Art of the Dead (2019) | Directed by Rolfe Kanefsky
Written by Rolfe Kanefsky, Michael Mahal, Sonny Mahal | Starring Richard Grieco, Lainee Rhodes, Nick Ford
It’s rare that I’m left speechless or lost for words after a horror film but perhaps the only way to describe Art of the Dead is to say that it defies any definition! Brimming with influences that range from Velvet Buzzsaw (2019) to American Horror Story and Dario Argento, this offering from director Rolfe Kanevsky (who has a prolific output) is a visceral feast for the eyes.
It’s fair to say that this is a horror based in spectacle, shock and sensory overload rather than it being a deep and searching exploration of fear. The cast (who are extensive and therefore expendable) vary in their effectiveness and overall lack weight, although with its fast-paced thrills it could be argued that the script does not require or need to rely on wide ranging performances. However, it’s a welcome relief to discover that as the film ramps up the cast respond to this with gusto by stepping into the material and giving it everything they’ve got.
Right from the opening when a previous owner butchers his entire family at the behest of the paintings, we are left in no doubt that what we are about to see is going to be flamboyant, unapologetic and surreal. The prologue is then quickly discarded to make way for a second thread which forms the main action of the film. Following a bidding war at an upmarket art gallery, Gina (Jessica Morris) and Dylan Wilson (Lukas Hassel), a middle aged, affluent couple, acquire ‘The Sensations’, a series of vivid and eye-catching paintings based on the seven deadly sins. What the Wilson’s don’t know is that the paintings have a mysterious and troubling legacy. It doesn’t take long however, before they are approached by Mandale (Robert Donovan), a man who appears from the shadows and is haunted by an ambiguous association with the art works. Mandale warns of the: ‘evil within them’, attributing the darkness to the artist himself, Dorian Wilde (a literary reference that while nice might also be a little on the nose!)
With the paintings now a fixture in their luxury mansion, the Wilson family (who in addition to Gina and Dylan consist of oldest son Lewis, teenage daughter Donna and two infants) each fall victim to the hypnotic quality of the works and are overtaken by their nightmarish power. The most successful and endearing character is realised in Kim who as Lewis’s girlfriend is brought into the family fold, not only at the same time as the paintings, but at the same time as we become acquainted with them too. To this end, Kim is a good bridge between the real and the fantastical, as her status transitions from helpless victim to heroic final girl.
For an independent, straight to DVD release, aesthetically the film is impressive with vibrant colours and a good smattering of neon (an ode to Argento perhaps?). However, with three concurrent storylines running, and countless sub-plots, it runs the risk of having so much going on that you get lost in it all; but maybe that’s the point? As highlighted earlier, the performances become stronger as the story turns more outlandish and for this reason, unfortunately, many of the earlier scenes fail. There are some strange and jarring choices, such as dialogue taking place out of view where it would be beneficial to seeing characters interact, and additional smaller shots integrated into the main action. Overall, this conveys a sense that what was intended to come across as imaginative, has unfortunately come off as cheap.
Dialogue is also a major problem throughout the film, but again it’s more of an issue earlier on, purely because there is no violence, gore or sex to distract our attention. Conversations fall flat and often feel sloppily pasted together, almost as though in the editing process quick decisions had to be made, meaning the final cut doesn’t really hang together well. An example in point would be during a scene when Mendale (who has now gone full on CSI on the paintings with an evidence board and a ball of red string) is delivering a powerful Biblical speech and Kim responds by saying: ‘I’ve got to go’ as though she has not been present for the preceding exchange.
The film also seems to have an adolescent style obsession with breasts that is at times, utterly cringeworthy. When teenage daughter Donna makes herself over for a Spring Break Party where she plans to seek revenge on one of her classmates, she asks for her step-mother’s advice on her outfit. ‘Keep both beam lights on at all times’. In response to this, Donna discards the bra which Gina then delightfully fondles. This continues in a later scene when, whilst at the party, bemused at her new outfit Donna’s peers ask her: ‘are you feeling ok?’ which is followed by Donna forcing the hands of one girl down her dress declaring: ‘Have a feel of this’.
Within the fantastical tapestry of the film, there are some strengths including a scene that pays homage to Rosemary’s Baby (1968), where one character enters into a pact with the devil, and it is also fun ticking off the deadly sins and waiting to see what impact each painting will have on the unsuspecting family members. However, the ‘sexy’ sins such as ‘envy’ and ‘lust’ are given to the female characters and the ‘success’ based sins such as ‘greed’ and ‘pride’ to the males. In this respect, it feels predictable and clichéd, and it would’ve been refreshing (and more interesting) if Kanevsky had switched this up a little.
If this film were a painting itself, it could be described as schlocky, garish, daring and off the hook. What’s more, it’s also full of surprises with a cameo from Tara Reid (best known for her role as Bunny in The Big Lebowski, 1998) as Tess Barryman; manager of the Art Gallery being one of the more pleasant ones. This is a gutsy work that mixes a lot of influences, plot devices and ideas together, which makes it a fun watch but not a coherent one. With a finale that has more entrances and exits than a restoration comedy whilst entertaining, it feels (like much of the film) slightly overwhelming. In short, Art of the Dead is like a theme park ride; its quick moving, breath-taking and leaves you with no time to think, but this also means that you might just leave you a little dizzy and disorientated once it stops.