By Guy Lodge
Vacationing couple Neil and Christine wake up from a heavy night’s boozing on a remote Thai island to find their passports missing and their memories largely blank. No clarity is forthcoming when Neil checks his phone’s photos from the night before, only to find an extended video in which he has rough sex with his wife, before strangling her to death and burying her in a shallow grave. The premise of “Death of Me” is the kind of tidily absurd “whoa, wut” pitch that Charlie Kaufman’s fictitious hack brother Donald might have dreamed up in “Adaptation”: It sounds at once stupidly intriguing and intriguingly stupid, but it has our attention either way. As handled by sometime “Saw”-meister Darren Lynn Bousman, this attractively mounted B-horror maintains that lurid, grabby quality even as its already sketchy ideas devolve into dubious, incoherent exotica.
For followers of Bousman’s work, “Death of Me” now arrives as a minor amuse-bouche ahead of his much-anticipated return to the “Saw” franchise with next year’s delayed “Spiral”: It’s a small-scale genre workout that proves his facility with quick, old-school scares and more insidiously sustained atmospherics. Less proficient is the screenplay by novice writer David Tish and indie duo Ari Margolis and James Morley III (“Black Days”), which squanders a tight “what just happened” setup on a mounting muddle of cod-spiritual lore, depending all too readily for tension on the generalized otherness of a rural Thai community. Though Saban Films is giving the film a theatrical run, “Death of Me” is primed to find its audience on VOD.
After a few misbegotten attempts (including January’s “Fantasy Island”), “Death of Me” firms up the scream-queen credentials of Vietnamese-American action star Maggie Q, whose nervy, physically intrepid presence is at points the one thing standing between the film and outright risibility. As her character, Christine vomits up mud and endures grisly beatings and mutilations, the extremities of the storytelling are harder on her than on Neil (Luke Hemsworth), who’s tasked with looking persistently and understandably baffled that the wife he apparently murdered is very much alive, and equally confused herself.
Stranded on the island as an imminent typhoon brew, the couple attempts to untangle the parallel reality they entered the night before. A heady Buddhist hallucinogenic served to them by enigmatic bar worker Madee (Kat Ingkarat), might have something to do with it; ditto the sinister tribal talisman that keeps appearing around Christine’s neck, which none of the locals are willing to take off her hands. Their chipper Airbnb hostess, American expat Samantha (Alex Essoe), offers sympathy and notional assistance — yet also places rather more stock in the sketchy village doctor (Chatchawan Kamonsakpitak) than he seems to deserve. Meanwhile, everyone on the island appears to be gearing up for an extravagant local festival involving death’s-head masks and baleful parading — no details of which previously emerged in travel journalist Neil’s ample research on the area’s customs. Dr. Moreau’s island had fewer red flags, put it that way.
Bousman and the writers thus trade in the kind of witchy mumbo-jumbo that was a staple of 1940s horror, in which a world of uninvestigated indigenous tradition was cast in a threatening light. Yet the film’s application of such freak-out tactics to the locale of Thailand — with ethnography composed of equal parts local color and screenwriter’s invention — can’t help but feel tacky, even as the script lets itself off the hook by portraying a fictitious island that appears isolated in its bizarre belief system.
Working on location in Thailand, cinematographer Jose David Montero and production designer Sutham Viravandaj use native landscape and architecture to the film’s considerable ambient advantage. Yet there’s an unavoidably touristic feel to the film’s terror too: a dependence on simple foreignness to rattle the audience, and not in ways (as in last year’s surprisingly comparable “Midsommar”) that invite the viewer to consider their bias. (Christine’s multicultural identity, moreover, is glancingly addressed, but not as thoughtfully as it might be.)
Within those dated limitations, then, Bousman’s film pulls off some effectively nasty jolts and jabs: its feverish, whispery, eventually shrieking island-of-lost-souls claustrophobia may be rooted in cliché, but cliché takes root for a reason. “I am so sick of this cryptic bulls—,” Christine wails midway through proceedings, and less genre-immersed audiences may be inclined to agree with her. “Cryptic bulls—” is what “Death of Me” does most capably — with some verve, even — but it could set its sights higher.