Lightning Media // 2009 // 83 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge William Lee (Retired) // January 29th, 2010
Health care won't solve this problem.
If Diagnosis: Death were a patient, it might be considered schizophrenic because of its confused blending of two genres. Then again, it could just be delusional for believing it's something it isn't. Neither scary enough to be horror nor funny enough to be comedy, the New Zealand film squanders the opportunity to showcase the talents of its likable cast.
Andre Chang (Raybon Kan) is a cynical English teacher with loose ethics. When he's diagnosed with cancer and one month left to live, Andre signs up as a guinea pig in a clinical drug trial. At the unusually empty hospital, he strikes up a friendship with Juliet (Jessica Grace Smith), another guinea pig, who is studying a tragic novelist whose work Andre despises. Once the treatment begins, both Andre and Juliet start hearing distant cries and seeing disturbing scenes. Is it the drugs talking or are they seeing ghosts?
Raybon, who is also the film's co-writer, takes a chance by making Andre a somewhat unlikable protagonist. It's hard to feel sympathy for the guy after seeing him take a bribe to revise grade and observing that he'll hit on any woman in the room. Furthermore, his reluctance to take seriously the weird things he sees is annoying when he should naturally be concerned. Juliet makes for a better heroine because of her optimism and curiosity. She also seems more directly affected by the paranormal activity around her so the movie is much improved whenever the focus shifts to her.
The movie's marketing highlights the participation of the cast from Flight of the Conchords, but that is misleading. Bret McKenzie has a supporting role as a creepy doctor at the clinical trials and his performance hints at his acting potential. Unfortunately the role is underdeveloped so he doesn't do much beyond lurking in the background appearing funny-creepy. Jemaine Clement, as an angry parent, and Rhys Darby, as a cancer specialist, make only brief appearances and their contributions don't leave you wanting more. Basically, they're here to add comic cachet to the production and have their names appear on the box.
Since the three Conchords ringers feature minimally in the movie, the comedic potential dries up quickly. There's limp effort to mine laughs from Andre and Juliet's experience in the drug trials overseen by the strict Nurse Bates (Suze Tye). Shifting the tone to horror and suspense, director Jason Stutter (Tongan Ninja) has borrowed tricks from Asian horror flicks such as scary children suddenly appearing and mysterious puddles of water. However, Stutter can't generate any meaningful energy from those moments. The results do not inspire the chills to make it a memorable ghost story and they lack the wit necessary to spoof its source material. I'm not entirely sure whether they're meant to be taken seriously or not, but the horror scenes are executed in such a bland manner that they feel like technical exercises. As for the mystery of the strange visions, the story unfolds predictably with the characters triggering the right flashbacks at the appropriate time so viewers don't need to pay attention or really care.
My observations on the technical qualities of this DVD are based on the screener disc we received for review. The picture is slightly soft and the colors have that muted, brown-tinge that is symptomatic of early generation digital movies. The Dolby 2.0 surround audio on our preview disc is merely serviceable. The dialogue isn't always clear and the Kiwi-accented speech can be an extra hurdle to understanding the script. The mix is quiet, necessitating that the volume be turned up. Consequently, the jump moments on the soundtrack are jolting due to their loudness. The final retail DVD is expected also to have a Dolby 5.1 surround mix.
Diagnosis: Death can't decide whether to play it for laughs or scares. Doesn't matter, since it can't elicit either. The mystery is uninspired (and unexplained to some extent) which makes the whole ghost element unsatisfying. The biggest disappointment will be felt by Conchords fans who pick up this one based on the promises on the cover art.
Dead on arrival and guilty too.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Lightning Media
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 83 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated R