This may be the first American horror film – including the remake of Pulse – that feels steeped in the influence of Kiyoshi Kurosawa, down to obsessive middle-aged investigator characters who pursue supernatural mysteries rather than contemplate the void in their own lives and the disturbing open-mouthed distorted corpses left by the demonic/alien/parasite monster three men (including its host) try to help and then to stop. It’s all in the storytelling and the worldbuilding of writer/director Billy Senese – who goes to great lengths to make the major setting, an overloaded hospital, a convincing, affecting environment. One test of whether a horror film will stand out is to ask if you’d watch a film about these people in this place if a monster wasn’t going to show up, and this passes that impressively. If this were a dogme-type hospital soap, it’d still be compelling.
A John Doe suicide (Jeremy Childs) is brought in to the morgue but revives as a shambling amnesiac and wanders into the psychiatric unit, prompting parallel investigations by medical examiner Edward Graham (Bill Feehely) about how the missing corpse came to die and what might have happened to him and by stressed, driven psychiatrist Daniel Forrester (Shane Carruth) into the particular condition of the unforthcoming, imposing patient he has to keep off the books because he’s been warned by his superior (Poorna Jagannathan) about taking in walk-ins who end up costing the hospital money. John Doe is also a jonah, given to breath-sucking attacks that cause a number of incidental mystery deaths – but when he begins to remember his previous life, he also becomes more afraid of whatever it is he’s got inside him. A few other elements of J-horror creep in, including scratched spirals, crk-crk-crk noises, and a sense of the world spinning off its axis even as the camera gets into a habit of doing panicky 360º spins or overhead google maps vision … a set-up shot, as Edward pursues the mystery man through the hospital onto the sidewalk then loses him as the camera revolves as he searches, is followed by a truly shattering reprise of the camera move in much, much darker circumstances in a finale as Daniel realises the awful extent of a tragedy he has tried to avert but has also enabled.
None of the leads are overfamiliar – Carruth is best-known as a director (Primer, Upstream Color) – but all have great, believable presence – Childs, in particular, is terrifying and heartbreaking at the same time – and every bit part patient, nurse, cop, witness or relative feels like a real person caught up in a developing story they’ll never understand. We can’t help but sympathise with the hospital administrator who gives her old friend too many passes because she knows he’s passionately committed to helping people, and is then aggrieved by his genuine betrayal of her trust as he pursues what seems like a demented quest and actually does turn out to be horribly misguided and dangerous. This is a rare horror film where every incidental death hurts – though Sense is sparing enough with the horrors so that a few key shocks are shattering.