Screens at CIFF: 10/11 & 10/16
World premiere: 7 July, 2013, NeuchΓ’tel International Fantastic Film Festival

Short version: heterosexual sex turns a lesbian into a leprous vampire. I have no idea in which direction the over-the-top alarmism faces in writer-director Eric England's Contracted, but it's hilarious either way, and that's even without the incredibly shallow attempt made for the first third or so of the movie to make this a message picture about the terror felt by sexually active young people when they think they've contracted an STD (which, for that matter, is what's happened; the "vampires = unintended consequences of sex" metaphor, which has absolutely never been my favorite interpretation of that particular folkloric monster, is given an emphatically straightforward reading here). It's unquestionably noble when a genre film attempts to engage with the culture around it in an active, open way, but nobility carries you a couple of inches, and it takes talent to cover the next few miles. And talent, that's something that is present in Contracted almost exclusively in its make-up design, which is sickeningly authentic, even as it is acutely well-tied to character development, doing more work to suggest the deep-rooted terror of having your body fighting against you than the screenplay and the acting combined.

The movie starts off promisingly enough, with overdubbed audio so tinny that in my notes I didn't even think to describe what was actually being discussed, and a painfully pretentious credits sequence with orchids falling through black space. And then, finally, we get to Samantha (Najarra Townsend), an intensely miserable twentysomething: her girlfriend, Nikki (Katie Stegeman) isn't returning her calls - probably because when we ultimately meet her, Nikki is a tough punk chick, and Sam is so scrawny and limpid that it's amazing she can open a can of soda without crying - and now Sam is absolutely certain that she is doomed to die horribly alone. Despondent and anxious to keep herself distracted, she attends a party held by friend, and possessive ex-lover Alice (Alice Macdonald), and here she manages to do nothing but make everyone around her feel somewhat unhappy and uncomfortable, except for the puppy-eyed Riley (Matt Mercer) who seems convinced that the power of his crush will be enough to turn Sam straight. As it happens, Sam does end up having sex with a man that night, the stranger BJ (indie horror producer of note Simon Barrett), though "has sex" implies something that isn't quite the mostly-unambiguous rape that we depicted.

The next day, Sam feels very poorly, especially when she starts gushing blood out of her vagina, the first of many symptoms that her body has simply stopped working. And from here, Contracted commits itself fully to being the most squishy, gross body horror film you could ever hope for, as an increasingly confused Sam tries and fails to have her condition diagnosed, while her right eye fills with blood and her left eye goes completely necrotic, and her fingernails start to fall off, and her veins begin pressing right against the edges of her skin like they're trying to pop out altogether. Dealing with this is made harder because of the hard time she's getting from an unsympathetic employer, because this isn't just a probing study of young adult sexual behaviors, but also of their economic travails, dammit. It's social commentary. Also because Sam works in a restaurant, as a waitress, and it is well known that both bosses and customers at restaurants would prefer sick people visibly oozing all over the food to sack up and keep doing their jobs.

Meanwhile, Sam is getting even more grief from her mother (Caroline Williams), as the young woman has recently moved back in to forestall economic crisis; Mom is absolutely convinced that her daughter is back on whatever cocktail of recreational drugs ruined her life the last time. Any claim that Contracted is depicting human beings as they exist in the wild can, through dint of sheer willpower, make it all the way to this point, but they cannot accommodate Sam's mother, a ludicrous parody written to be a pandering "parents just don't understand" harpy, and played by Williams with a staggering sense of Acting, Goddammit that recalls to a wonderful degree another movie mom, the one who bizarrely tosses-off the line "It's definitely cancer" in the legendary The Room. I can't pretend that Contracted is that gorgeously good-bad at the level of that film, though more actors than just Williams are at a fervid level which recalls in tenor if not necessarily in depth of anti-accomplishment that most iconically bad movie of modern days. I won't name names, but Alice Macdonald's is the one I would have named; she is shrill and giddy and hilariously terrible.

Townsend herself is mediocre and no worst; but she's not been given a good character to play in the first place, and in ways that are critical flaws. It's probably not vital that Sam be likable - and she's excruciatingly unlikable in the tiny time we get to know her before she starts corroding - but she has to at least be grating and irksome in compelling ways, ways that make her feel like a unique but real person. Sam is just a fucking wet rag: her relationship woes are the most pedestrian possible, it's hard not to fully agree with Nikki from the first.

In the meantime, England populates the film with rattly lines of dialogue that expressly communicate information that the audience needs to know, dispensing with such trivia as making people who act like people; and the film relies to such an incredible degree on the goopy make-up for its horror that the director doesn't even bother with niceties like pacing or atmosphere. Instead he follows with goggle-eyed amazement as Sam has painfully banal interactions with fake people. This could all be unendurable; as it is, the zestiness of the scenario and the easy silliness of the execution make it delirious, accidental fun.