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DEAD & BEAUTIFUL (2021) Review

Neil reviews Shudder’s DEAD & BEAUTIFUL calling it “an intriguing mix of horror and social commentary coalesce with mixed but altogether fascinating results.”

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Dead & Beautiful (Shudder)

Dead & Beautiful is written and directed by David Verbeek (R U There). The film streams on Shudder from November 4, 2021.

Synopsis

In Dead & Beautiful, five rich, spoiled Asian twenty-somethings (Gijs Blom, Aviis Zhong, Yen Tsao, Philip Juan, Anechka Marchenko) are suffering from upper class ennui, unsure how to spend their days when so little is expected from them. In search of excitement, the five friends form the “Circle,” a group where they take turns designing a unique, extravagant experience for the others. But things go wrong when the privileged urbanites awaken after a night out, to find they have developed vampire fangs and an unquenchable thirst for flesh, blood, and adventure at any price.

Review

Some about Shudder’s Dead & Beautiful will feel awfully familiar to film fans. Writer/Director David Verbeek is seemingly taking inspiration from none other than cult classic Cruel Intentions. Underpinning this vampire-inspired horror is a story of insipid twenty-somethings who represent the pinnacle of pompous contemporary culture. Verbeek uses his leads and those built-in vampiric metaphors to create a film which flirts heavily with the idea of social-satire.

The film circles a group of old friends, all of whom come from ultra-wealthy families. There’s Anastasia (Anna Marchenko) the influencer, Lulu (Aviis Zhong) the social warrior, Alexander (Yen Tsao) a shining example of toxic masculinity, Bin-Ray (Philip Juan) the clown and Mason (Gijs Blom) who has just returned from studying abroad. As a group, they’re all about living a lavish care-free lifestyle, individually each is really out to look after themselves.

Each member of the group takes a turn in setting up some once-in-a-lifetime scenario for the others to inhabit. The film starts with Mason’s return from Harvard, marred by a particularly morbid stunt by Bin-Ray. The setup acts as an insight in to how each character’s mind works.

Dead & Beautiful features stunning cinematography from Jasper Wolf (Monos). The Taiwanese backdrops create a luscious landscape for the story to unfold in. Kicking off in the city, filled with fast cars and beautiful people, before transitioning to the tribal jungle lands and then back to civilisation. Wolf is at his most creative inside the hollow spaces of the hotel where our cast ends up after their transformation. Set for renovation, the huge empty spaces echo with Verbeek’s metaphorical demons as the cast wrestles with their oncoming darkness.

Verbeek plays with his own vampire mythology, often poking fun at the classic big screen portrayals. At one point Mason even exclaims “we’re not in a movie.” It’s this clear cut awareness of its own makeup which sets Dead & Beautiful apart. The horror doesn’t come from vampiric activity, though it is there when you look for it. Instead Verbeek cuts deep to the heart of each character’s reaction to their transition. For some that means they retreat to the shadows. For others they stand clear in the daylight, refusing to be consumed by the darkness.

Verbeek’s screenplay meanders rather than hurtles towards its conclusion. It takes time to really explore the characters, deconstructing them piece by piece. Each of the cast handles the material beautifully with Zhong, Blom Tsao leading with brilliant performances. Lulu lingers somewhere in-between the darkness of Alexander and the optimism of Mason. It gives Zhong the opportunity to play the contrast between lightness and dark for much of the 98 minute runtime.

Rutger Reinders punctuates the film with a heavily synth-laden score. At times Dead & Beautiful sounds like an 80s sci-fi movie. Leaning in to an electronica soundscape feels organic to the neon glow of Taipei. It also feels as delightfully self-indulgent as our group of so-called vampires.

In its third act, Dead & Beautiful gets a little lost in its own twists. Lulu takes centre stage in a number of huge reveals. Each twisting the narrative in a new direction. It convolutes the film’s message, instead sensationalising each character’s behaviour and losing its satirical identity. There’s a game within a game, possibly within another game. Then, in its final shot, Dead & Beautiful takes one more twist which feels like Verbeek having the last laugh on all of us.

Verdict

Dead & Beautiful aims its fangs squarely at the jugular of social-satire. An intriguing mix of horror and social commentary coalesce with mixed but altogether fascinating results.


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