This Schlocktober, Comics Bulletin will be exploring the world of contemporary horror cinema, featuring thirty one notable films released between Halloween 2012 and Halloween 2013. First up is writer/director Todd E. Freeman's Cell Count.
Inspired by his mother's brush with cancer, Freeman devised a story that hearkens back to classic early work by Cronenberg, embracing body horror and science gone wrong, although without Cronenberg's sexual preoccupations. Instead, we have a country being devastated by an unnamed disease and a controversial, possibly illegal, experimental cure. With no other hope, Russell Carpenter (Robert McKeehen) admits his dying wife Sadie (Haley Talbot) to a strangely prison-like treatment facility run by the creepy Dr. Victor Brandt (Christopher Toyne) and his head of security, Officer Raleigh Clark (Eric Newsome).
And then things get weird.
Along with the other patients (played by John Breen, Sean McGrath, Eric Martin Reid, and Adrienne Vogel) are two inmates locked up separately: Timothy "Tiny Tim" Jacobs (Judd Eustice) and Abraham Walker (Ted Rooney). Before everything is said and done, secrets are revealed, violence erupts, and we discover that the Cure has a life of its own.
Oh! And then when everything is said and done, Daniel Baldwin shows up???
Cell Count is a pretty well-paced slow-burn story that doesn't suffer from the limitations that the isolated setting might otherwise force on the narrative. If there's a problem that might push viewers away, it's that the Disease isn't really defined and the ultimate goals of Dr. Brandt aren't clear. We don't really know what the Disease really is or what the Cure actually does. The parasitic aspect of the Cure is nice and disturbing, though.
The script tries to do a lot in the 96 minute runtime, which means that a few elements get short-changed – particularly the way McGrath's character, Mason Dixon, believes that he has knowledge of the future. He actually does know what's coming, but his hallucinations imply that he's also mentally ill and maybe it's all a fantasy. There's also no real explanation as to why "Tiny Tim" is included in the treatment, although he does provide the most grotesque special effect of the film.
The revelation that Walker is actually the former colleague of Dr. Brandt and that he has lived through the Cure repeatedly throws everything into a very different light, but it also undermines some of the danger and anxiety that has been building up to that point. The fact that all of the main characters actually survive to the end also deflates some of the tension. Although that tension is actually just being deferred (which might also annoy some viewers).
The apocalyptic aspect of the final act, while being a strange surprise that isn't introduced clearly, made me fall in love this film. It's a batshit crazy dive into a whole new type of film and has me eagerly awaiting the recently announced Cell Count 2.
When it comes to low-budget horror films, I value imagination and energy over the polished, sanitized vision that we usually get with studio films. Cell Count is not spotless, but it’s a singular vision that works, warts and all.
Paul Brian McCoy is the writer of Mondo Marvel and a regular contributor/editor for Comics Bulletin. His first novel, The Unraveling: Damaged Inc. Book One is available at Amazon US & UK, along with his collection of short stories, Coffee, Sex, & Creation (US & UK). He recently contributed the 1989 chapter to The American Comic Book Chronicles: The 1980s (US & UK) and has kicked off Comics Bulletin Books with Mondo Marvel Volumes One (US & UK) and Two (US & UK). Paul is unnaturally preoccupied with zombie films, Asian cult cinema, and sci-fi television. He can also be found babbling on Twitter at @PBMcCoy.