A quirky horror-adjacent piece that hides a real darkness behind its quirks.
Synopsis: A misanthropic, struggling photographer just wants to watch TV and eat candy while his wife is out of town, but when a desperate old pal resurfaces, his plans are thwarted, with spooky consequences.
Clay (Clay Tatum – also writing and directing) is in a slump. His photography work is not going well, the pressure is on him to help pay the bills and his wife Whitney (Whitney Weir) is growing frustrated with his lack of action. While out attempting to take photographs he meets old friend Whit (Whitmer Thomas, also co-writing) who appears to have a rather more serious problem of his own. As the pair reconnect, Whit’s escalating demands and neediness further challenge Clay’s frame of mind.
With a pace frequently as laid back as its protagonist, The Civil Dead is rather sedate, trading jump scares for a steady build of discomfort and study of connection. This is definitely in the realms of ‘horror with a small h’, in that it adopts the idea of a supernatural being and certainly some dark themes but is not particularly interested in scaring its audience. At times, this translates to the film’s surface quirks and offbeat humour as twee. However, as it progresses, the steady lean into moments of outright absurdity in some sections begins to unmoor it. Later still, the film delivers a powerful gut punch that genuinely elicited a gasp from me on first viewing. These carefully crafted moments of shock delivered without any boost in the soundtrack or jolting camera movements are really where this film sets itself apart.
The film’s limited locations and focus on characters puts a great deal of pressure on the two main performers to deliver. Thankfully they do, allowing Clay and Whit’s uneasy rapport to ebb and flow. The strength of this likely stems from them also writing the script, allowing them to play the roles in exactly the way they imagine. Clay’s downbeat nature clashes with Whit’s excitement at being seen. The pair do well to create a world in which the supernatural experience is one of mundanity, with a sustained reliance on the humans they have left behind to validate and entertain them. Clay’s reluctance to do anything with his life other than getting a questionable haircut becomes a central point of tension. The pair continuously bounce off one another, cementing this as the kind of ‘hangout horror’ where the lack of more traditional supernatural motifs are replaced by human emotion. The cringe humour at times won’t be for everyone and neither will the stillness of much of the film. If you are looking for loud, jangling horror, you won’t find it here. Similarly, if you find it difficult to connect with the characters, you may well struggle here.
What you will find, however, is two writers who are incredibly skilled at weaving multiple callbacks and layers into their film which adds so much to it. As the relationship builds, so do these layers, giving it a greater depth. That clever pulling together of all threads really does lend it a power that sneaks up on you. That this often uses daytime locations or a cosy cabin as a setting to lull the viewer to relax and spend time with the characters heightens the drama when tensions begin to stir again. It is very clear throughout that every detail has been carefully considered, but it never feels like it is obviously drawing your attention to it. On the first watch, it can feel like almost nothing is happening, with the hard work taking place in the background. For those fully immersed in the rest of the story, the result is effective.
An excellently written character study that presents a different view of a ghost story.
3.5 out of 5 stars
The Civil Dead screened as part of North Bend Film Festival 2022.