Dead Mail

Dead Mail (2024)

Dead Mail had its World Première at SXSW 2024

“I suppose if you’re lonely enough, you open your mind to just about anything”, says Ann (Micki Jackson) when she learns from her post office co-worker Bess (Susan Priver) about male-order brides. Male loneliness, and the lengths to which it will drive men, are key themes in Dead Mail, the latest from writer/directors Kyle McConaghy and Joe DeBoer (BAB, 2020). 

Certainly Ann and Bess’ colleague Jasper (Tomas Boykin) is a lonely man. Unlike them, he works alone in his own locked office at the secure back end of the Glen Avenue Postal Branch, where he specialises, via painstaking detective work and good contacts, in reuniting misdirected items with their senders. Ann suspects that Jasper keeps asking her to help him fix his photocopier because he is “just looking for someone to yap with”.  Similarly Jasper’s foreign informant Renée (Nick Heyman) suspects that Jasper’s desire to get closer to Ann is also the principal reason for his decision to investigate a creepy, bloodstained card found in the post even though no item of value (the specific remit of Jasper’s work) is attached to it and everyone, Jasper included, thinks it is probably a hoax. Both Ann and Renée are probably right, for Jasper is lonely – and likes Ann. 

Jasper lives at Belmont Hollow, a rundown dormitory that offers “Guaranteed Affordable Living for Men” and encourages community between its single residents, polaroids of whom decorate the walls to form a mosaic of solitude. When another lonely man, Trent (John Fleck), turns up there, Jasper invites the well-spoken newcomer to become his roommate, possibly even his friend, little realising that Trent is connected to the mysterious bloody letter, and is about to send both their lives down an irrevocable path.

Viewers know from the outset that the letter is in fact no hoax, but a genuine cry for help, because the film opens with a man (Sterling Macer Jr.) crawling desperately out of a house, his legs in ties and his arms in chains, and pushing the unfinished message into a post box before another man drags him back into the house. Yet ahead of all that, a signifier of a different kind appears: for right at the top of Dead Mail there is an ident (“Rhombus Selects”) styled from very lo-fi graphics, and text that reads “The finest choice in video”, all of which frames the film as coming from the VHS era. Sure enough, this is set firmly in the Eighties, but thankfully its careful period detail is never mere window dressing, but absolutely serves the story. 

This is a pre-internet age, when research had to be done by reading books or picking up the phone and calling experts, and when people were still regularly sending letters to each other through the post. Even Janet Beat’s blippy analogue score proves germane to a film set partly in the amateur yet cutthroat world of boutique synthesiser design. With its punning title, Dead Mail tells a strange tale of amour fou, geeky obsession and murderous desperation. Unfolding out of chronological order, it pretends to be a tawdry, tabloid-fuelled docudrama, right down to text at the end catching up with where each of the main characters is now. Still, no matter how unhinged things get, the raw yearning for companionship at the film’s dark heart always feels real, and makes Trent a complicated, humanised villain – a pathetic, Pupkin-esque figure who pursues his deluded desires to ever greater and more alarming extremes, but all out of closeted longing and loneliness. 

As that dead letter is gradually connected back to its sender, there are here, to be sure, elements of mystery, thriller and even (bad) romance, but ultimately this is a tragedy where signals go unread, love unrequited and urges unaddressed.

strap: Kyle McConaghy and Joe DeBoer’s Midwest mystery thriller is an Eighties chronicle of lonely men and lost connections

© Anton Bitel