I’ll just add that I don’t worry about people misinterpreting it so much because in this story there are real consequences to what these kids do, and no one’s really enjoying themselves. I think those are two big differences from perhaps other movies that are pretty extreme. Nobody’s having a good time, even the “bad guys” who are doing it, and they all suffer real consequences. We’re not glorifying anything.
There are issues of gender and class at play here. At one point JT says, “This is probably the best we’re ever going to get.” Many people make certain decisions in their life and relationships because they’re taught or told that’s what they’re supposed to do. Were you thinking about that all when you are making this film? Were you contemplating the fact that some people don’t think they can get what they want and find themselves feeling trapped?
Gadi: Absolutely, and that’s such a key line. That’s not just a class thing or a gender thing. It’s just an element of life and of growing up and making decisions. When he yells, “This is the best we’re going to have,” it applies to so many things. When you’re a kid, it puts your entire future on a whole other level of having to really face, “What is my life going to be like?” And is that statement true? I think it’s a very universal thought and fear, whether it’s in this situation or not, and that was something that we really wanted to bring to the material — the truth of growing up and of looking at your life and the choices that you have to make. [It’s] probably more so around that age, but I don’t think you ever really shake those moments. I think they come and go throughout your life. It was important to have these things that were timeless truths. It’s not just about kids and not just about kids today. It’s just about life, as pretentious as that may sound.
Marcel: We always argue about how people say this movie is so extreme and so awful, but when you really think about it and if you step away and break it down, what you see on screen is actually much tamer compared with some other movies. But for some reason our movie is considered much more horrific and awful and terrible because of the tone and the way we approached it. People come out saying they saw something that they never saw. They just imagined it. That’s really been fascinating and great.
A film like I Spit On Your Grave is a more brutal, extreme movie.
Gadi: Even with the recent [remake of] Last House On The Left, all we heard about was this brutal, intense, crazy rape scene in there, but it is in the form of this slickly packaged horror movie, and when you look at Deadgirl and see what we really show in terms of her and what the boys do, it’s actually quite tame in comparison. We’ll come out as a much more vile horror movie, but as Marcel said it’s because of our tone. It’s packaged in a really weird way that makes it feel a lot worse.
Rape is a topic that is difficult to handle in movies. I recall seeing the Jason Statham action movie Crank. I like a lot of his stuff, but this had a ridiculous sequence where, in order to keep his heart rate up so he doesn’t die from the poisoning he’s been given, the “hero” wants to have sex with his girlfriend in the middle of a crowded marketplace. She’s a ditzy blonde who gives in to him, and everyone is cheering him on while he does it. It’s played for laughs, but that offended me because it was clearly a rape scene. And it wasn’t funny. But then when the serious, Oscar-winning Jodie Foster movie The Accused came out, one female film critic reported that some teenage boys snuck in at the end of a screening just so they could watch the gang rape scene in the bar.
Marcel: I will say that our movie is not very sexy, and that’s one difference between a lot of these other depictions of this kind of stuff. I’m sure there are people out that are getting a thrill from the movie — there are people for everything — but I feel like in all of those other movies, even The Accused, the aggressors are more powerfully shown and [as] having fun, whereas these kids in our movie aren’t ever. Even when they’re doing what they’re doing, they always seem miserable.
Gadi: There is a desperate sadness to all of their action. They so want something that they don’t have in life. It’s not even sex, its power or just feeling that they belong with their friends and aren’t different. There’s all this other stuff going on. But like you said with Crank, with this story most people we talked to just assumed we were making a campy, B-level movie like Zombie Strippers; a crazy, fun movie. If we did that, I feel we would’ve gotten a huge release, like playing in malls. Just going with the campy comedy really makes these actions much more acceptable, which is worse. It should be worse to make light of it, but for some reason it can almost be more accessible to people.