The ick factor is high in “Contracted,” a body-horror opus that will satisfy genre fans who like to be grossed out, but doesn’t have much to offer on any other count. It’s unclear whether this tale of an annoying young Los Angeleno whose physical well-being rapidly deteriorates after having unprotected sex with a stranger is making any deliberate statement about its many self-absorbed and shallow characters — or even whether the pic is aware they come off that way. In any case, Eric England’s well-made feature doesn’t earn much viewer empathy as its heroine quite literally falls apart. Opening in L.A. Nov. 22, the pic has performed well at horror fests, and should do well with the same audience in home formats.
Reluctantly attending yet another party at the house of her best friend, Alice (Alice Macdonald), waitress/aspiring florist Samantha (Najarra Townsend) puts up weak resistance when she’s strongarmed into doing shots. Already blasted, she’s an easy mark for party crasher B.J. (Simon Barrett), who slips her a roofie and then has vigorous sex with her in a car outside. At first the only consequences of these hijinks are guilt and a monumental hangover, but soon Sam is bleeding (and shedding maggots) from various orifices, and suffering aural hallucinations, cramps, eye discoloration, loss of hair and teeth, et al. Her doctor can’t figure out what’s going on, beyond a certainty that it’s the result of some STD.
England all too vividly portrays these rapid transformations, but he’s disappointingly opaque in providing much character backstory or psychological depth. There are hints (especially from Sam’s nagging, well-intentioned mother, played by Caroline Williams) that the protag is trying to bounce back from a substance-abusive, overly party-hearty recent past, but they remain unexplored.
Sam’s whiny, petulant personality is sympathetic only in contrast to that of her bored g.f., Nikki (Katie Stegeman), a “Basic Instinct”-esque stereotype of bitchy, glam, man-hating lipstick lesbianism. Nor does best pal Alice really seem to be looking out for her best interests. The nicest person in Sam’s orbit appears to be Riley (Matt Mercer), a restaurant regular somewhat inexplicably smitten with her, but she dismisses him as a nerdy annoyance. (When things get really bad toward the end, she also exacts a particularly ugly, needless form of revenge on him.)
“Contracted” has all the ingredients for a nasty black-comedy-horror critique of Los Angeles’ most narcissistic, emotionally and intellectually bankrupt sides, but if that’s the writer-helmer’s intention, it never quite gets articulated. Also, Sam’s degenerative illness finally looks very much like the genre’s current most popular plague (one that starts with a “Z”), and the pic could have done a lot more riffing on that association during the preceding 80 minutes.
Nevertheless, it succeeds within its very limited goal of simply chronicling one unfortunate young woman’s body going to hell over a few alarming days’ course, aided by Mayera Abeita’s discomfiting special makeup effects. While her character is never appealing on the inside, either, Townsend gamely throws herself into portraying Sam’s panic (and eventual violent anger) over such external decay. Tech/design contributions to England’s fourth feature are all solid on modest means.