There’s nothing conceptually all that special about “The Dead Center,” but sometimes it’s all in the execution, and this creepily restrained horror thriller manages to never seem entirely predictable while nonetheless drawing on numerous prior genre influences, from the “[rec]” films to “The Exorcist III.” It’s an impressive leap forward for writer-director Billy Senese, whose 2014 feature debut “Closer to God” was more in the realm of a nice try. It opens on ten U.S. screens on Oct. 11, with release in disc formats Oct. 22.
A big, gory mess of what’s assumed to be a suicide victim (Jeremy Childs, also in “God”) is delivered to a morgue, tagged and bagged. But later he proves not-so-dead — waking with a start, he tears out of his body bag, then stumbles to another part of the public hospital, tucking himself into an available bed before passing out again. It is there that he is found by baffled staff on the psych ward, who have no record of this patient, nor any idea that he was recently “deceased.” (His telltale wounds also appear to have mysteriously vanished overnight.) He’s logged in as a “John Doe,” having no immediate memory of who he is or how he got here once he regains consciousness.
Resident psychiatrist Daniel Forrester (Shane Carruth) finds himself intrigued by this alternately pathetic and intimidating figure, bending the rules to keep him in custody. This does not escape the notice of his supervisor, Dr. Sarah Grey (Poorna Jagannathan), a longtime colleague who’s willing to cut him a certain amount of slack due to Forrester’s past personal hardships. But she misinterprets his rising panic at events that follow this strange man’s arrival — a series of apparent suicides that spread like some kind of contagion — as evidence of his own mental instability.
Meanwhile, medical examiner Edward Graham (Bill Feehely) is on the case of tracking just where the corpse from the morgue, which was identified as one Michael Clark, has disappeared to. It takes a while for him to connect the dots to the anonymous man in the psych ward, by which time, all hell is breaking loose there — allowing the climactic action to shift to a very different location.
“The Dead Center” has a good sense of institutional routine, as staff accustomed to dealing with the paranoid and hostile fail to notice an exceptional threat until it’s too late. Only the camera, and eventually Dr. Forrester, seem to register that John Doe is no ordinary nutcase, but perhaps a host for something (we’re never quite sure what) considerably less easy to control, let alone destroy. There’s a lot of excellent atmospherics here that are more unsettling than the actual violence, which in turn is all the more effective for largely being kept just off-screen.
What really holds the Nashville-shot film together, however, is Carruth, who’s best known for making his own offbeat, more sci-fi-angled genre films (“Primer,” “Upstream Color”). In a first leading role outside those movies, he’s compellingly credible in the potentially clichéd role of the nonconformist professional with a problematic past whom everyone assumes has gone off the deep end when he’s in fact stumbled upon something they all ought to be panicking over. It’s a performance of equally convincing dedication, fragility, self-sabotage and, ultimately, self-sacrifice.
Support turns are also expert, as are all tech/design elements in the modest but astute package assembly. In a film most often characterized by eerie quiet, Jordan Lehnin’s effective original score is notable for its spare usage, a sonic restraint finally relaxed for a closing-credits song by the always-welcome Jon Spencer Blues Explosion.