Sometimes, the limitations of low-budget filmmaking – such as having to make a movie in a single apartment, with only the two principle actors onscreen 80% of the time – pay off. It’s worth noticing that some legendarily unwatchable pieces of shit, like The Room or Birdemic, were made with more resources than were available to or needed by this clever, affecting, original piece. Dead Dicks has a premise that’s somewhere between early Charlie Kaufman and The Twilight Zone, and uses it to explore an interesting, exasperating co-dependent sibling relationship. Written and directed by Chris Bavota and Lee Paula Springer, it’s built around two painfully believable performances – and works its strange premise through to an affecting, if enigmatic conclusion.
Becca (Jillian Harris) works in a bar but has been accepted into medical school – only she can’t bring herself to tell her bipolar brother Richie (Heston Horwin), who has his own apartment but is constantly calling her in to clean up his literal messes, that she is going to move to the other side of the country to studies. This ought not be more than a passing problem since under the credits Richie, a shut-in who works on a range of art projects, has committed suicide with a bag over his head … only when Becca shows up in answer to his latest pleading phone messages she finds his corpse hanging in a closet … and lying in the bathtub with a toaster … then he’s alive and naked and eating cereal, distracted from his suicide attempts by the discovery that a huge fissue in his bedroom wall, which looks like a vagina or an asshole, produces a large sac that sprouts a new identical live copy of himself whenever he kills himself. A real strength of the drama is that Becca is torn between having to cope with her brother’s actual determination to end his life, her usual routine of clearing up his shit (which now runs to sawing up multiple bodies and dragging them down to a dumpster in an alley), and the philosophical implications of the weird phenomenon. Matt (Matt Keyes), an angry neighbour who’s also at the end of his tether with the loon upstairs, is a further complication, as is the fact that Richie can still be distracted from vast cosmic situations by the discovery of Becca’s treacherous attempt at living a life away from him.
There are some minor Cronenbergian or psychedelic effects, but this focuses on performances and character. Dead Dicks is very perceptive about mental illness, not only on the anguish of the sufferer but the way compulsive behaviours – even a kind of clear-minded callousness that sees murder as an acceptable answer to a tricky question – can alienate even the most devoted carer. We learn that Richie has repeatedly scuppered Becca’s chances at a normal life – from throwing up on her prom date to dragging her away from any job she takes – but also that after their mother died and their father became a drunk he was her carer – and that even her acceptance onto a particular nursing course is down to skills she has developed dealing with him. The film isn’t afraid to present Richie as a literal and figurative dick over and over and to show Becca as a martyr and doormat, with a genuinely horrific stretch that considers the possibility that Richie has gone to malign lengths to hobble her to him, but the home stretch goes for something more heartfelt and uplifting, though the actual outcome more than justifies the need for an opening caption giving a Canadian helpline number for sufferers from suicidal ideation.