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Non-Review Review: She Dies Tomorrow

She Dies Tomorrow is very much a modern indie horror movie, in that’s decidedly absurdist and surrealist, and perhaps scariest in a vague existential sense.

It’s interesting to consider the development of this particular strand of modern horror cinema. In some ways, it reflects the development of the indie comedy in the early years of the twenty-first century, once it became clear that these sorts of films could be financially and critically successful. This led to a strange situation where movies that were essentially off-kilter dramas were marketed as comedies, films like A Serious Man, Nebraska or The Kids Are All Right. (This approach to comedy arguably even spilled out into television, where even comedies adopted a prestige sheen.)

It’s not the end of the world…

Something similar has been happening in terms of prestige horror. A large part of this is due to the emergence of smaller studios supporting genre fare from writers and directors with strong visions – Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, Jordan Peele’s Get Out, Trey Edward Shults’ It Comes at Night, Ari Aster’s Hereditary. These films blended the sly aesthetics and stylistic sensibilities of independent cinema with the trappings of horror, producing a strand of horror that was reasonably successful, highly praised, and strongly distinctive.

Of course, all of those films are drawing from the genre’s rich history. Hereditary is perhaps the most obvious example, and it’s possible to draw a clear line between Hereditary and New Hollywood experiments with the genre in films like The Exorcist or Don’t Look Now. As such, it isn’t that this is an entirely new approach to horror that came out of nowhere. Instead, it is a logical extrapolation of certain trends and sensibilities, pushed to their logical extremes.

Looking out for herself.

She Dies Tomorrow clearly fits within that framework of modern indie horror cinema, along with films like The Lodge or The Lighthouse. However, She Dies Tomorrow pushes itself much mroe confidently towards the rhythms and structures of a blackly comic psycho drama. She Dies Tomorrow is a film about existential loneliness, the frustrating death drive, and suffocating dinner parties populated by people who can barely stand one another. It is very much a standard low-budget indie drama. It’s just flavoured with a dash of existential horror.

It’s a cocktail that doesn’t quite work. Writer and director Amy Seimetz offers a film that is intentionally disjointed and disconnected, but one that is ultimately more frustrating than it aims to be. She Dies Tomorrow has a number of striking images and interesting ideas, but punctuates them with scenes that play almost as a parody of arthouse drama.

Dial it back.

She Dies Tomorrow is driven by a number of interesting ideas. Amy is convinced that she is going to die tomorrow. This fear permeates her every waking moment. She does not know how she is going to die, or who will be responsible. She just knows, with absolute fatalistic certainty that she will not live past the next day. So Amy devotes herself to the process of dying. She shops for urns. She contemplates having her body turned into a leather jacket.

Jane seems to have lived through all of this before. She worries about her sister’s destructive tendencies, but also dismisses them. This time, however, there is a slight complication. Amy’s certainty seems to be contagious. It is an idea that has gone viral. Somehow it makes the leap from Amy into Jane. “I feel like you put this idea of dying in my head and now I’m paranoid,” Jane explains, the closest that the movie offers to a justification for what is happening. However, it’s not really paranoia. Instead, it’s certainty. And it spirals outwards from Jane.

Feeling blue…

This is a potent metaphor. After all, modern society is obsessed with the notion that ideas are inherently “viral”, that they can spread like pathogens through the collective consciousness. This is obviously particularly true in the age of social media, where people are continuously bombard with apocalyptic information. She Dies Tomorrow perhaps has greater resonance in the era of the pandemic, but it also taps into a more universal anxiety that has been amplified by the technological and social shifts of the twenty-first century.

Even outside of the use of an idea-as-a-contagion, this existential nightmare is not a bad hook for a movie. The fear of death and destruction is one of the most universal human experiences, and it is interesting to bring that all boiling to the surface. Indeed, there are shades of Lars Von Trier’s Melancholy to She Dies Tomorrow, particularly in the way that the film takes a recognisable horror movie premise – a riff on It Follows or Countdown – and applies it to a bunch of middle-class characters from an arthouse drama.

Hold it together.

She Dies Tomorrow is at its best when it embraces this simple concept, when it explores what dying tomorrow might mean for Amy or Jane. She Dies Tomorrow pointedly ties Amy’s death drive to her life impulses. Her confrontation of the realisation is shot in rich and vivid reds and blues that recall the cinematography of indie drama Waves, highlighting her emotional response. There’s an element of almost sexual euphoria to it, linking thanatos and eros. Her hand spasms as she considers what urn might hold her remains. One of her dying impulses is to go riding in a dune buggy.

However, these interesting insights and smaller moments are lost in the film’s disconnected structure. She Dies Tomorrow tries to capture a sense of that certainty spiraling outward, of the idea of imminent death spreading from one individual to another. It does this through a variety of linking scenes, featuring performances from a variety of actors, which serve to sap the momentum of the film. At one point, Jane arrives at a party. She’s going to pass on her own fear of death to everybody there, but only after an endless scene discussing dolphins.

To be fair, maybe dying tomorrow wouldn’t be the worst thing…

She Dies Tomorrow exists within that suffocating middle-class environment of so much modern independent drama, those insulated worlds shaped by a vaguely-defined existential ennui. There is perhaps something clever in this, with She Dies Tomorrow effectively swapping out the generic two-dimensional teenage characters who populate so much horror for the generic two-dimensional middle-class characters who populate so much independent drama. The characters of She Dies Tomorrow drink wine at unending dinner parties and lounge all day by luxury pools.

She Dies Tomorrow tries to have it both ways here. Characters mock Susan’s obsession with dolphins, the camera panning across their glazed-over faces as she goes on and on. The point is to underscore how boring and insufferable the dinner party scene is. However, there’s also a sense in which Susan’s rambling monologue is supposed to offer some thematic insight. After all, dolphins “are really humans without society”, and their obsession with sex serves as a thematic counterpoint to the lead characters’ preoccupation with death.

Purple haze.

She Dies Tomorrow contains far too many of these pointless diversions, many of which are built around recognisable actors in tiny roles. Amy Seimetz seems to have cast actors like Josh Lucas and Michelle Rodriguez in small supporting roles for practical reasons – their scenes look like they could have been shot around the actors’ availability. However, the scenes exist as disconnected showcases, full of rambling disconnected dialogue that gestures clumsily towards profundity but never really gets there.

It’s a shame, because there’s some interesting material here. She Dies Tomorrow would perhaps be a much stronger film if it opted for Amy and Jane’s existential horror rather than indulging in the trappings of indie drama. It struggles to find a way to play the two off one another meaningfully, but that failure is instructive. It illustrates how precarious the balance is within films like The Babadook or It Comes at Night.

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