Mental Illness As a Trap
“Dead Dicks” is a Canadian production directed by Chris Bavota and Lee Paula Springer. It was made on a very tight budget but with fine talent. Filled with twists and turns, it’s a nuanced and is, at times, a humorous look at how mental illness can feel like a trap for caregivers and those suffering and.
Richie (Heston Horwin) is not a vampire, but he is the sort of real-life monster. His little sister Becca (Jillian Harris) has been his primary victim and enabler. She has put her life on hold to deal with her brother’s mental health and substance abuse issues. Just when she believes her brother can’t shock her anymore, she finds herself face-to-face with two versions of Richie—one naked and alive, the other dead and clothed.
Becca was excited by being accepted into a graduate nursing program, but she was unsure how to break the news to Richie. Then everything changed. As Richie semi-coherently explains, he might have died by misadventure, but returned through a weird portal that mysteriously appeared in his bedroom. In fact, he quite irresponsibly repeated the process a few times to see if it was real but that left several dead bodies for Becca to clean up before Matt (Matt Keyes), the irate downstairs neighbor, called the cops and the landlord.
The film is fascinating but the title is totally misleading. There is black humor, but it is deadly serious in the way it presents the impact of mental illness and addiction on close family members. There is no suggestion any of this is the product of symbolism-heavy delusion. The fantastical stuff is very real in-world and it becomes steadily more real as we get the full truth.
When Becca hears music blasting from Richie’s top-floor apartment, and after a meeting with his annoyed downstairs neighbor Matt, it is clear that this is a regular disturbance. Once she’s inside Richie’s place, she discovers something much more disturbing:— a dead body in the closet and the corpse looks just like Richie, even though he’s still very much alive. Becca is understandably upset and confused, and Richie insists on demonstrating exactly what’s going on. Once she has witnessed this strange occurrence for herself, the question is now how to deal with it, and the answer becomes stranger and stranger.
Developments keep changing the stakes in different ways, and they all feel plausible once we accept the paranormal, and visceral, phenomenon at the story’s center. Even with just three characters in the single apartment, directors Bavota and Springer find ways to twist and turn the plot in ways we don’t see coming. They effectively modulate the tone as well, punctuating the generally grim and disquieting atmosphere with moments of black humor at just the right points.
What really makes the film work is the way we see the relationship between Becca and Richie and their excellent performances. No matter how outlandish the proceedings become, the story is that of a woman trying to maneuver through her conflicting feelings for the brother she loves but who also frustrates her. We experience this strange story through Becca’s point of view. Richie eschews typically “crazy” tics to give us an individual who’s obsessive and desperate and just doesn’t seem to understand how inappropriate some of his behavior is. He is maddening, but we can also see why Becca tries to protect him from both himself and the circumstances they’ve become involved in.