One of the biggest surprises of 2013 for me was Contracted – Eric England’s tight little body-horror flick about a “Patient Zero” who hopes to destroy mankind by spreading a deadly STD. Weaker stomachs might have to watch most of the action through interwoven fingers, but as a contagion thriller, England’s style ensures that societal horrors come first and foremost.
Fast-forward two years, and we’re here to discuss Contracted: Phase II, a sequel that doesn’t see any involvement from England himself. First-time screenwriter Craig Walendziak and music video director Josh Forbes (you know, the guy who totally had an awful time at the MTV VMAs) take over as the creative team behind IFC Midnight’s hopeful successor, which provides the opportunity for a refreshing new take on England’s origin. Contracted is only the beginning of the end! Walendziak and Forbes had limitless possibilities for their world-continuing biological disaster, but unfortunately, they’re fine with hitting a lot of the same beats that England already manipulated.
Picking up EXACTLY where Contracted left off, we’re reminded of how Samantha (Najarra Townsend) dies a horrible, painful death after ripping a chunk out of her mother. The only survivor of the whole ordeal seems to be guy-friend Riley (Matt Mercer), who unknowingly boinked Sam in what he thought was a life-changing turn of romantic events. Well, he was kind of right, because whatever grotesque STD Sam harbored inside her was passed to Riley, and now he’s left to fight the same infection that turned his crush into a walking corpse. But he attracts a stalker, as BJ (Morgan Peter Brown) returns to ensure his disease is spreading, and makes contact with Riley after getting caught up in his own cockiness – a tactical error that puts Riley on his tail. With nothing to lose, Riley tracks down BJ in an attempt to find a cure, hopefully before any appendages fall off.
As expected, Contracted: Phase II is an exercise in skin-crawling gore, attempting to one-up everything England accomplished in the first film. I can’t say it fails, either. My roommates could hear me cursing Forbes’ name as his characters clawed away layers of skin to reveal squishy, lifelike organs. The gore is on point and there’s absolutely no denying that Matt Mercer’s pain can be felt as he plucks maggots out of self-inflicted wounds, but what remains when the mucky mess of discharge is wiped away leaves much to be desired. This is NOT a dinner movie, rest assured. One of the characters digs into her own arm, scratching an itch that’s apparently as deep as her rotting bone, but gore alone cannot create tension, drama, or scares – important keys to any horror movie.
For those expecting this vicious sequel to explore a wider spectrum of the infection, it does.
We still focus on one main character, the ill-fated Riley, and how he accidentally spreads the doomed infection whether it be through a kiss, or bleeding into a bowl of yellowish queso (seriously, someone eats blood queso). It’s mostly more of the same self-mutilating surgical procedures and accidental leakages. These liquified outbursts may be artfully implemented (bloody Jackson Pollock splatters), but Forbes never heightens the stakes beyond a single point of view. We’ve still not reached a full apocalyptic outburst of bloodthirsty demons running free through crowded streets, which leaves Contracted: Phase II feeling far more contained than it should. And a bit silly. Again, blood queso? I won’t even eat soup if there’s a hair in it. I’m not saying these characters should be germophobes, but maybe a LITTLE more attention to detail would have helped?
None of this is to discredit Matt Mercer, who is a wholly likable horror lead. Riley has more of a revenge arc this time around because of the reveal of BJ’s psychotic doomsday plan, and the tussle provides a cat-and-mouse chase with a ticking clock. While I don’t necessarily think the film benefits from focusing so mightily on BJ, making Contracted: Phase II more of a slasher-eqsue film with a confusing tone, Mercer’s despair can be felt throughout. Same goes for Harper Lee, an unfortunate casualty of Mercer’s accidental contamination. In a movie filled with victims, each actor embraces their corroding fate, aided by a host of visual effects that surprisingly didn’t cause any actual bile to be expelled on camera.
Alas, this gross-out test of wits is all simply that – a goregasmic bet for college film students to issue towards one another. It doesn’t do much differently compared to Contracted, and the story tends to lack any down-and-dirty tension this time around. In fact, Contracted: Phase II is a bit more cartoonish, as Riley maintains his gleeful sarcasm even when covered head-to-toe in boils, growths, festering wounds, and any other disgusting bodily deformation you can think of. There’s admiration in its attempt to strive for something “bigger and badder,” but Contracted: Phase II fumbles execution when gore becomes the sole focus.
You’ll scream, you’ll squirm, but yearn for something meatier to bite into (yuck, phrasing) after Contracted: Phase III is inevitably set up – making Contracted: Phase II nothing but a nauseating stepping stone.
In a film that opts for gross-out gags over scares, Contracted: Phase II feels like a rushed stepping-stone towards bigger things to come if the franchise is to continue onward towards (disgusting) glory.