Contracted Movie Review
Written by Ted McCarthy
Released by IFC Midnight
Written and directed by Eric England
2013, 78 minutes, Not Rated
Najarra Townsend as Samantha
Alice Macdonald as Alice
Matt Mercer as Riley
Caroline Wlliams as Sam’s Mom
By now it’s no secret that I love body horror films (see my earlier review for this year’s Antiviral). The idea that our bodies can physically turn on us and put us through unimaginable suffering is very scary to me, more so than any slasher or zombie. There have been some crummy entries in the subgenre by filmmakers who think that having actors spit out some fake blood is sufficiently disturbing (check out the horror films streaming on Netflix and I bet you’ll find a bunch). Those that stand out and continue to be effective and creepy are the ones that actually have something to say, and even better, have stories and situations that many viewers can relate to.
In recent years, there have been some great entries in what could be called the “female body horror” sub-subgenre. These are ones that have focused most specifically on female characters that find their bodies changing, and the consequences – typically dire ones – that those changes have on the people around them. Ones that come to mind that I found particularly compelling and well made are Teeth, Grace, and last year’s Excision. All of those films (each one made by men, incidentally) took issues that most women will face at some point and turned them into something terrifying and uncontrollable.
The new film Contracted deals with an issue that looms over both men and women: venereal disease. Samantha (Najarra Townsend) is a recovering drug addict in a relationship with Nikki (Katie Stegeman), a pairing that her conservative mother (Caroline Williams) doesn’t approve of. All is obviously not well between the couple, so Samantha ends up alone at a house party thrown by her friend Alice (Alice Macdonald). Also in attendance is Riley (Matt Mercer), an admirer of Samantha who’s been friend-zoned (to put it nicely) by her recent switch in sexual orientation. After an irresponsible number of drinks, Samantha is approached by a guy who calls himself BJ (who is always out of focus, but is actually You’re Next and V/H/S scribe Simon Barrett). Next thing you know, she is essentially getting raped in BJ’s car. Over the course of the next few days, she notices her body deteriorating very rapidly, and we get the standard cringe-inducing imagery – spitting out blood and teeth, ripping off fingernails, etc. It’s clear this is supposed to be due to something she contracted from her sex with BJ, and she races to find out what’s happening as her skin rots and hair falls out.
The premise is sick, but nothing really new. David Cronenberg explored the spreading of STDs early in his career with films like Shivers and Rabid. But the film still feels timely in an age where the attitudes about sex have gone from, “I’m waiting ‘til marriage,” or at least, “I’m waiting for a relationship,” to just being kind of a commonplace thing to do (forgive me if I come off sounding pigheaded or cynical, but I gotta call it like I see it), with people thinking less and less of the consequences.
The film looks pretty good for what I’m sure was a relatively low budget, and as a director, Eric England does a competent job for a guy who has only made a few shorts and DTV horror features. However, while the performances from the actors are surprisingly strong, it gets frustrating that no one seems to be acting or reacting in anything remotely resembling a realistic manner. I understood Samantha’s initial reluctance to disclose the sex to anyone, as many rape victims do feel a sense of shame about it. But come on, when you see a toilet full of blood and maggots (yes, live maggots) falling to the bathroom floor, it’s hard to believe she’d still be in such denial about it. Even harder to believe are the reactions of those around her. They seem oblivious to her rotting face, and as Samantha bleeds from her eyes, they accept her explanation that it’s just a bad case of pink eye. I won’t even get into the worst scene, where a doctor somehow makes an STD diagnosis without Samantha having to take her pants off (has England never been to see a physician?). It’s bush league, and a blown opportunity to have a scene that was either gross, hilarious, or both (see the gynecologist scene in Teeth for a similar situation handled so much better).
Unfortunately Contracted feels like a fun enough ride, but with no final destination. While we’re going along, we get more and more grossed out by Samantha’s continual physical deterioration, and, like her and the rest of the characters, are confused and curious about exactly what she’s been infected with. Was BJ some kind of sadistic disease-spreading serial killer? Was it something she may have contracted from her time as a drug user? Was she just a guinea pig in a larger government program experimenting with biochemical weapons? The film could have gone any one of these routes, and while they may have divided viewers, at least they would have provided some sort of resolution. As it stands, the current ending feels like a hell of a cop out, as if England didn’t have the time or energy to come up with a smarter, more sensible ending, so he went with what he thought was a safe horror go-to.
It’s not an awful film, and is certainly grotesque and frightening in a social context. If the characters had acted more believably and the ending wasn’t so abrupt, sloppy and unresolved, it could have very well been a solid little entry in the female body horror subgenre. But it’s a once-and-done film at best, as its flaws do away with any rewatchability factor.
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