Death by Dialogue
In college, I had the good fortune to take a class called Hamlet in Performance, a class that focused entirely on Hamlet and how it has been variously interpreted and performed from its inception to the present; we also read modern revisions/adaptations of the play such as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Fortinbras, and Hamletmachine. Contrary to what you might think, there was quite a bit to say about Hamlet and I never grew tired of the subject. The scene I remember analyzing the most was the play within a play; terms like metatheatricality were common jargon in the classroom. When I first read the description of Death by Dialogue, I was hoping for a shallow attempt at being meta, since it’s about a haunted movie script killing people. The film fulfilled all my hopes and then some by having a muddled plot and being completely entertaining.
The story is quite simple. Cary, the curly-headed ‘leader’ of the group, is leading his friends to his Uncle Ive, who lives in a big house near a movie set. His friends are Shelly, his girlfriend I guess, Gene, the requisite asshole in shades and a leather jacket, Linda, the slut by dint of dating the asshole, and Lenny, the token black guy; it’s perhaps unfair to call Lenny a token character, since all the characters are as ancillary and underdeveloped. Shelly comes across the evil movie script, which has already dispatched one of Uncle Ive’s workers, a chubby guy with a mustache and a cowboy hat who was ‘fired’ by a mysterious woman in lingerie wielding a flamethrower; hahaha, get it? She reads the script and the deaths she reads about happen. Linda is killed while having sex with Gene by a mysterious force that flings her through the wall. Gene is killed not much later when he stumbles out of the barn where they were having sex and comes across an 80s rock band in the woods. The band sings a song with the refrain, “when the axe comes down,” right before the guitarist smashes his guitar over Gene’s head and his head explodes. A cop who returns to follow up on the death of the guy in the cowboy hat is sucked underground with an explosion and then spat back up covered in pink goo. Uncle Ive explains that script is cursed by a photographer he once knew. The photographer went down to the Amazon and was killed trying to take pictures of the natives. He was cremated and Uncle Ive brought his ashes back to the U.S. The ghost of the photographer haunted the movie script somehow and whatever happens in the script happens in real life. The remaining kids try to lock the script with the ashes in the urn and they try to burn it, but nothing works. After a fight with a hulking, gray-skinned man with a machete and his two motorcycle riding minions, the kids realize that the ghost of the photographer is pissed because he didn’t get a proper burial. The apparitions disappear as soon as they bury the script and ashes in the ground. See, it makes perfect sense.
Death by Dialogue raises a host of questions. How or why would the photographer haunt a movie script? The only apparent answer is that his soul was pissed because his remains weren’t buried and he chose the movie script because it was near at hand. Did the apparitions appear because Shelly read about them or was the script just predicting what would happen? If the apparitions appeared because the script was read, then everything could have been avoided if they just stopped reading the damn thing. If the script only predicted what would happen, Shelly ought to have read the whole script to figure out what would happen. Why are there so many different apparitions? Why a killer rock band? My best guess would be that the apparitions are culled from various horror movies and the rock band is because Death by Dialogue was filmed in the 80s. At one point they insert a sheet of paper into the script that says the power will go off and it happens. While the electricity only stayed off temporarily, it proves that they could write whatever they wanted into the script. Why didn’t they bring their friends back to life? Actually, that might have just added zombies to the haunting; never mind. We also learn that the script has killed 70 people. How come the police aren’t investigating Uncle Ive for the number of mysterious deaths that have occurred around him? I also wondered how he survived, but this can be explained by the fact that the script wasn’t killing anyone when it was locked in the chest with the urn. That would be fine and dandy if it we ignore that he could have buried the script where no one could find it to prevent it from ever being unleashed. We must also ask ourselves, why didn’t Uncle Ive bury his friend’s ashes in the first place? Come on, man. Do the decent thing and bury the ashes or give them to the photographer’s relatives instead of keeping them locked up in your basement. It’s creepy.
If this movie had been made today, the film would have been a painfully self-aware, hamfisted attempt at being postmodern. In fact, the movie never breaks the fourth wall or calls attention to the fact that it’s a movie about a killer screenplay. The film is set at Uncle Ive’s house, which is located right by a movie set, which the kids visit briefly, but no one makes a big deal about it. Shelly reads from the screenplay and we see their deaths happen according to script, but nobody winks at the camera. Not one character has the guts to say that the group is composed of teenage/college-student stereotypes that inevitably get ambushed by the supernatural. When they write a scene into the screenplay to shut off the power, the power comes back on minutes later as if some asshole producer came along and made another rewrite; no one complains. Instead of being a shallow metacommentary on moviemaking, Death by Dialogue seems to be too shallow to even accommodate metacommentary. I’m not sure whether this should be cause for callous smirks or celebration for a stupid, unpretentious movie. Maybe I should watch Gene’s head explode a few more times and see how I feel then.
And if my review doesn’t make you want to watch this movie, maybe this trailer will.