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Wednesday, March 4, 2009

DEAD IN 3 DAYS -- DVD review by porfle

At first, the Austrian horror film DEAD IN 3 DAYS, aka In 3 Tagen bist du tot (2006), seems to have all the makings of yet another forgettable teen slasher flick. But it quickly proves to be a sober, atmospheric murder mystery-thriller with believable characters and a suspenseful story that held my interest till the very end.

A close-knit group of childhood friends celebrating their graduation from school each start getting a text message on their cell phones that reads: "Dead in 3 days." When one of them disappears from a dance, the others report it to the police but aren't taken seriously until his body is found floating in a nearby lake, bound and weighed down by an anchor. Then, when Nina (Sabrina Reiter) is abducted from her home and barely escapes alive from the hooded killer's lair, it becomes clear that the group of friends have been marked for death. So they have three days to figure out who's after them and why.

An early incident in which they run over a small deer on an isolated road and are forced to club the suffering animal to death brings the inferior I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER to mind, but fortunately this merely hints at a more extreme occurrence in their past that binds them together and will soon come back to haunt them. (Which was a relief since I wasn't all that interested in watching a horror movie about a deer avenger.) This establishes a tone of shared guilt that will increase as the story progresses. With the first murder, which is shown in agonizing detail from the victim's point of view, it's clear that no one is safe and that anything can happen.

The teens, thank goodness, are fairly well-developed characters and not just cardboard cutouts. They work at part-time jobs, argue with their parents, have unstable home lives, etc. and aren't always entirely likable. Even when they have sex, it's unexploitive and not simply to get us stoked up for their slaughter by-the-numbers. The fact that we care about them creates genuine tension instead of just the usual build-up to the next jump scare.

That said, this is a pretty scary movie at times, with touches of old-school graphic violence. The "fish tank" scene is well-staged and harkens back to 80s films like HE KNOWS YOU'RE ALONE and SILENT PARTNER--as soon as Clemens (Michael Steinocher) notices the tank's dangerously sharp edge while filling it with fish, it's pretty obvious that somebody's eventually going to have a bad throat day.

While these instances of gory violence are shocking, they're not really what the movie is about. Ultimately it's the mounting tension and a heavy atmosphere of suspense and dread that drive the story and keep us on the edge of our seats. Directors Andreas Prochaska and Stewart St. John involve the viewer with unique camera angles (especially a good use of overhead and POV shots) and consistently compelling photography. This is a very visual movie, with muted colors--even the daylight scenes have a hazy look--and the deliberate pace gives us time to be immersed in the mood.

Certain dramatic moments are emphasized by switching to slow-motion and/or silence. When the first victim's body is found, there's no dialogue for several minutes, with only the images telling the story and conveying the emotions. It's a reminder of how effective silent movies could be at times, without all the noise and chatter. At other times there's even a Dario Argento-like quality in the use of interiors and exteriors to help build an overall sense of unease. In some shots you might almost think it was Argento's camera lingering over eerie windswept trees or prowling down shadowy hallways. All of this is bound together by a recurring water motif, the reason for which becomes clear at the end.

The DVD is in 1.85:1 widescreen with Dolby Digital sound and your choice of English dub or original German soundtrack with subtitles. There are no bonus features.

Once the surviving members of the original group figure out what's going on and who's after them, they decide to sneak away from police protection and take on the killer themselves. Incredibly dumb, yes, but it does lead to a bloody, intense finale that left me with that special glow that comes from having just watched a really good horror movie. For its rich, inventive visual style alone, DEAD IN 3 DAYS is well worth watching.
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