DFF '15: Decay (Joseph Wartnerchaney)

by Nick Arno

From the depths of the horror film underworld emerges the gruesome mite of Joseph Wartnerchaney’s Decay. Based on actual events, the film intimately follows the life of middle-aged Jonathan. A quiet man unwilling to live outside his bounds, Jonathan works as a janitor at an amusement park that has been shut down for cleaning during the off season. The film begins with Jonathan returning to his home after work to find two young woman lurking around his basement. One of the girls, Katlyn, is startled by him and is killed by a traumatic fall, while the other runs from the house only to be stuck by an oncoming vehicle seconds before dialing 911. All of this occurs during the opening credits of the film. An interesting way to begin a story, but the attempt at a propelling start makes for a fantastic hook.

Jonathan is pleased to have found himself a new companion: the girl whose body still lies in his basement. Jonathan is first revealed to the audience as your run-of-the-mill crazy person. A classic “Buffalo Bill” type, listening to creepy old music and taking pictures of orchids in his basement; but there is one twisted catch about Jonathan that really sets the plot of the film in motion: his undeniable case of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. As the film continues, it appears to take on the role of an exposé on the crippling effects of OCD, but magnified to the point where it overcomes the audience with an intense realization of what it can really be. His job as a cleaning man seems appropriate for the stigma of his disorder. Some of the consistency of the disorder was a little off-putting, suggesting that the writer/director did a fair amount of research, but not enough to create a truly believable personality. All around, however, the character of Jonathan is wonderfully complex, and so is his story.

Jonathan keeps the body of the girl in his house, convincingly and calculatingly preserving her body, attempting to keep her to himself. As Jonathan is preparing for his “first date” with the girl, a climactic event occurs when the first fly is heard hovering around her body. Jonathan is prepared however, fixing himself bug zappers and several other items to deal with the pests. From then on, the real “decay” begins to unravel, and many grotesque events occur as the body begins to decompose.

The film could have made a very poignant short, and may have done better as that, with a plot as simple as it is. However, what made Decay so truly worth watching was the psychological turmoil that Jonathan’s mother provided. In a series of flashbacks to Jonathan’s childhood, the mother is introduced as terrifyingly narcissistic, and abusive to her son in several creative and manipulating ways. Some of what the mother puts her son through correlates to Jonathan’s future OCD, such as his obsession with locks and collecting keys. She is a deeply troubled woman, and it rubs off on her son in a dramatic way. There are also religious undertones in Jonathan’s childhood that lead to an unprecedented onslaught of guilt in his future. 

Although Jonathan, his mother and his “significant other” Katlyn are the main focuses of the film, there are a couple other supporting characters that add a little comic relief to the story. The first is Jonathan’s red-headed sidekick Aaron, who works at the theme park he is cleaning, entertaining him with stories of the thousands of loose woman he’s slept with, and constantly using his catch phrase “crazy bitch” to describe them. The other is Jonathan’s care-taking neighbor Karen, who enters his home and ravages his ear drums about the gossip from down the block. The acting in the film is oddly compelling, surprising for a gory horror flick. The intense performance of the thespian rookie Rob Zabrecky can be honestly compared to an Anthony Perkins (Psycho) or a Christian Bale (American Psycho). Decay could have easily fallen short without the casting of its lead.

Even if the acting was important, the artistic delight of the film is also one of the key components that makes Decay a must see for horror and thriller fans, or any film lover who can handle a little bugs and gore. For the most part, the film is shot-for-shot impeccably made, with graphic colors and dazzling sound that create chilling affects. The director also throws in a fair amount of terrifying moments that would give any zombie fan a little scare. 

One of the most important pieces to Decay is how Jonathan’s OCD manipulates the pacing of the film, creating a dynamic routine that continues throughout. All the important events of the film occur behind closed doors, which the audience can attribute to a director’s choice that adds a feeling of claustrophobia. This uneasy aura is illuminated by a scene in which the relationship between Jonathan and the body is sexualized, but in a way that makes the audience feel sympathetic towards the man because of the director’s tasteful choices cinematically. The technical aspects of the film were quite well put together, leaving out a few moments when the shot was too dark to even see what was going on, and only a couple of moments when the focus faltered. The greatest aspect of the plot was the “Show, Don’t Tell” method of writing, that relied on visuals more than dialogue.

The body of the girl was not the only thing decaying in the movie. The film was made to show the decaying of Jonathan’s mind, and the way he copes with the thoughts of his mother that follow suit with the reoccurring guilt befalling him in the wake of his OCD. The pain we see in the character can be relatable, even though the obvious truth is that he is overwhelmingly disturbed, following closely in his mother’s footsteps. 

Overall, Decay deserves a fair amount of applause. The story is refreshing in the way that it is told from the maniac’s perspective, and not the victim’s. The journey this man takes into his mind is captivating, unique and provocative, proving that the makers of this film were paying attention in psychology 101. Decay is a fresh and inviting look into the lonely life of the modern day sociopath. 

Decay plays Saturday, November 7, 9:15pm; Monday, November 9, 9:00 pm; Sie FilmCenter.