It is necessary to regularly reinvent yourself in order to remain viable in your environment. As we move through the stages of Man we have the tendency to try out different personas as we search for the one best suited to us. This is universal but there is on sliver of our society where this forced morphing is greatly heightened; child starts. When you achieve a degree of fame and fortune before reaching your teen years there is an overwhelming pressure to reinvent your image in order to remain on the pile of head shots in the casting director’s office. The transition from precocious child to marketable teen and finally a working adult actor is a road that has literally ripped apart many young starts. I recently came across a flick in my review pile that was tempting to dismiss rather readily, ‘Nine Dead’ it looked like a routine dwindling victims scenario, and truth be told, it is. The one line on the cover that caught my eye was the production company; ‘Hartbreak Films. This is the company set up by Paula Hart to help guide the careers of her daughters, Emily and Mellissa Joan Hart. Typically Hartbreak Films dealt with light hearted ‘tween/teen’ television programming such as their once flag ship show on ABC, ‘Sabrina the Teenage Witch which stared Mellissa and regularly featured Emily. To see these names on a horror film budgeted for around $2 million. Little Sabrina trapped in a den of horror seemed somehow wrong but it is fairly certain this is exactly what they were trying to achieve. This film is based upon very familiar lines with a well established premise and elaboration. This recipe calls for one mysterious, sadistic killer and a reasonably sized group of apparent strangers. Unless a mystery is solved to the satisfaction of the killer each member of the lamentable and ever shrinking group will meet with an untimely end. Think of it as a performance of ‘Ten Little Indians’ as performed at the ‘Crystal Lake summer playhouse. At the end the stage is littered with corpses. Little Melissa has grown up and now is ready to dive into grown up roles.
The film begins cloaked in mystery as a group of people are stalked and kidnapped by a masked man (John Terry). One by one they are knocked unconscious and brought together in a dank, windowless cellar. Ultimately, nine victims are assembled, chained to poles bolted into the concrete floor. One aspect here that did instill a touch of novelty is how the filmmaker, Chris Shadley kicks off the film. He goes through elaborate means to show the killer’s preparation. He lines up his ammunition, maps out the abductions and readies his den to hold his hapless victims. This montage helps to economically bring the audience into the mindset of the killer without giving too much of the back story. This is necessary if the story is to proceed without revealing too much of the denouement. This method did set the stage for something that can pull in the audience without diluting the suspense. Admittedly this is not an exceptional example of the genre but as demonstrated here, there are several touches that were well done. This is a crucial element that has to be attained and no matter where the movie goes from here he got this part right.
Once the misfortunate nine come too and realize their wrist is encircled by handcuffs affixing them to metal poles immovable bolted to the floor grogginess is rapidly supplanted by a wave of sheer terror. Each looks around trying to become oriented but staring back are the faces of eight strangers albeit with a nagging felling of recognition. Their captor enters and explains the simple but deadly rules. All nine are bound by a common thread. The time on the wall will repeatedly count down from ten minutes. At that point the man will return and unless they can tell him why each one of them is there one of their number will be summarily executed. Even though a person is dead the remaining members must still figure out why he was taken.
It is an odd assortment of individuals including a thirtyish woman, Kelley (Mellissa Joan Hart), a priest (Marc Macaulay), a child molester (Lawrence Turner), an executive (James C. Victor), strip club owner (Chip Bent, a cop (William Lee Scott) and a Asian woman who does not speak English (Lucille Soong) . She is immediately recognized as the most difficult of their number to provide the necessary information. The plot points are all from the standard play book with predicable progression. Ms Hart has done well to spread out her repertoire to include horror. She has recently settled back into a TV sit-com but like most actors has done a stint guest staring on one of the ‘Law & Order’.
I do concede that the pacing is rather well accomplished gradually doling out the clues. It does feel like doing a jig saw puzzle knowing all the pieces are there in front of you but the trick is figuring out how the fit together. One of the problems is for the most part the presentation comes as stiff and forced. The story holds together as well as possible for a frequently told tale but the presentation is contrived. This is a freshman effort for the director Chris Shadley but he has been building a career working support functions on some of the best and most well received films in recent years. While there are glimpses of notable potential exhibited in this movie he still has to work on discovering his own narrative voice and distinctive directorial style. The film looses up in the second act and is unable to recover but until then this was on track to hitting closer to its potential. I’m certain in a few years this movie will be seen as the starting point of a well received filmmaker.