It’s a late summer evening; cast, crew, press and friends have gathered at FOX Studios in Hollywood for a private screening of “Death and Cremation,” a new dark and dramatic thriller from the mind of writer and director Justin Steele. The red carpet is done and we head into see the movie. Steele says a few words, that this has been a labor of love for him. Taking three years from penning the script to final realization on screen, we learn this is a personal movie for him. Talking about how his own childhood affected him and how it helped him write the script, we know he has definitely put a piece of himself into this film.
In a small town called Crest Point, it’s the typical suburban life for the American dreamers. We see all stereotypes typical of this scenario, all seemingly happy in their everyday life. Then we meet Jarod Leary (Jeremy Sumpter), a damaged and not so typical boy. Jarod, a social outcast who is being raised by his mother Martha (Debbon Ayer), lives in the outskirts of town in a trailer. He has his own perspective on life, dresses in all black and keeps to himself. Adding to all of this teenage angst, there is the problem of his mother’s new boyfriend Rick (Sam Ingraffia), an immigration attorney who may not be the nice guy he appears to be.
Not participating in most school activities, Jarod’s quest to fly under the radar doesn’t go as planned when he has a run in with the school jock David Valentine (Blake Hood) and his friends. Getting into trouble and some substance abuse leaves his mother fed up and she tells him he has to get an after-school job. Looking all over town, he finally stumbles into the local crematorium, where he meets Stan (Brad Dourif), a 59-year-old single recluse who does the town’s cremations. Unwilling at first, Stan see a connection with Jarod and gives him the job of helping to clean up the crematorium’s show room. But Stan holds a deep dark secret; whenever he is angered by someone, he finds the person, kills them and then cremates their bodies to dispose of the evidence.
As time goes on, the bond between Stan and Jarod grows, and they start to open up to each other. Jarod tells Stan about his incident with the school bully and his girlfriend Lindsey Weaver (Kate Maher). Soon after Lindsey goes missing and although Jarod hasn’t connected the dots yet, he soon starts to think it isn’t a coincidence at all. Then, after a major thrashing by Valentine, Jarod confides again in Stan and not much later Valentine goes missing as well. Now, with more disappearances happening, Detective Matt Fairchild (played by actor Scott Elrod) is on the case. After talking to the missing girl’s parents, he is lead to the crematorium and with Stan in his sights, he is diligently trying to unravel this case.
With an ominous opening of fire and ash, Steele sets up the tone for this dark and complex film. Shot beautifully in and around Los Angeles, the film’s gritty hue, combined with a matching score, helps keep you in the film from beginning to end. The pace feels organic to the story and moves you through it in a way that keeps you intrigued and on the edge of your seat.
Although this movie has many things to say, at the forefront is the father and son archetype, twisted beyond recognition. Sumpter and Dourif play these dark and complicated characters effortlessly. The progression of each throughout the film feels natural to the story, and although they have darkness and murderous tendencies, you find yourself rooting for them. Watching Stan go after his victims was like watching a lioness stalk her prey, you knew the carnage was coming, but you couldn’t look away. Another part of Stan’s character that intrigued me was his character’s design and look. Having sores over his face, I couldn’t help but notice the two on his temples and think they looked like he had devil horns growing in.
Sumpter inhabits his character’s dark persona without being a cliché. We see some reasons why both of them have this ability towards violence, but the director never panders to the audience, trying to excuse it or fully explain it. It’s easy to relate to his character because we all have felt alone and bullied at some point in our lives and this helps us associate ourselves and connect with him.
The amazing supporting cast — which also includes Daniel Baldwin — helps to keep the story moving in its natural progression while fueling the emotions Jarod and Stan need to complete their journey. This movie shows the brutality of humanity, while also showing the need for guidance and friendship. Being oddly comedic at times helps to relieve the pressure of the building suspense and adds another dimension to its many achievements.
While taking viewers on a ride, “Death and Cremation” also is an honest look at how the human mind can proceed into darkness. So maybe next time you will think twice before mocking someone or picking on them just because they are different — you never know who they might tell.
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