A spiral is integral to The Dead Center's imagery and story. A spiral appears on the photographs of a body from a crime scene, some sort of scar or lumps of tissue on his person. It wasn't seen in the autopsy because none was performed - the man breathes back to life on the gurney in the morgue, sneaks out, and ends up in a psychiatric ward. He was long dead when the paramedics brought him in; now he's catatonic, staring, and has become two doctors' problem: the medical examiner whose corpse has gone missing, and the psychiatrist who wants to get to the bottom of this human puzzle.
That psychiatrist, Daniel Forrester, is played by Shane Carruth, who is best known as the writer/director of Primer and Upstream Color, two of the most fascinating small movies of this new century. Primer was famously made for $7,000, shot on 16mm film and told a baffling, though meticulously plotted, time-travel story about business partners who accidentally build a time-machine, and then get to using it. Upstream Color is a more abstract film like a subtle Invasion of the Body Snatchers directed by Terence Malick. He starred in both of his own films, but outside of some shorts listed on IMDB this is his only other feature-starring role.
It's clear from the outset why he was cast: Carruth has a natural presence on camera, an obvious intelligence and calm that mostly hides the growing turmoil underneath. It's the right note to hit for a doctor who becomes increasingly dogged in trying to figure out just what is happening with his patient, despite that patient's inability to interact, and the cash-poor status of the hospital that doesn't have the time or resources to devote to an "interesting" case when there's plenty of garden variety insanity that they have to process, day in and day out.
Meanwhile, the medical examiner Ed Graham (Bill Feehely) chases down the corpse, leading him to the scene of the suicide, and to the dead man's family. It's a grim bit of detective work, paralleling Forrester's search in the interior of the John Doe's mind.
The Dead Center has an interesting visual strategy. It moves, again and again, from distant God's-eye views (overhead drone shots, largely of car's moving) to close-up intimacy. Much of it is told in close-up and medium shots, and the psychiatric sessions with John Doe (Jeremy Childs) are done unnervingly straight to the camera. It's a well-appointed film, especially for one made on an obviously limited budget.
It was directed by Billy Senese, a Tennessee filmmaker, and it's his third full-length feature. Also shot in Tennessee, largely in a section of an abandoned hospital that the filmmakers had refitted. From what I gather from the included making-of documentary, much of the cast, crew, and post-production are drawn from the Nashville film and theater scene, making this very much a local production. It's fun to see something that looks professional without the grasping hand of Hollywood picking over every frame, especially (for me) if it's essentially a genre film.
And The Dead Center, while it straddles the line for a while between mystery and psychological thriller, eventually reveals itself as an out and out horror movie. It isn't long before bad things begin to happen at the hospital. First, a nurse then a patient dies in similar, disturbing manners, and both had interacted with John Doe. As Forrester comes closer to communicating fruitfully with John Doe, he also comes closer to realizing it isn't merely something psychological wrong with the man. The final half hour builds to an almost apocalyptic ending.
However, there's something missing. There's certainly tense scenes, and a dark brooding mystery, but once that mystery is concluded, I do not feel like I've learned anything more than when it began. The what and why of John Doe's recovery from an apparently successful suicide, and what might have come back with him, aren't things that need to be spelled out explicitly. There's little worse than the modern horror movie trope of the expert who knows all about this unique, never-before-seen problem, down to having a name for the evil monster and, helpfully, some ancient ritual that would dispel him for good.
The Dead Center doesn't have the hokum. But it doesn't replace it with anything, either. There's clearly something supernatural happening with John Doe - that is unambiguous. But there isn't a scene where the supernatural is broached by the characters. For my tastes, there needed to be something, some hint of what Dr. Forrester is really up against. Maybe the two storylines of the medical examiner and the psychiatrist needed to come together sooner. Maybe the nature of the evil needed some hint of an explanation, even if it turned out false. Striding the line between explanatory nonsense and nihilistic emptiness, I think it strode too far to the latter. There's a lot of tension, fine performances, and a spirit behind The Dead Center that I really enjoyed. It just didn't carry through to an ending that, for me, wholly worked. It's a spiral that doesn't really seem to reach its center.
The Dead Center has been released on Blu-ray and DVD by Arrow Video. For a small, independent film, there is a wealth of extras on this Blu-ray. There's a pair of commentaries on the film: both with Senese, a technical one with members of the crew, and a more casual commentary with stars Carruth and Childs (so casual Carruth orders lunch midway through). Video extras include a 30-minute documentary on the making of the film, "A Walk Through The Dead Center", nine deleted scenes, some brief in-set interview with Carruth and co-star Poorna Jagannathan, and a brief look at the creation of a make-up mold in "Head Casting with Jeremy Childs". Also included are other works by Senese: a pair of short films, "Intruder" and "The Suicide Tapes", which was a precursor to The Dead Center. Midnight Radio Theater is a series of seven short radio plays written produced and directed by Senese. There's also an essay included in the booklet on the film written by film critic Jamie Graham.