Contracted (2013)

Review first published by Grolsch FilmWorks

Samantha (Najarra Townsend) is a woman in transition. She is a lesbian caught between her still beloved ex Nikki (Katie Stegeman), her adoring best friend Alice (Alice MacDonald) and her less welcome admirer Riley (Matt Mercer). She is a former addict trying to stay on the straight and narrow. She is a wayward daughter who cannot wait to escape the overbearing embrace of her Christian mother (Caroline Williams). She is an amateur botanist hoping to win a big cash prize for her latest hybrid flowers, but in the meantime waiting tables at a restaurant to make ends meet. And, after being slipped a date-rape drug by creepy uninvited guest ‘BJ’ (Simon Barrett, writer of Adam Wingard‘s A Horrible Way to Die and You’re Next) at Alice’s party, she is now harbouring a sexually transmitted disease that is rapidly turning her world upside down.

Unravelling over three tumultuous days in Samantha’s life, Contracted sets its heroine’s personal dramas and dilemmas against the spiralling symptomatology of her infection, fusing psychological insights with full-on body horror, and leading slowly but surely towards an ending that is also a new beginning in this young woman’s metamorphosis. As Sam’s rash rapidly necrotises, as her menstrual flow becomes a river of blood and gore, as her eyes become shot and rheumy, as her lips develop blisters, as her hair, nails and teeth begin to fall out, her mother’s suspicions of a drugs relapse seem all at once entirely understandable and way off the mark. Most of all, sweet, compliant, passive Sam is turning into someone altogether more aggressive and irrepressibly appetitive – but as that is a particular kind of character we have seen a million times before in genre films, writer/director Eric England wisely focuses more on her anguished process of becoming than on her end state, and enables Sam’s grim transformation to be seen as something of a darkly liberating triumph over herself.

With its date-rape, orchids and grubs,Contracted might be regarded as horror’s answer to Upstream Colour – although Shane Carruth’s film, for all its odd excursions, did not open with an impressionistic scene of necrophilia in a morgue. In fact there are images of death throughout Contracted – but part of the message, amidst all the break-ups and breakdowns, the decline and the rot, is that when something dies, something new is born. In this case, it is not just Sam, but genre itself, that is being torn apart and put back together again in a refreshingly defamiliarised, hybrid form.

strap: Eric England’s body horror locates in a young botanist’s harrowing transformation the birth of a familiar genre in hybrid form

Anton Bitel