A deserted classroon. A desolate library. A silent gymnasium. A cafeteria where the only sign of life is an overturned milk carton slowly dripping its contents onto the floor. Marcel Sarmiento and Gadi Harel's Deadgirl may be character-driven, but it opens with a montage of abandoned spaces in a high school, establishing a mood of moral emptiness that will permeate the film.

If this chain of images appears to signify a Columbine-style massacre, in fact Deadgirl will move in a rather different direction – but it is certainly concerned with the sort of disaffection, alienation and disconnection that can lead to such a tragic event. Still, a strong dose of the irrational uproots the film from its social realist grounding to a more allegorical depiction of coming-of-age dysfunction.

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Quiet 17-year-old Rickie (Shiloh Fernandez) has harboured a schoolboy crush on cheerleader Joann (Candice Accola) for as long as he can remember, but the kiss – his first – that he exchanged with her back in the fourth grade was the last time she was even aware of his existence. Rickie's buddy JT (Noah Segan) also comes from a broken home, is also sustained by broken dreams – but being the more assured, and frankly the more unhinged, of these two tearaways, JT tends to play unfettered id to Rickie's more reserved ego.

One day both boys play truant from school on the grounds that "nobody'll notice", and head off, at JT's instigation, to a long-abandoned asylum for some beer-drinking, vandalistic kicks. In the shadowy tunnels below, past an infernal guard dog and beyond a 'dead-end' corridor, they find a rust-sealed boiler-room as dark, dingy and clandestine as the inner recesses of a young man's unconscious – and inside, naked, gagged and chained to a stretcher bed, a beautiful girl (Jenny Spain) who appears, impossibly, still to be alive, or at least not entirely dead, despite the number of years that she must have spent down there.

Rickie just wants to free her and be done with it, but amid the heady stench of the girl's tomb-like prison, JT smells sexual opportunity. "Sure she is some kind of monster or something," he reasons, "but she's our monster" – and so begins these boys' disturbing journey into the depths of human depravity. Convinced that "this is the best we are ever going to have", JT sets about turning the hellhole into his new home (complete with its own 'fuckslave'), while Rickie finds himself less and less able to reconcile his lifelong friendship with JT, their horrendous exploitation of a living corpse, and his own confused sense of what he truly wants, and what realistically he can get, out of life. Rickie may be the closest thing that this whole rotten affair has to a hero, but in the end, no-one will emerge looking pretty.

Deadgirl has been branded a horror film, and might even, if its girl-in- bondage motif is viewed superficially, be assimilated to the subgenre of 'torture porn' – but really it is a fable of adolescent anomie that has far more in common with the unsettling moral drama of, say, River's Edge (1986), Mean Creek (2004) or Jack Ketchum's The Girl Next Door (2007), than with the Saw or Hostel franchises, while its undead element remains an unexplained and remarkably understated means to exposing the living characters' ethical makeup.

Even its writer Trent Haaga deemed his own screenplay 'unmakeable' owing to its Nekromantik-style perversions and strong themes – but co-directors (and friends since high school) Sarmiento and Harel have responded to this material with extraordinary delicacy and (punning aside) restraint, producing a sombre film that never shows more than it needs to, and never allows its more outrageous or shocking moments to descend into sadistic spectacle or farce. Cinematographer Harris Charalambous imbues the exteriors with a calm lyricism, and finds every conceivable grade of shadow in the asylum interiors – while Joseph Bauer's score and Philip Blackford's sound design carefully modulate the tone of the film into something as mysterious, eerie and downright unnerving as the approach of adulthood.

Far from being misogynistic, Deadgirl dramatises how the objectification of women, whether through abusive relationships or the consumption of porn, can lead to a sort of masturbatory solipsism, where one can end up living one's whole life down in the hole, away from the light or the warmth of human experience. It is a deeply troubling feature, but also, perhaps oddly for a film steeped in the supernatural, utterly honest and believable – and its capacity to haunt will never die.

Reviewed on: 09 Jun 2009
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After two teenagers find a dead girl in the basement of a disused mental asylum, the boundary between right and wrong becomes sickeningly blurred.
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