Please be advised: the following review of Dead Dicks discusses a film in which suicide and mental illness are a central component. Proceed with caution if such content may be triggering.
It began with a phone call. Several really. While Becca (Jillian Harris) was working late at a bar, her phone was buzz, buzz, buzzing with voicemail messages from her artist brother, Richie (Heston Horwin). As he has a history of mental illness and suicide attempts, such a frenzy of messages is not something Becca takes lightly. When he doesn’t answer her return call, Becca rushes over to his apartment, where she discovers what she fears most, his corpse. Just as she falls to her knees before her brother’s dead body dangling from a self-made noose, Richie walks in behind her, alive, naked, and eating a bowl of cereal. And that’s not all.
His self-slain body is also in the tub with a toaster and in the kitchen with a plastic bag over his head. That’s three dead Richies and one live one who has a wild theory tied to the massive water stain on his bedroom wall. He’s called Becca over to help him figure out what’s going on. Over the course of a deeply bizarre and bloody night, the two will unpack much more than the mystery of the maybe magical stain. They will have a pivotal conflict with Richie’s understandably annoyed neighbor (Matt Keyes), who’s grown tired of the eccentric painter’s night owl hours, blaring music, and whatever that wall-shaking rumbling is. They will also have to dispose of Richie’s corpses before the building’s super arrives for an inspection in the morning. And they will be forced to confront the resentment that’s growing between them.
Written and directed by Chris Bavota and Lee Paula Springer, Dead Dicks is a heady horror-comedy with heart. Made on a micro-budget, its filmmakers proved thoughtful in how best to employ practical effects for big moments. There are some standout beats of breath-snatching gore and horror. However, much of the violence happens off-camera, including most of the suicides. The impact of this violence is felt because of the performance of Harris, who brings a pounding pathos to Becca. While Richie is numbed to the concept of his own annihilation and enchanted by the mystery of his resurrection, she is its horrified witness as well as the audience conduit. We relate to her confusion and fear, and we journey with her as she makes sense of things a step behind her brother, who secretively scribbles in notebooks and hides this mystery’s most harrowing details. She gives us space to quiver in horror, while Richie gives us the allowance to laugh in the face of it.
Reflecting Richie’s personality, the humor in the film ranges from gleefully juvenile to ruthlessly irreverent. For instance, Richie’s recurring nudity is played for laughs. In one scene, he comically covers his crotch with his bowl of cereal in a poor attempt at modesty. In another, a shot of his annoyed sister is penetrated by his exposed penis, poking into the upper left corner of the frame. The more controversial humor is about the suicides, where the face of a corpse is framed as comical and Richie’s apparent ambivalence is played for uncomfortable laughs. In the Fantasia audience at the film’s world premiere, these jokes did play, in part because Horwin so expertly captures the cavalier energy of a pesky brother. Your mileage may vary. While this Canadian film offers a sort-of trigger warning by beginning with a title card about suicide prevention hotlines, Dead Dicks doesn’t outright align with America’s stigmatizing views on suicide, which may be a dealbreaker for some viewers.
Still, the greater focus in the film is on the relationship between Becca and Richie. Mental illness is not used as some buzz word or cheap throwaway to explain Richie’s character. Instead, it is presented as a struggle they share. Having cared for her brother for years, Becca is hungry for a life of her own, where her needs can be put first. Even as she’s offered an incredible opportunity, she can’t bring herself to tell her brother, as it might feel to him like a rejection. As for Richie, his baffling bemusement at his pile of corpses is eventually explained by a heart-wrenching monologue. Have you ever felt trapped in your life? Like you would do anything to change it or yourself? Just anything to make it different? That’s how Richie feels. That’s why the bodies and the wall don’t scare him, because it seems like maybe this macabre miracle will be a way forward or out from the endless cycle of mental anguish of which he is tired of enduring.
Dead Dicks kicks off with a ghoulish premise, revels in outrageous jokes, and then layers in a bracing emotional intelligence in its exploration of family dynamics and mental illness. Bavota and Springer drew me in with the mystery at the film’s center. They create a world that’s intimate, fascinating, and cringingly crusty, tinged with filth, rot, and blood. They give you laughs that are easy and some that might be paired with a cringe of guilt. They don’t want you to feel comfortable in their film, because they need you to connect to the “dick” at its core. Richie twitches with the paradoxes of his character, that he loves his sister but is her burden, that he wants to die but is fascinated by life. The film explores not only the pain he’s causing in his sister’s life, but also the pain he feels in his own, daring to empathize even when it means not firmly condemning suicide. In the end, Dead Dicks tackles taboos, blending trippy horror, irreverent humor, and shocking tenderness to create a film that’s both darkly challenging and wildly entertaining.
I promise it will shake you; I can’t promise you’ll like it.
Dead Dicks made its World Premiere at Fantasia International Film Festival.
Header Image Source: Fantasia