Retro Ramblings

Reports from the dusty corners of filmland

Stare at that picture. Try to stare at it for as long as you can without blinking. Did you blink? That’s longer than you’ll actually see Jemaine in the real movie.

I can understand Revolver picking up Diagnosis: Death. It probably came quite cheap, and had the great selling point of featuring both Conchords and their manager. They even put on the box about how essential it was that Flight of the Conchords fans buy it. I saw this, was intrigued, but also very suspicious. And I was right to be suspicious. This is a film that could have been written and produced by robots that had been programmed with horror cliche knowledge.

Is New Zealand a very small place? It appears to have such a tiny population that anyone that wants to make a film instantly knows everyone else in the industry. No matter how poor your script or weak your leading man, you can get Weta Workshop and Weta Digital to do your special effects and pull in the three most famous funny people currently flying the Kiwi flag. Now this may mean that bad films get more attention than they really deserve, but on the plus side it really makes me want to move to New Zealand to make a movie.A few years ago the black-comedy Black Sheep (2006) managed to pull off the same trick with considerably better results. The country has a history of producing brilliant horror-comedy, thanks almost entirely to Peter Jackson. Think about it, to New Zealanders this means if you want to get support for your film from Weta you should try the same thing. And for the makers of this film, it was business time. Beyond any reasonable explanation, they got funding to produce this film, with cameo appearances and half-decent CGI to go with it.

So, down to the film itself. The picture above introduces us to Andre, a teacher who isn’t above taking bribes from pushy parents. He seems to be an aimless drifter looking for solace from the otherwise empty void that is his life. Kind of like most teachers. He goes one-night stands with all the ladies of the world. He manages to pull a leggy blonde and seems pretty impressed with himself.   Sadly for him he has a rare form of bowel cancer and is given literally weeks to live. The news is delivered to him by Rhys Darby in the only truly funny scene in the whole film. Rhys Darby knows how to do comedy from behind a desk, and he demonstrates it here. This is the only scene during which I laughed out loud.

Andre has hurt feelings, so Rhys happens to mention that a friend of his is involved in an experimental drug trial, and this could be the only chance he has of being cured. This friend appears to be the Conchord who has not yet appeared in the film, Bret McKenzie. Thankfully, just as I was about to sue Revolver for making false claims about this film, Bret actually has a pretty decent role in the film. He is the hospital orderly who works alongside the psychotic Nurse Bates. They called her Bates. Not exactly subtle writing here. Bret has the occasionally funny moment in the film, such as when he is required to administer our hero a suppository. But then you’d have to really struggle not to make that funny.

The plot now goes roughly as follows: all of the other patients in the drug trial are old people, apart from a conveniently placed barely-legal schoolgirl Juliet, who just happens to have a rare form of cancer as well. She’s the most beautiful girl in the room, which is not hard given the competition. She is doing the trial whilst writing a paper on her favourite writer Charlotte Mansfield, loosely based on Sylvia Plath. She wrote some profound stuff from a feminist perspective and then committed suicide. Wouldn’t you know, it turns out that this hospital ward just happened to be a mental unit, where Charlotte Mansfield killed her own son and then hung herself. Oh, and by the way, Nurse Bates just happens to be her sister.

Once the drugs kick in boom! Andre and Juliet fall for each other and have sex, despite the obscene age gap and the fact that he has to wear adult nappies. I think he told her he was freaky. She told him she didn’t want to die a virgin. Is there any better line for a guy in a movie to hear? They are also sharing hallucinations. Are there ghosts and spooky things happening, or is it the drugs? You can probably guess. They are presented with puzzle pieces that may help them uncover the truth about Mansfield and her mysterious suicide. These puzzle pieces fell out of a jigsaw box for a five-year old. Seriously, it does not take a genius to see where this is going. Suffice it to say, by the end of the film it’s au revoir Nurse Bates.

The main trouble with this film is that it does not know what it is trying to be. It’s borrowed heavily from J-horror like The Eye (2008) and Ring (1998), only it’s not very scary and when it’s trying to attempt the over-the-top grossness of Braindead (1992) it just seems a bit crass. You can do squelchy horror if it’s a proper comedy, but for the majority of the running time there is no comedy at all. There’s also some weird moments where it appears they are both being stalked by Death, or scary angels, like in The Frighteners (1996). And when they have sex the camera pans upwards and we are treated to CGI skeletons banging bones in a variety of positions near the hospital room ceiling. The comedy seems like an afterthought, and consequently waters down the horror even more than it already was. The plot just veers from weak comedy moment to weak horror cliche like a car driven by an alcoholic. The plot is very inconistent and contradicts itself several times. Like a Dario Argento film, this can be described as style over substance. Only with no style to speak of. Even the title doesn’t make sense. Are they saying that because Andre has incurable cancer his diagnosis is death? Because that’s pretty tasteless, and not in a good way. And although they experience halucinations, at no point is it suggested that their lives are in danger.

Speaking of which, what in the hell are they suggesting with this “shock” moment? Bret becomes possessed out of nowhere, and by what? There is no real suggestion in the film of there being a demon of some kind. The bad girl nurse, with possible lesbian predilictions (revealed in an odd scene where the schoolgirl persuades Bates to give her a massage, and then proceeds to moan and writhe like she’s turned on) is not all she seems, but by no stretch is she some kind of demon woman. The ghosts are that of Mansfield and her murdered son, and they seem to want vengeance, not to possess people. It’s just like the director was looking for horror tropes they could use with no real consideration as to whether they worked for the benefit of the film.

Andre is the prince of parties even though he makes a pretty wet leading man, and I’m not just referring to his nappies. He lacks charisma and spends 95% of the running time in his pyjamas. He would never pull a hot schoolgirl unless he’d written the script himself, which he did. That’s how to make sure you look good in a movie folks. Write and produce the thing. By the end of the film all the wrongs are righted and good prevails. And for some bizarre reason they are both cured of their incurable cancers despite being on the placebo sugalumps for the whole duration of the trial. A kiss is not a contract, and neither is sex on a hospital bed, but the two of them seem to still be together at the end, despite the fact that she’s not dying any more and can afford to be more fussy. Perhaps they’re just friends. After his inappropriate behaviour I’m assuming he won’t be able to go back to being a teacher.

I wanted to like Diagnosis: Death, but it just didn’t work for me. I’m often prepared to overlook certain things in films if the overall experience is okay, but there was just too much that was wrong here. It feels like a student film that was given too much money and not enough editorial rigour. It had the basic elements of an interesting film, or a funny film, or a scary film, but it fluffs all three and manages to be none of these things, which is a shame. We don’t even get any Hiphopopatmus vs. Rhymenocerous action. I don’t think it will damage the careers of the Conchords, although I will think slightly less of Bret from now on. Somewhat suprisingly it looks as though the director, Jason Stutter, persuaded Jemaine Clement to star in his next film, Predicament (2010). New Zealand really must be a small place.

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