With the current issue of bullying going on within our schools, Death & Cremation is a relevant watch. While it’s not the first movie to be made about bullied teens taking revenge on their adversaries, it’s the first to be made following the rash of unfortunate suicides that have occurred over the last sixteen months. It’s certainly the first to feature a bullied teen taking his murderous cues from a local nutball who he happens to know has taken a few lives of his own. It’s this aspect that sets the film off from others of its ilk. A cinematic soul mate of sorts to Apt Pupil, Death & Cremation explores the very unusual relationship between a high school kid and a local mortician named Stanley.
Jarod (Frailty’s all-grown-up Jeremy Sumpter) is an oddball, Gothed-out high school student who just wants to be left alone. Life by day is rife with bullies and bitchy girls, and by night his prison-like trailer-home doesn’t allow for the type of privacy he would prefer. With his father gone (if dead or deadbeat, this is never explained), and his mother bringing home all manner of dorks to date, it’s safe to say that life sucks for Jarod. He’s an introverted student, prepared to plant himself down on the field and read during gym class while his fellow students participate. Naturally it’s this kind of behavior that causes several of the jocks to bully Jarod, throwing food and rocks at him throughout the day.
Stanley (Brad Dourif) doesn’t fare much better. Though a serial killer who at random bludgeons his victims to death, it’s clear he doesn’t receive much respect either. In fact, when a married couple comes into his funeral home to see about the possibility of embalming a recently diseased member of the family (to which Stanley declines, explaining he only cremates), their teen daughter calls him a fag for seemingly no reason. Coincidentally, this same girl was part of a gaggle of other jocks known for bulling Jarod. It doesn’t take long before Stanley visits the bitchy girl with a sledgehammer, and Jarod notices she has gone missing.
One day, when Jarod sets off to find himself an after-school job, he randomly wanders into Stanley’s funeral home to see about possible employment. Stanley very hesitantly agrees, and one day Jarod finds himself in the basement where unending shelves of unclaimed ashes sit abandoned and sees an urn off by itself with the initials L.W.—initials of the bullying girl recently reported missing. Jarod puts two and two together, but he becomes neither horrified nor excited. But he does become Stanley’s friend. Their friendship soon transcends that of one into mutual understanding…especially when Jarod begins to accumulate bodies of his own.
There is a lot to like in Death & Cremation. The handling of the material alone shows that director/co-writer Justin Steele took the concept seriously, although at some points it’s difficult to discern if certain set pieces were aiming for dark humor as opposed to merely mishandled. But these moments are few and far between. For most of the ride, it’s ghastly and gory, but unfortunately it never quite reaches that level of “touching” the film was going for. The main selling point of the film is between Stanley and Jarod. It’s among the most unorthodox friendship trope you’ll see in films like this, but it wasn’t given as much attention as it should have been. There’s never that “ah-ha!” moment where Stanley realizes that Jarod knows of his murderous lifestyle—the potential for an incredibly dramatic moment laid in waiting, but it just never came to fruition. The realization of Stanley’s serial killer life, and of Jarod’s complete acceptance of it, should have been one not just more present, but present in general. And so, because of this, the power of their relationship did not reach the heights it could have.
I love movies about uneasy alliances. Apt Pupil, as previously mentioned, comes to mind. Collateral as well, if we can jump genres for a moment. And I love movies where your “good” character and your “bad” character come together, and the good become corrupted and the bad find redemption. In Death & Cremation, Jarod becomes inspired by Stanley and he makes that choice to kill; alternatively, Stanley sympathizes with the boy and gives him a job as well as companionship, remembering how life was for him at that age. It’s just a shame this wasn’t explored as much as it should have been.
But that’s not to say the movie is entirely a lost cause, because it’s not at all. Brad Dourif yet again proves that he’s up on that screen for a reason. And while he devolves to appearing less nonsense from time to time, roles like this and that of Doc Cochran in Deadwood showcase the man’s immense range and talent. While the material he is given doesn’t quite match his level talent, it sure is fun to see him kill people with baseball bats and sledgehammers. And he provides a number of emotionally satisfying scenes.
Additionally, a curiosity in the film is the allusion to Stanley’s sexuality, which is never quite explored. In the beginning sequence of the film when Stanley turns down the married couple’s request for a normal embalming service instead of a cremation, the father explains that his brother-in-law has recently died of AIDs. It is after this revelation, and after the family sees the lesions covering Stanley’s face, when the daughter calls him a fag. I suppose, with the family having experienced AIDs within their own family, they can see the warning signs. And despite the daughter’s offensive indication of AIDs being a gay disease, it somehow feels like this was included not to make us hate the daughter (which could have been accomplished with any number of put downs), but to actually provide some additional development for Stanley’s character. And later in the film, Stanley has nightmares about his childhood in which his father abused him on several occasions. Again, while nothing is ever provided in black and white, the abuse suffered by his father, the girl’s labeling, and his lesions point to him being a gay man slowly dying of AIDs….but there’s just one problem: beyond fleshing him out as a character, this never comes into play during the film. Stanley never wonders or confesses that the reason he’s decided to kill those he feels deserves it are because he knows he is dying, and he figures why not do some spring cleaning before he finally succumbs? And he never explains if he has targeted certain victims because of the disease slowly killing him. The "fact" that he's a gay man with AIDs is just kind of…there.
I’m glad to see Jeremy Sumpter still in the game. As you may have read in my Unsung Horror column entry for Frailty, I was impressed with him then for his ability to understand very complex themes that littered that film, but still provide a very realistic—if not the most realistic—reactive performance. In Death & Cremation, his role of Jarod doesn’t allow him to show a wide range of emotions—really every character in the film is pretty one-note—but I still believe him. The character he plays easily fits him, which may have been a service of his rather stable but non-showcase career. A more recognizable face may have derailed the role, but that would be a cheap explanation for why his role is effective. The bullied, miserable, and lonely Jarod isn’t exactly an unfamiliar teenager role, but he brings enough to the table that you believe him. His transformation from a brown-haired, “normal” kid into the black-haired, black-fingernailed Jarod helps him to disappear a little into the morose victim of everyday high school bullshit.
In spite of the shortcomings, I enjoyed Death & Cremation. As I previously mentioned, I always enjoy unorthodox and at-odds relationships, and I appreciated the occasional lapse into dark humor. Besides, Brad Dourif’s performance is reason enough to check it out, so all the rest is just a bonus, ain’t it?