United States. Directed by Eric England, 2014. Starring Najarra Townsend, Alice Macdonald, Caroline Williams. 84 minutes.
“Sex is natural,” proclaimed the Anglo-Greek poet Georgios Panayiotou in 1987, “sex is fun.” But it’s also often awkward, occasionally painful, saddled with a lot of cultural baggage, and kinda gross.
In other words, the emotional and physical mechanics of sex are perfect territory for horror movies to mine.
The last decade or so has seen a minor boom in horror movies that use frank depictions of the female sexual cycle to generate unease in the audience. (For a lot of people, frank depictions of the female sexual cycle are unsettling enough without the added context of a horror movie.) Paul Solet’s Grace graphically portrays a miscarriage, while the heroine of Mitchell Lichtenstein’s satire Teeth turns out to have a set of the eponymous chompers in her vagina. Eric England’s Contracted, a plague movie in which the plague is an STD, works in a similar vein.
B.J. apparently contracts the disease from the corpse he’s seen fucking at the beginning of the film. Later, he passes it on to Samantha, when he meets her at a party and uses her drunken condition to take sexual advantage of her (read: rapes).
Sam is the story’s protagonist, a troubled and confused young florist who’s on the outs with both her mother and her ex-girlfriend. Her friends are assholes: Alice encourages Sam to drown her sorrows in booze, Zain offers her a “bump” of cocaine despite the implications of substance abuse in her past, and Riley is an obsessive sad-sack who puts on a grand show of being a “nice guy.” Alice and Riley are both angling to get Sam in the sack, and they don’t seem to mind employing dickish tactics in their pursuit.
With friends like these, who needs chlamydia?
Once you’ve added Sam’s bitchy ex and her homophobic mother to the mix, you find yourself without much in the way of likable characters. Even Sam, with her tendency towards immature behavior that only increases as her illness progresses, isn’t a particularly sympathetic central figure.
This has a bit of an alienating effect, which I found largely countered by strong performances, particularly from Najarra Townsend as Sam. Townsend expands upon the characterization, turning a character who could very easily be an obnoxious brat into a girl who’s still visibly battling with demons everybody else thinks she should have conquered by now.
Caroline Williams (Sam’s mother) and Alice Macdonald (Alice) put in good performances as well. Charlie Koontz brings darkly comic relief in his two or three scenes as Zain, and Simon Barrett (better known as writer for several Adam Wingard projects) is great in his brief role as B.J.
Contracted doesn’t necessarily need gore to disgust the audience; the characters are revolting enough. But there is plenty of the icky stuff on display. Sam interprets the initial effects of the illness as a particularly nasty period, allowing England to indulge in several scenes involving clothes with strategically-located bloodstains. Eventually we realize that Sam’s been gradually decomposing before our eyes. The impeccable makeup work will impress gorehounds, and a third-act scene involving maggots is sure to upset the most ironclad of stomachs.
England also wrote the screenplay and I was quite impressed with it. The plotting is effective and I enjoyed the first fresh take on the zombie/plague trope I’ve seen in a long time. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film that focused on the gradual change from living to undead the way this one does. His direction is fairly solid, although the cinematography more on hand-held “shaky-cam” techniques than I prefer.
All in all, it’s a fine modern horror film that doesn’t skimp on the splat. But if you can get past the unpleasant characters, you’ll find that Contracted’s emotional violence is just as powerful as its physical violence.