By Andrew Buckner
Rating: **** out of *****.
Death Count (2022), from director Michael Su and screenwriter Michael Merino (with revisions by Rolfe Kanefsky), is a lean, efficient, captivating, and grisly take on Saw (2004) style horror pictures. After a visually bravura and claustrophobic commencing acknowledgements segment, Su’s offering even begins in a related manner to James Wan’s previously stated masterpiece. Continually, there is an explicit mention of Saw, as well as the narratively similar Hostel (2005) from director Eli Roth, in one sly late first act sequence. It involves a montage of news reports. Aside from being an opportunity to address the oft-utilized theme of the operation, the sadistic underbelly of The Internet, this short episode is also a refreshing nod to the photoplays from which it evokes motivation. The presence of Costas Mandylor, who deftly enacted Detective Lieutenant Mark Hoffman in Saw III (2006) through Saw: The Final Chapter (2010) and just as capably depicts the wonderfully ominous Warden in Su’s latest effort, greatly enhances this correlation.
Michael Madsen, who magnificently portrays Detective Casey, delightfully offers his gruff, commanding charm to the material. His bits of dark humor also pepper the proceedings. Yet, none of these items are employed so frequently that they take away from the superbly fashioned and anxiety-fueled tone of the enterprise. The beautifully orchestrated mood of the article skillfully permeates the appropriately brisk 81-minute attempt from the initial frame to the last.
The story concerns a group of eight strangers who find themselves in a foreign environment. They are isolated in holding cells and cannot recall how they got to be in such a situation. Their conditions become even more dire when the frightful Warden announces that they are being forced to play a deadly game. It is one which involves getting the most “likes” on social media. This is achieved by partaking in violent escapades, all of which have a ten-second time limit per unwilling contestant, that revolve around self-harm.
It’s exactly the type of plot one would expect from a tale of this ilk. The characters are also familiar archetypes. The exposition and general development they are handed is satisfactorily dispersed yet garden variety. Even the inevitable climactic reveal of why these individuals were gathered and how they are connected follows suit. The dialogue the central figures are handed is sharper and more successful. Nonetheless, it still falls under the banner of what spectators foresee from such an outing.
Notwithstanding, the film is relentless in terms of its taut pacing and same said tension. The project expertly erects its setup in the initial ten minutes of the venture. From herein, it imaginatively crafts increasingly macabre ordeals for our leads to endure. The account is just as creative in its plentiful and exceptionally well done gory bits. A courtesy of the confident guidance of the vehicle from Su, the solid script, and the all-around high-caliber performances in the construction, the suspense rarely wavers. It is smoothly concocted from the engaging and enigmatic opening to the grimly gratifying conclusion. The latter cleverly hints at a potential sequel.
What is just as impressive is the fascinating way in which the affair combines numerical, literary, and sonic clues which may aid in the contributors’ survival in the second half of the fiction. The quickness and unpredictability with which most of the cast gets slaughtered in the mesmerizing first act is just as noteworthy. Such measures create a welcome balance to the more routine beats of the composition. It also makes the endeavor far more palpable in the nerve-shredding anticipation it brilliantly builds.
From a technical perspective, the work is equally stalwart. The cinematography from Su and music from Scott Glasgow is atmospheric and immersive. I especially enjoyed the incorporation of the fitting track from Psycho Synner, the Jeremy Spencer and Shawn McGee penned “The Torture Never Stops” (2021), during the enthralling end credits. Moreover, the editing from Jeremy Wanek, costume design by Joe Lujan, sound, makeup, stunts, and effects are all outstanding.
Also identified as Numbers, Death Count is a scrappy, in-your-face midnight movie. It isn’t as groundbreaking as the features from which it derives inspiration. Regardless, it will assuredly please those of us who are always frantically searching for a stellar dose of grueling cinematic terror. A Mahal Empire, Mezek Films, and Blaen-Y-Maes Bootleg Films production, Su’s exercise is twisted fun. It’s also one of the best genre undertakings of the year.
Death Count will be released in North America on July 19th, 2022.