Death Of Me Review-The Serpent And The Rainbow Meets The Wicker Man
Claustrophobic and eerie, existential dread takes center stage in creepy Death Of Me by Darren Lynn Bousman.
Folk horror and fantasy mix well. Films like Ari Aster’s Midsommar, Robert Eggers’ The VVitch, and Lukas Feigelfeld’s Hagazussa are prime examples of the successful marrying of the two genres. Often stark and stunning settings work hand in hand with the actors. Delivering a one-two punch of uneasy fear and claustrophobia. In films like the original The Wicker Man and The Serpent And The Rainbow, the “otherness” of an unknown faith only amplifies that panic. Death of Me combines ancient curses, black magic, and the beauty of a largely untamed and potentially dangerous land to create an intoxicating cocktail of anxiety and terror.
A young couple vacationing on a tiny island in Thailand finds themselves faced with an unsettling video after a night of drinking. Christine, played by Maggie Q(Nikita, Designated Hero), and Neil, portrayed by Westworld’s Luke Hemsworth, wake up with no memory of the evening before and unexplained bruises. A video shot on Neil’s phone seems to show him brutally strangling, killing, and burying Christine. Neither person can remember anything, though, and Christine feels alive, if sore, sick, and confused. They have just twenty-four hours to piece together what has happened and get off the island before an impending storm with missing time and passports.
After missing the ferry, the couple has no choice but to retrace their previous night steps. That leads them down a dark hole of enigmatic people, cultural divides, and less than helpful locals with smiles on their faces. Making matters worse, Christine is feeling very sick, and disturbing hallucinations plague her. More alarming still is the local festival seems to be in honor of Christine. Things look bleak for Christine and Neil and only get bleaker. For this young couple, travel should be a comfortable thing. Neil makes a living off tourist journalism. He speaks enough of the language to get by, and their Air B&B is a gorgeous, well-appointed house. As the hours go by, it becomes clear there is nothing comfortable about this vacation.
When The Serpent And The Rainbow were released in 1988, it was touted as one of the scariest films ever because it was real. It was loosely based on a nonfiction book by ethnobotanist Wade Davis. The book covered his investigation of Clairvius Narcisse in Haiti, who was allegedly poisoned, buried alive, and later revived using a Voodoo potion. The movie was shocking because it felt real. It created a sense of urgency that slashers of that time couldn’t touch. Death Of Me captures some of that same spirit, if not the same realism. Clearly, this is what Bousman of the Saw sequels fame intended. Neil, at one point, even mentions The Wicker Man. It’s a little leading for a film that should have stood on its own.
Death of Me is an inherently paranoid movie. Films about the vulnerability of travelers in a foreign land are a commonly used theme. Americans, in particular, are influenced by the stranger in a strange land trope. Black Magic, Voodoo, Hoodoo, and many other lesser-known spiritualities can provide excellent skeletal structure for a horror story. Thailand is a gorgeous place, but the culture, wildness, and threat of typhoons and hurricanes are daunting to travelers. Bousman’s film uses that to good effect even when the script is somewhat suspect.
The script by Ari Margolis, James Morley III, and David Tish is workable. The concept is great. There is a lot to say about entitled American travelers, techno-fear, and folk horror. Unfortunately, most of those thoughts are left unfinished, abandoned, or never realized. Death Of Me suffers from a dynamics problem. When you start with utter panic, there really isn’t anywhere to go. Every moment feels just as disturbing as the one before, even when completely off the wall hallucinations begin taking over. Thanks to supporting actress Alex Essoe(Doctor Sleep, Homewrecker), who plays their kindly Air B&B owner, a manic weirdness is woven into the strange fabric that keeps the film from veering completely off course. Essoe has the uncanny ability to make even the most absurd behavior seem normal. Her work in the deliciously dark Homewrecker proves that. She brings the same sort of energy to Death of Me.
You undoubtedly will see the twist coming. Despite knowing before Christine and Neil where things are headed, Death Of Me is still scary. A little like peeking behind your fingers when you know a jump scare is coming. You feel it coming and are embarrassed that you jumped anyway. It’s a guilty pleasure that could have been so much more but ended up being decently entertaining.
Maggie Q gives an honest performance that sells the conceit even when the plot doesn’t quite. Her confusing and rising panic propels the story along and fills in holes when necessary. Hemsworth isn’t asked to do much but be an entitled white male, and he does that competently if somewhat safely. Even when he’s faced with his behavior and later pays the price, his smug smirk never quite leaves his face.
Yes, there are some glaring problems. If I just watched my husband snap my neck, I’m not going to hang out with him. Or if I’ve lost everything and I suspect my spouse and I have been poisoned, I’m not going to wander off and take pictures of a tiny parade of local kids in masks. The middle section of the film flounders a bit in a sea of these sorts of dubious decisions, but the premise is intriguing, and Maggie Q is so committed a lot can be forgiven.
The soundtrack by Mark Sayfritz keeps the tension high. It bombards the viewer with clanging bells, tinkling chimes, and building rhythms. There’s a fair amount of gory body horror that plays really well in the film’s disjointed fever-dream quality, and the film is stunning to watch. Tonally Death Of Me loses some of its punch as more and more island secrets are revealed. The film itself is leached of color just as the intensity lessens. That both drives the narrative but curiously pulls from the tension. By the end, you’re almost nonplussed. As if you’re saying, “That’s the best you’ve got?” The set up is compelling. It’s a killer premise that doesn’t completely pay off but comes close enough to make it worth your time.
Death of Me is in theaters, and available digitally anywhere you stream movies October 2nd, 2020.
As the TV/Streaming Editor for Signal Horizon, I love watching and writing about genre tv. I grew up with old school slashers, but my real passion is television and all things weird and ambiguous. When I’m not watching and writing about my favorite movies and series, I’m introducing my family to the wonderful world of sci-fi, fantasy, and horror. My only regret, there is not enough time in the day to watch everything.