Horror films play on our fears in order to tell their stories. There are some that are more obvious than others, and that often come to the forefront, such as the fear of the unknown, and the fear of dying, but there are some less obvious ones that get overlooked.
Play Dead presents a story that uses some of those obvious fears, but has a more subtle one behind it all: the fear of suffering in a capitalist system where you’re set up to lose. Everything that happens in this film, from the character’s initial motivations, to the reason why the horror is happening, all comes down to people willing to do desperate things in order to get money.
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Play Dead begins by dropping viewers straight into one of the worst fears that many of us will have, as we’re introduced to Chloe Albright (Bailee Madison), a young medical student. Chloe and her brother, T.J. (Anthony Turpel) are being inundated with bills, their money is gone, and they’re about to lose their home – and this is just after the loss of their father. They’ve received no money from their father’s life insurance because his death was ruled as a suicide, they have medical bills to pay on top of all of their other debts, and they have nowhere to turn for a solution. If you have ever been in a situation where you’ve had to deal with money problems, you’ll understand the pure, primal fear that this situation brings.
T.J., however, thinks he’s found a solution to their problems. Alongside his friend Ross (Chris Lee), he plans to pull off a robbery armed with a fake gun. Whilst Ross enters the shop with the gun, T.J. sits behind the wheel of the car, ready to get them both out of there. But when Ross is shot by the store owner and the car comes under fire, T.J. flees. Whilst he’s confident that he’s destroyed all of the evidence linking him to the event, he realises that there’s enough evidence on Ross’ phone to get him in trouble. So Chloe comes up with a plan. In order to get the phone before the police do, and prevent her brother going to jail, she fakes a drug overdose and gets herself sent to the coroners. But before she’s able to steal the phone and escape she realises that she’s trapped inside the locked building with a monster, and the coroner (Jerry O’Connell) can’t let her escape alive.
Whilst the first portion of the film is spent on set-up, and goes out of its way to justify the slightly ridiculous scenario of faking your death to get sent to the morgue, it does a decent job of giving the viewer time to get to know the central siblings, and make you sympathetic to their plight. The two of them are already facing the potential destruction of their family unit, and if they don’t steal back this phone it’s guaranteed. By the time Chloe has managed to get inside the secure building we’re on board with their plan, we care for the two of them, and we have seen that Chloe is a smart and capable young woman.
Once we enter the realm of The Coroner, however, things take a drastic turn. The film’s trailer isn’t afraid to give away the details, so it’s no spoiler to talk about this. The Coroner is doing more than simple autopsies, and is harvesting organs to sell on the black market. It’s here that those initial motivations come back to the fore again, as The Coroner is, in his own twisted and evil way, trying to survive as best he can, selling the organs he takes from his victims in order to earn the money he desperately needs.
The latter half of the film becomes a cat and mouse story, with The Coroner soon becoming aware that someone has entered his carefully constructed domain. The film seems to know that maintaining a scenario like this isn’t easy, and that it can’t just be a man chasing a woman around for an hour and still be interesting. As such, it throws several twists and turns at us along the way, and manages to keep the story engaging as the stakes continue to rise, and more and more danger is introduced.
Much of the film relies on the acting of its two leads, and Bailee Madison does a great job of walking the line between frightened victim and fighter. Madison breaks away from the formula of the victim, and is presents The Coroner with an opponent throughout. She’s a quick thinker, and uses her intellect against the physically stronger and better prepared opponent. Despite her character’s young age, she’s believable as a person who can survive this situation.
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And her opponent is wonderfully creepy. Jerry O’Connell is no stranger to genre fiction, having appeared in horror films like Scream 2, and TV sci-fi shows Sliders and Star Trek: Lower Decks, and even played both Shazam and Superman in the past. But this is one of the few times I’ve seen him take on a villainous role. For the majority of the film O’Connell tackles the part with a quiet creepiness that makes him incredibly unsettling, and it isn’t until the scene where he lays out his whole plan that you see the twisted, unhinged personality barely contained beneath the surface. It’s a very subtle performance, and one that absolutely leaves you feeling creeped out.
Play Dead sounded like a cheesy movie, one with a silly set-up and a villain that could have been too arch, but manages to take some outlandish ideas and makes them work. Thanks to a slowly building dread, some overtly horrific moments that will turn your stomach, and some great performances from its leads, Play Dead is better than it has any right being.
Play Dead is now playing exclusively on the Icon Film Channel, before releasing in selected UK cinemas on 17th March. It will be available on DVD and Digital from 17th April.