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Film Review: ‘City of Dead Men’

Variety logo Variety 12/16/2016 Dennis Harvey
© Provided by Variety

The combination of raves, hallucinogens, wild youth, and pagan rituals in a creepy former mental asylum ought to add up to something a lot more exciting than “City of Dead Men.” This quasi-horror feature debut for director Kirk Sullivan and scenarist Andrew Poston features slick visual packaging on modest means. But there’s not much substance to be found in its murky story of a rootless American getting involved with some vaguely rebellious, possibly demon-worshiping skateboarder types in Medellín. Though VOD outfit Gravitas Ventures is opening the U.S.-Colombia co-production on a handful of U.S. screens Dec. 16, including Hollywood’s Arena CineLounge and San Francisco’s Roxie, it’s sure to make more of a (still-limited) impact on demand.

Michael (Jackson Rathbone of the “Twilight” series) is in a sense back home — he was born in Medellín, then shipped north to an unloved California military father when his Colombian mother died. But his return many years later, triggered by guilt over a younger sibling’s accidental death, finds him just scraping by in various not-quite-legal ways. Discovered sleeping in an unlocked car, he’s saved from the angry owner’s fists by passer-by Melody (Maria Mesa). She invites him to “a little party” at a location that turns out to be fairly far-flung. It’s a former psychiatric hospital whose current squatters include smirkingly sinister Diego (Diego Boneta from TV’s “Scream Queens”), ringleader to a group of like young outcasts.

Michael is allowed to stay — a decrepit private room with bed in this odd place is still an upgrade for him — though he’s expected to become “one of us” by imbibing mysterious substances and, under the influence, shooting his own reflection in a mirror. After this faux “death” and a few other “rites of passage,” he’s considered a fellow “Dead Man,” free to “Live like you’re already dead.” This does not immediately appear to mean much beyond reckless skateboarding, tagging, robbing and beating people, plus of course partying at the “hospital’s” nightly raves. But membership also apparently comes with disturbing visions of the institution’s past (which may have encompassed insidious “experiments” on children) as well as his own dead brother. When Michael finds an unsettling mask, an older local tells him such items have a long history of use in tribal rituals involving suicide and the spirit world.

All this is fine as a starting premise. Unfortunately, “City” is the kind of film where just when we finally feel that premise is about to lead somewhere, the closing credits roll. There are lots of interchangeable jump scares, albeit surprisingly little in the way of violence (let alone sex). The intersection between supernatural and pseudo-scientific malfeasance remains somewhat under-defined; by the time characters take a stab at explaining what’s going on, it’s hard to care enough to pay close attention.

If the actors are just passable, it must be allowed the writing doesn’t give them a lot to work with. While “City” doesn’t ultimately deliver much in the way of suspense, payoff, or even dead men for that matter, it does look good, with Joshua Reis’ widescreen photography frequently bathed in psychedelic-Gothic coloration worthy of late 1970s Dario Argento. Other tech and design contributions are decent.

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