When I watched the recent horror sleeper Starry Eyes, the tale of a young woman’s desperate, Elizabeth Short-ian attempt to make a name for herself in Hollywood, I was intrigued by the premise, but disappointed with the direction the filmmakers took their hapless – and slightly unhinged – protagonist (Alexandra Essoe). The film turned from a meditation on the wages of fame, with promising sci-fi and horror undertones, to a disappointing dead end that pandered to the lesser expectations of both genres (a suburban killing spree and correlations to extraterrestrial visitors). Some might argue that the direction the film took in its final act was intended as a satirical complement to the movie within the movie, but my mind processed it as too much “been there, done that.”
While Contracted contains some of the infection themes that pushed Starry Eyes‘ protagonist to her extremes, its focus is far less ambitious. Taking the perspective of Samantha (Najarra Townsend), an avowed lesbian who, one fateful evening, hooks up with BJ (screenwriter Simon Barrett, of You’re Next fame), only to find herself infected with a grotesque, fast-acting new form of STD, the film teases the promise of an intriguing character study. Perhaps the easiest comparison would be Pauline (AnnaLynne McCord), the sexually curious, bodily-function-obsessed protagonist of Richard Bates Jr.’s queasy Excision.
The unfortunate difference with Contracted is, unlike frumpy Pauline’s layered descent into madness (and explicit fantasies wherein she perceives herself as a gorgeous, viscera-caressing goddess), Samantha – beautiful in a Rooney Mara kind of way – is an extremely shallow and fickle character. Her friend Alice (Alice MacDonald) and fed-up trophy girlfriend Nikki (Katie Stegeman) toy with her fragile emotions, attempting to pinball her back and forth, while long-suffering Riley (Matt Mercer) pines for Samantha to see his value as a potential suitor. (As it’s revealed later on, Samantha has been confident of her sexual orientation for “about 8 months.”) When our lead succumbs to the fast-acting effects of the STD, her sanity begins to erode, leading to a climactic trajectory that descends into the ridiculous.
Whereas something like Simon Rumley’s Red White & Blue takes a look at disease and infection from a standpoint of real-world consequence, one might think the exaggeration of Contracted might put it more in league with the not-quite-earthbound films of David Cronenberg (Shivers and Rabid in particular). Unfortunately, writer-director Eric England falls back on degrading gross-outs for their own sake.
If Samantha were a well-developed character, like Pauline or Ginger (Katharine Isabelle) in Ginger Snaps, the extent to which she’s physically and psychologically ravaged by disease would be affecting and tragic. But England’s slacking in that department is more appalling than any of the would-be shock value on display. Samantha is foolish, indecisive, and constantly deflecting responsibility and accountability – not because these facets are integral to her character, but because the filmmakers need her to embody these traits to hit preordained dramatic beats and prosthetic-effects extremes (and stretch the film to feature length). A sense of ambiguity is created early on regarding her relationships with the other characters, but by the end, it feels as though this is because the creative team didn’t know what to do with those details (her mother – played thanklessly by genre vet Caroline Williams – is a religious kook…because why not?).
Plot threads of potential interest are scuttled to cell-phone asides, including a police investigation of the mysterious BJ that ultimately doesn’t reveal anything the viewer doesn’t already know. Instead, we’re left with the uncomfortable sight of an unlikable character whose suffering – and inevitable, retribution-serving rage – is the only reason for this film’s existence. England employs shock-value tactics that inspire only incendiary revulsion at best – necrophilia; bloody vaginal wounds; bloody eyes – and requires that the supporting cast, too, act like complete idiots.
Adding insult to injury, scenes in which characters are doing relatively normal things are bizarrely edited and performed. Take, for instance: the opening party scene, where the camera cuts back and forth between Samantha and Riley during an awkward conversation – their exchanges are intentionally uncomfortable, but the line delivery still feels off by several beats. And a scene in which Samantha (finally) sees a doctor about her condition is performed as though she’s acknowledging the omniscient eye of the camera.
And perhaps more offensively than the unrewarding hell Townsend is subjected to in the name of visual shock is the presentation of the lesbian relationship between Samantha and Nikki (whose piercings and tattoos convey a skin-deep badass), the latter of which is a cold and standoffish contrast to our protagonist’s frailty and desperation. As the odd, ill-defined third wheel in this relationship, Alice is presented as a horny bubblehead who isn’t beneath kissing her friend even as her mouth resembles “Dr. Tongue” from Day of the Dead. In Proxy, writer-director Zack Parker did a far more effective job of conveying the elements of same-sex attraction between a trio of disparate women, but then again, that film earned credibility for telling a unique story whose moments of shock came (mostly) organically from the story and a familiarity of character. For 84 minutes, that never once happens in Contracted.
Jonny Numb’s IMDb Rating: 3 out of 10