You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘The Dead Center’

A John Doe patient wreaks supernatural havoc on a hospital psych ward in Billy Senese's creepily restrained thriller.

Billy Senese
Shane Carruth, Poorna Jagannathan, Jeremy Childs, Bill Feehely
Release Date:
Oct 11, 2019

Running time: 93 MIN.

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.

Popular on Variety

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.

Film Review: 'The Dead Center'

Reviewed online, San Francisco, Oct. 5, 2019. Running time: 93 MIN.

Production: An Arrow Films release of a Sequitur Cinema presentation, in association with LC Pictures, Music City Films. Producers: Shane Carruth, Denis Deck, Jonathan Rogers, Billy Senese. Executive producers: Farzin Ferdowsi, Farsheed Ferdowsi, Celeste Krenz, Bill Feehely, Kevin White, Erika Senese, Mark Streater, Kelly Frey.

Crew: Director, writer: Billy Senese. Camera (color, HD): Andy Duensing. Editor: Jonathan Rogers. Music: Jordan Lehning.

With: Shane Carruth, Poorna Jagannathan, Jeremy Childs, Bill Feehely, Andy McPhee, Rachel Agee, Jackie Welch, J. Thomas Bailey, Shelean Newman, Dean Hall, Darius Willis.

More Film

  • Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt in

    Joanne Froggatt Treads Singapore Red Carpet, Revisits ‘Downton Abbey’ Memories

    “Downton Abbey,” the feature adaptation of the hit British television series of the same name, had its local premiere at the 30th Singapore International Film Festival on Friday night. Representing the film on the red carpet was Golden Globe best supporting actress-prizewinner Joanne Froggatt, who played lady’s maid Anna Bates in all six seasons of [...]

  • THE IRISHMAN (2019)Ray Ramano (Bill Bufalino

    Despite Controversy, 'The Irishman' Is Netflix's Biggest Theatrical Release at Home and Abroad

    Despite friction in the U.S. over its release in select cinemas, Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” is enjoying the biggest theatrical rollout of any Netflix film to date, with key international markets screening the movie and bolstering its profile as awards season gets underway. The nearly three-and-a-half-hour mob epic has secured relatively large releases in major [...]

  • Stone, guitarist for Taiwanese pop band

    Mayday Guitarist, Stone Rallies Fans at Singapore Film Festival

    Stone, the Taiwanese performer who has gone from being the guitarist in Mayday to a promising acting career, drew crowds on Friday, the first full day of the Singapore International Film Festival. Speaking at Projector, the indie theater inside the historical Golden Mile building, some two hundred fans gathered to hear the artist share career [...]

  • The Tempest (concept art)

    Film Bazaar: Rinkel Film Boards Tamil Western ‘The Tempest’ (EXCLUSIVE)

    Netherlands production outfit Rinkel Film (“Rafiki”) has reteamed with India’s Stray Factory (“Nirvana Inn”) for Tamil language Western “The Tempest” (aka “Aasaimugam”). It is to be directed by emerging Indian filmmaker Arun Karthick. The two companies previously co-produced Karthick’s communal bigotry tale, “Nasir,” which benefited from a grant of €50,000 ($55,350) under the Netherlands Film [...]

  • ‘Wallace and Gromit’ Studio Aardman to

    ‘Wallace and Gromit’ Studio Aardman to Make Short Film ‘Robin Robin’ for Netflix

    “Shaun the Sheep” and “Wallace and Gromit” producer Aardman is making “Robin Robin,” a short film, for Netflix. The project marks a move away for Aardman from working with the BBC, which has broadcast the Oscar-winning stop-motion specialist’s hit projects over the years. “Robin Robin,” which will bow around Christmas 2020, is about a bird [...]

  • Graham Norton to Host 2020 BAFTA

    Graham Norton to Host 2020 BAFTA Film Awards Ceremony 

    Popular British talk show host Graham Norton has been tapped to host the 2020 BAFTA Film Awards ceremony. Norton currently fronts the ratings-winning “The Graham Norton Show“ for the BBC. In assuming hosting duties for the upcoming BAFTA ceremony on Feb. 2, he will be taking over from “Absolutely Fabulous“ star Joanna Lumley, who hosted [...]

  • “Facing It,” an eight-minute 30 second

    U.K. Short 'Facing It' Takes Top Prize at 2019 VIEW Awards

    “Facing It,” a claymation/live-action film about how relationships mold people, has won the 2019 VIEW Conference Award for best short film. The film was written and directed by Sam Gainsborough and co-written by Louisa Wood and produced at the National Film and Television School’s Beaconsfield Studio in Beaconsfield, U.K. The VIEW Awards are an offshoot [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content