Crossing Over: “DEATH SENTENCE”Fearful Features,Movies/TV,News Ken W. Hanley
Welcome, FANGORIA Readers, to CROSSING OVER, our newest column that highlights the films, series and content out there outside of horror that is fashioned towards or pays tribute to our beloved genre. By shining a light onto these projects, FANGORIA hopes to open a world of entertainment perfect for fright fans that lies just beyond the borders of the horror community. So without further ado…
While James Wan is considered a contemporary master of horror following the INSIDIOUS films, SAW and THE CONJURING, there was a time where Wan’s future in filmmaking wasn’t quite set, choosing to do a pair of risky, original films rather than follow the SAW franchise in the director’s chair. One of those titles was DEAD SILENCE, the puppet horror film that has gained much more acclaim in retrospect despite being a financial and critical disappointment on release. The other is DEATH SENTENCE, an underrated tale about revenge, retaliation and justice in the wake of a senseless murder. While DEATH SENTENCE is much more of a drama than an outright action film or horror film, Wan’s penchant for suspense, tension and bloodletting make DEATH SENTENCE feel like the bloody, contemporary cousin to gritty revenge films of the ‘60s and ‘70s.
For those unfamiliar, DEATH SENTENCE follows two families who collide during a violent gang initiation. The grieving family- an upper middle class household- finds coping with their loss difficult, as the law cannot give proper justice to their dead son, who was on the cusp on a bright future. The offending family- an inner city family ingrained into the criminal underworld- operates with reckless abandon, causing trouble outside of the eye of the justice system. With no options left and no way to cope, a grieving father takes it upon himself to avenge his son and sets off a chain of events that will change his life as he knows it.
While much bleaker than anything Wan has done before or since- yes, including SAW-, Wan injects a ton of passion into this project, operating outside of the horror sandbox for the first time to deliver hard-hitting action and a stylish world of his own creation. Perhaps Wan’s smartest decision is to approach DEATH SENTENCE with a certain grounded atmosphere- not enough to discount the visual flair and some of the revenge movie tropes, but enough to make the transformation of our protagonist from 9-to-5 office worker to suicidal street soldier believable. Yet while Wan’s depiction of DEATH SENTENCE spares the audience complex hand-to-hand combat or destructive action movie shootouts (with the exception of one “last stand” sequence), he allows himself to experiment as a filmmaker to keep the action and drama flow easier; in fact, the infamous “parking garage” sequence would remain one of his most stunning cinematic achievements until tossing cars out of planes in FURIOUS 7.
However, with Wan still best known for SAW up to that point, you better believe that DEATH SENTENCE appeals to the horror crowd, with several moments of bloody violence and palpable tension throughout the film. However, instead of self-mutilating trap scenarios or supernatural tongue-stealing hags, DEATH SENTENCE offers a very human type of horror; a horror that could follow you home, break into your house and do as they please with nothing you could do about it. In fact, Wan is at his strongest in DEATH SENTENCE when he removes the fantasy elements from the “revenge fantasy” scenario, and by the time the gruesome finale of the film begins, the action gets messy and morbid immediately.
But perhaps DEATH SENTENCE will most appeal to horror fans in the way that it is shot and executed as if it was a horror film. There’s not a single shot, plot point or moment that atmospherically feels conventional, and by keeping things slightly askew and off-putting, it goes a long way into putting dread into sequences that normally wouldn’t call for it. It’s a risky move, but one that allows DEATH SENTENCE to be far more unique and creepy than most movies that fall into the drama/thriller/action mold.