Contracted: Phase 2

Considering it largely disregards the ideas that made its predecessor so interesting, Contracted: Phase 2 works much better than expected.

A scene from CONTRACTED: PHASE 2.
United States. Directed by Josh Forbes, 2015. Starring Matt Mercer, Marianna Palka, Morgan Peter Brown, Anna Lore, Laurel Vail, Peter Cilella. 78 minutes. 5/10

Towards the end of Eric England’s 2013 film Contracted, protagonist Samantha, her transformation into a zombie via a contagion contracted (geddit?) during a date-rape, grudge-fucks her “nice guy” friend Riley (Matt Mercer)…who then becomes the focus of the sequel, written by Craig Walendziak and directed by Josh Forbes. Phase 2 details Riley’s gradual decay and devolution, while also following subplots involving the spread of the disease beyond Sam’s group of friends, and the authorities’ search for “B.J.” (Morgan Peter Brown, taking over from the original’s Simon Barrett), Sam’s rapist and the infection’s apparent “Patient Zero.”

The differences between Contracted: Phase 2 and its predecessor stretch beyond the obvious gender-reversing of the protagonists. My reading of the original’s subtext was that it was a metaphor for how people use sex to hurt each other, an element almost entirely missing from Phase 2. Instead, the infection spreads through more conventional vectors such as bites and other involuntary exposures to bodily fluids (one unfortunate supporting player catches the plague through infected blood in nacho cheese dip).

The filmmakers wryly probe their apparent theme: entire subcultures of people so self-absorbed they fail to see what’s really going on around them. Riley’s sister Brenda (Laurel Vail) opportunistically exploits the death of a dear friend (actually one of Sam’s victims, as seen in Phase 1) to promote her latest self-help tome, and doesn’t notice her brother has developed a habit of inconveniently spraying gouts of blood from his nose and mouth. Even Riley himself isn’t about to let the discovery of nests of maggots under his skin get in the way of getting it on with Harper (Anna Lore), his grandmother’s adorable nurse.

Phase 2’s winning cast (which includes several hangers-on from the predecessor; not just Mercer, but also Najarra Townsend, Reuben Pla, and Community’s Charley Koontz as the hilarious black-marketeer Zain), wry humor, and well-constructed gross-out sequences detract from its biggest failing. By relegating the sexual transmission vector to the background, Forbes and Walendziak rob the film of what could have been its distinguishing element. STD zombies might not seem quite as novel now as they did two years ago (thanks to the original Contracted and Thanatomorphose emerging at the same time, and a possible resurgence in “venereal horror” led by the success of It Follows), but the filmmakers don’t have any fresh takes on the ghoul trope to replace them with, to make it stand apart from the rest of the pack of zombie movies. B.J.’s subplots turn out to be a particular disappointment, a limp combination of doomsday-cult conspiracy and bog-standard police-procedural that take up far too much of the film’s comparatively scant running-time.

Contracted: Phase 2 works fairly well for a sequel that largely disregards what made the original so interesting, but I doubt it’s likely to find much of an audience beyond subgenre diehards and fans of the original.

CONTRACTED: PHASE 2 poster.

Contracted

A zombie movie that takes the novel approach of presenting the plague as an STD

Contracted

United States. Directed by Eric England, 2014. Starring Najarra Townsend, Alice Macdonald, Caroline Williams. 84 minutes. 8/10

“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.

Contracted poster