A young woman sneaks into a morgue inside a body bag in order to retrieve evidence that could save her brother in Play Dead, a high-concept horror-thriller from director Patrick Lussier (Drive Angry, My Bloody Valentine) which saw release in select European territories in December.
This high-concept setup is essentially all there is to Play Dead, which sees protagonist Chloe (Bailee Madison) break into the morgue within the film’s first twenty minutes, and spend the next eighty playing cat-and-mouse with the mysterious coroner (Jerry O’Connell).
But while Play Dead’s screenplay (from Simon Boyes and Adam Mason, who also wrote the pandemic thriller Songbird), doesn’t offer a lot of originality, the director keeps the narrative moving at a fast clip and a slick presentation should satisfy anyone who can buy into the admittedly implausible premise.
Forensic medicine student Chloe is in a tight spot: the bank is about to foreclose on her family home after the death of her parents, and if that isn’t enough, younger brother T.J. (Anthony Turpel) has got himself involved in a robbery plot with her ex Ross (Chris Lee) in an attempt to raise the money they need.
When the robbery goes bad and Ross is killed, T.J. makes a clean getaway. But there’s one catch: they planned the whole thing through text messages, which remain on Ross’ phone. Which is now in the evidence locker at the morgue, along with his body.
Knowing that the evidence is enough to put her brother away for life, Chloe comes up with a plan to disguise herself as a overdose victim with a veterinary drug that can mimic the effects of death, get sent into the morgue in a body bag, wake up with no ill effects, reclaim the evidence, and sneak out sight unseen. Easy peasy.
Unfortunately, there’s more macabre goings-on in the morgue than she anticipates, and O’Connell’s menacing coroner stalks her throughout the morgue’s corridors for the remainder of the film.
Audiences are generally willing to take one big leap of faith per film, but Play Dead has two: the central premise, which asks us to believe that Madison’s character would be able to successfully sneak into the morgue in such a manner, and the large-scale conspiracy necessary to set up the rest of the film. The result will strain credibility even for the most forgiving audiences.
Bailee Madison, a former child actress who had featured roles in films like Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark and Just Go With It and recently made a strong impression in the underrated The Strangers: Prey at Night, is perfectly-cast as the well-intentioned sister who finds herself in over her head. But O’Connell steals Play Dead as the coroner, giving the movie a sense of quiet menace; the final showdown between these characters is genuinely satisfying.
Play Dead doesn’t offer much beyond its high-concept premise, but it doesn’t have to. After a choppy opening act, director Lussier settles into a polished groove at the morgue, delivering a suspenseful cat-and-mouse game with some nail-biting thrills.