Dead Man's Curve (1998)

1998 was a wonderful year. The cusp of a new millennium, when the future seemed bright, assuming the Millennium Bug didn’t kill us all. The genre-bending, groundbreaking Scream has already reinvented horror, and put out a sequel that might actually be better than the original, before all the endless knockoffs turned it stale, before Scream 3 ruined the franchise, and before some humourless idiots thought that the Scary Movie franchise was a good idea. A more innocent time, surely. It’s also the year Dead Man’s Curve was created – not quite in the same vein as Scream, and not quite as dripping with pure genius, but poaching the marvellously psychotic Matthew Lillard (before he was irretrievably sullied by Scooby Doo) and squeezing a brilliant performance out of him as part of its dark, twisty little world. Ahh, 1998 was truly a better age.

See, apparently, in American universities, there’s this little known rule that if your roommate tops themselves, you automatically get straight As. Given the incredible pressure on college students to succeed at school, as well as having to handle the difficulties of living away from home, doing their own washing, and getting ridiculous drunk and STD-ridden every night, it’s no wonder some kids might see this as a remarkably easy way out of having to actually do any work. Instead of cracking a book, they just have to push their roommate over the edge and profit from the tragedy.

But how exactly do you make someone kill themselves? Well, convincing their pregnant girlfriends to confess everything, publicly, might help, as would replacing all their CDs with Joy Division and The Smiths, writing a suicide note for them, feeding them rat poison and shoving them off a cliff. Bingo, you’re off to Harvard grad school. Not that things are ever that simple. An abundance of lying, backstabbing and treachery goes on before the film reaches its climax, and it gets so twisty towards the end that it’s almost difficult to keep up as everyone reveals their own agendas. Quite how the police or school guidance counsellor could ever hope to unravel this mess is unimaginable – perhaps its because the film didn’t seem so terribly intelligent until at least three quarters of the way through that this ridiculously intricate denouement seems so clever, but this more than makes up for some rather lacklustre moments along the way.

The undeniable star of the show is Lillard, though. He gets a rather unfair amount of dramatic monologues throughout, but then no-one else could have carried them off quite so spectacularly. There’s something about him, with his bizarrely oversized frame and particularly enormous hands, rubbery face and psychotic expressions that make him perfect to play this kind of unpredictable, unhinged and downright evil git. He’s incredibly entertaining and often a little scary to watch, bringing a kind of super-charged charisma to the film without which the whole affair would surely be drier and far duller.

Without being too self-consciously post-modern, Dead Man’s Curve is smart, witty and remarkably intricate. It’s a shame we’ve not had anything this well developed for years.

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