As someone who’s worked in reality TV the better part of a decade, you should know if you don’t already: most of its fake. One sub-genre that’s about as real as the phantom projections in an episode of Scooby-Doo is the ghost hunter show. These shows are expert fabrications of a haunting, but Deadtectives explores what would happen if it all turned out to be real, with a comedic twist…
…Sorry if you’re a big reality TV fan and I just burst your bubble, but hopefully it doesn’t take the entertainment away from it. These shows, real or not, are ripe for comedic, behind the scenes antics, and that’s exactly what Deadtectives plays off of, with some mildly disturbing horror elements. Making his feature debut is Tony West, with a script by West and David Clayton Rogers. Deadtectives follows a crew of “paranormal investigators” led by Sam (played by the always brilliant Chris Geere). With ratings for their reality show plummeting and the risk of cancellation looming, Sam and the gang decide to head to Mexico’s most haunted house in the pursuit of a winning episode, but discover that the mansion is indeed haunted. Without any real ghost-hunting skills, the crew must figure out how to survive, or face becoming a part of the mansion for all eternity.
Even though Sam and his crew are pretty deplorable for exploiting the people in pain who are hiring them to get rid of the ghosts, Geere and his fellow cast mates bring a lot to love to their roles and make these morally questionable characters a blast to watch. There’s the nutjob producer who just wants to win an Emmy, Abril (Martha Higareda, fresh off of starring in Culture Shock), stubborn non-believer, Javier (Jose Maria de Tavira), paranoid “expert”, Lloyd (David Newman), and concerned “ghost-voice” actress, Kate (Tina Ivlev). Hell, there’s even a weird, one-eyed effects guy named Bob (Mark Riley), filling in for your typical “harbinger” role, and yes, Deadtectives is one giant spoof of haunting films. Deadtectives is a parade of ghost-hunting hijinks, and you’ll love to watch this cast screw up at every possible turn.
What’s really disturbing about this cast of characters is that, even though they’re ultra-entertaining and even a bit endearing, there’s a disturbing commentary being made with Deadtectives on the current state of reality TV. The format has always been about exploiting people, so nothing new there, but what’s really chilling even though it’s a throwaway moment is when Sam and co. discover an actual dead body and decide, fuck it, the shoot must go on! It begs the question, have we all gotten to the point where we’re willing to let people die for a few moments of fame? In our culture, we tend to create spoofs when something has gotten out of control, and you could argue that’s the case with reality TV. Back when it was first becoming a thing, we had films like My Little Eye predicting the horrors of things to come, and in a lot of ways, we’ve gotten there in terms of how we exploit others for these shows, coming just short of actually killing them for entertainment. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but there’s a kernel of that disturbing message underneath all of the comedy in Deadtectives.
But Deadtectives isn’t really here to talk about our moral numbing, it’s here to entertain the ghost right out of us by poking fun at the state of ghost-hunting shows, and it does it well. Throughout the first half of the film before said dead body shows up, we get a glimpse into how fake these things really are. Kate runs around with a voice modifier to sound like an angry ghost, and each crew member carries a script to act out during certain beats like bleeding walls, initiated by Bob the effects guy from a control room somewhere in the house (exactly like in the House on Haunted Hill remake for those who are familiar). These people are all quirky actors, presented with a sense of British humor that may feel like cheesy, ectoplasmic goo at times, but Deadtectives is ultimately a pretty clever ghost story.
As far as the horror of Deadtectives goes, there are some effectively chilling images, though it’s all done with a light sense of humor which takes away a lot of the suspense. Aside from the typical Exorcist green-pea soup being spewed about and ghosts appearing in mirrors, the filmmakers have some fun by taking advantage of ghost’s being able to move objects, including one moment where a ghost, unseen by those still living, uses the bloody hand of a dead body to write on the wall. I just wish it was played more for scares and less for comedy, which is often goofier than it actually is laugh out loud funny in the film.
I get the sense that Deadtectives wants to occasionally be frightening, but I just couldn’t take this film seriously. There are a couple of noteworthy jump scares yet no real atmosphere, and the entire film reeks of BBC style, quirky comedy that consistently undercuts the more suspenseful, dramatic moments. That’s what happens when you have literal Ghost Kombat in one moment, but without the gory fatality. The digital effects generally have that cheap, BBC vibe as well. Our misogynistic, psychotic ghost dad (not to be confused with the Bill Cosby Ghost Dad character, though just as scary), should have us shaking in our Vans, what with the giant hook he wields, but even his presence is underwhelming.
Deadtectives is the sort of quirky horror comedy that is only going to appeal to those with a specific taste, but with endearing characters and a clever script, this film is the sort of afternoon watch made for when you want to sit back and enjoy some supernatural, oddball antics.
Deadtectives haunts Shudder on July 18th.
By Matt Konopka