Contracted (2013)

14 Jan


Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Just to get this out of the way, the tagline for the “Contracted” poster reads “Not Your Average One Night Stand.” And the problem with that is I don’t think the sexual encounter in the opening of this film could be considered a “one night stand” so much as “rape.” Our female protagonist is clearly drunk, the predatory male picks her up, the next thing we know is that they’re getting it on in the back seat of a car with her repeatedly telling him to stop when he doesn’t, and it’s indicated later that roofies were more than likely involved.

Yeah, I’d consider that “rape.”

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk about Eric England’s “Contracted,” an effectively horrific, suitably gross horror film with as many smarts as gore. It’s a nicely-done chiller that plays as horror and as a cautionary tale about safe sex. It begins as 20something lesbian Samantha (Najarra Townsend) attends a party held by her best friend Alice (Alice Macdonald). Feeling her relationship with her girlfriend Nikki (Katie Stegeman) is deteriorating, she gets smashed, making her the perfect target for a mysterious stranger named BJ (Simon Barrett). Before she knows it, she has unprotected sex with him in a car, which will result in the impending horror.

The next day, which is given the foreboding caption “Day 1.” Samantha awakens with a slight case of the chills. She also has a rash and a bloody…well, never mind. She goes to see a doctor about it, but she gets that usual lame story about blood tests (though why she isn’t given a prescription at least, I couldn’t figure out). But things get even worse during the next couple days, and on Day 3 (which is labeled “Day 3 of 3”), things get even worse as her eyes change color, she gets a sore on her lower lip, and her hair, teeth, and fingernails fall out. (I won’t even mention the maggots.) This is far from STD; she is slowly but surely falling apart and losing her life.

The “grossout quality” is evident throughout “Contracted” and the makeup and effects in how they change the appearance of Najarra Townsend and do some neat practical effects for parts of the body are definitely something to be complimented, as they are well-done. And they did make me squeamish, particularly when Samantha notices something is not quite right with one of her fingernails.

But if that were all “Contracted” was, it would have been creepy but sort of ordinary. What I like about “Contracted” is that it is more of a character study than a straight-up horror flick. We come to understand Samantha as a person and thus we feel for her as she slowly and literally falls apart. There are hints given by her mother (Caroline Williams), whom she lives with, that she has had a troubled past involving drugs and that she has enough to be mad about, particularly with her lesbian lifestyle which her mother disapproves of. And I like that we’re not given expository dialogue about what Samantha has gone through in her life; everything is said to us through either hints of dialogue or how relationships between these characters flow with each meeting.

And Samantha does have a lot to deal with—her mother is overbearing; her girlfriend Nikki is hardly interested anymore; Alice is a little too clingy; there’s a nice guy (played by Matt Mercer) who won’t take the hint that Samantha isn’t interested in him; she isn’t too fond of her waitress job; she would rather do something with her hobby of growing orchids; and so on. There’s too much for her to deal with, which is why she sometimes makes mistakes due to her muddled priorities and sometimes-standoffish attitude. And now she’s had sex with a man for the first time, which came to this disease that is disturbingly ruining her life. But she’s too scared and too naïve to get everything on track once at a time. All that and more leads her to descending into madness and becoming destructive to herself (and to others) once it’s clear there’s no hope for her.

Samantha is not always easy to like, but she is easy to empathize with and you do feel sorry for her. And Najarra Townsend does a great job in the role. There isn’t a single false note in the performance, as far as I’m concerned.

Also, by having “Contracted” be more ABOUT a person, it also has the advantage of being an effective allegory about how people feel in the weird stages of early adulthood and how their deeds can lead to mistakes and consequences.

Not everything in “Contracted” works. Some of the mother’s reactions to her daughter’s illness are a little too unrealistic. You could argue that she’s afraid she’s resorting to old bad habits and she thinks that’s what this led to, but come on. And then there’s the second visit to the doctor, when the doctor notices that Samantha’s “condition” has only gotten worse. He doesn’t take her in for observation; he just tells her not to get in contact with anybody. Really? Then there’s a really nasty encounter with the nice guy who has been stalking Samantha for quite a while. Maybe if he were a little sleazier (or maybe if he were replaced by BJ), that would have been an effective comeuppance, if that’s what it was supposed to be. And what about BJ? (By the way, a brilliant move on the filmmakers’ part is that BJ is always kept out of focus during his scenes.) We don’t see him again except for a moment in which he picks up another woman. Why not put him in the nice guy’s place and give Samantha a moment of revenge?

(Granted, the fact that BJ isn’t given a form of comeuppance is somewhat chilling, since it’s obvious he’s going to keep spreading the disease around.)

Now I must admit I did read a few reviews of this film before watching it, because I am friends with this film’s 2nd 2nd Assistant Director and I wanted to know how the film was doing, critic-wise (as of now, it ranks 50 percent on Rotten Tomatoes). Each one of the reviews I read mentioned a certain word that made me correctly guess the film’s ending. What was that word and would it lead you to assume (possibly correctly) what the payoff to the disease is? I’m not sure I should reveal it. On the one hand, knowing beforehand made the film a little more fascinating in where it was going. On the other hand, I’m not sure how people would react to the final shot. I could see it having mixed reviews—some might react with an awed “whoa” (in a positive way); others might react with a dissatisfied, deadpan “what?”

Well, great. Now I can’t reveal that word now that I’ve built it up so much. People would guess the payoff for sure. Well, I guess the best thing to do would be to say to check out this film and decide for yourself whether you like the payoff or not.

I liked “Contracted.” It has a great protagonist; it’s well-made; it has a nice supporting cast, especially Katie Stegeman as unfriendly Australian lesbian Nikki and Charley Koontz as perpetually high Zain; the make-up effects are outstanding; it’s chilling; and its ending…well, I accepted it. Maybe you will too.

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