An effective, slow-burn thriller that manages a relatively fresh spin on the dead-returning-to-life-in-the-hospital horror subgenre, Billy Senese’s The Dead Center is particularly notable for its excellent creation and use of dread and for its key performances. Senese, who established himself as a talent to watch with 2014’ science fiction horror flick Closer to God, shows an admirable mixture of imagination and restraint, and isn’t afraid to get weird even while developing the film’s brooding, mysterious atmosphere.

One thing that Senese does particularly well is to make the film’s primary setting – a hospital – feel real even as it feels claustrophobic and unsettling. So many horror films are set in empty or abandoned hospitals, but how many of us have ever been in an empty hospital? Instead, hospitals are otherworldly in how they often operate 24-hours a day, with harsh lighting and the constant threat of physical and mental sickness filling every hallway. The Dead Center’s hospital has both employees and patients, yet that adds to the tension rather than establishing safety in numbers. Everyone is tired, on edge, and suspicious. Relationships between colleagues are explored, too, adding texture to several key character relationships.

The Dead Center’s main storyline follows an apparent suicide victim (Jeremy Childs, haunting) who suddenly wakes up in the morgue and walks to another part of the hospital, where he is discovered, alive, in another patient’s bed. Thinking he’s a John Doe rather than a John Dead, a psychiatrist named Daniel Forrester (Shane Carruth, the filmmaker behind the awesome Primer and Upstream Color) is assigned to treat the confused patient. A secondary plot line follows the hospital’s curious medical examiner, Edward Graham (Bill Feehely), who is searching for the body that disappeared from his morgue.

We learn, through his interactions with his supervisor Sarah (Poorna Jagannathan) and some other shady behavior, that Forrester might not be a very good doctor (or person), and though the “complicated doctor” appears in innumerable film and television incarnations, this makes Forrester’s investigation into his strange John Doe all the more compelling. And though the all-out-horror elements of the film move rather slowly, they do eventually come to play. While The Dead Center isn’t a lightning bolt of originality, Senese’s film inspirations come from multiple eras and locations and he blends them all together in a way that feels like an originally conceived vision. The fact that these little homages and allusions are packaged in such a consistently atmospheric piece really helps that as well. Best of all, though, is that The Dead Center is often unsettling and occasionally scary.

The performances are all effective, particularly Carruth, who plays the antihero elements of his role effectively, and Childs, who uses his size (in tandem with strong camerawork) to make his character physically imposing even in non-threatening situations. And Jagannathan and Feehely’s performances help, along with a number of other performers, to make the medical setting feel real.

The technical elements are very strong for a film of this size. The real standouts are the cinematography by debut cinematographer Andy Duensing and the music by Jordan Lehning. These two elements work in tandem to create the slow, claustrophobic atmosphere. The camera spends a lot of time uncomfortably close to its subjects, accelerating along with them if they burst into movement. Meanwhile the music behaves in a similar fashion, establishing a sense of melancholy before startling with an unexpected piercing moment.

The Dead Center arrives in time for Halloween viewing and will please those looking for a smart, creepy thriller with some science fiction in its veins. Writer-director Billy Senese further establishes himself as a filmmaker to watch here, and even when the film drags, the tension provided by the film’s smart set-up and excellent technical elements will keep horror lovers engaged.

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