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Diagnosis: Death
cast: Raybon Kan, Jessica Grace Smith, Suze Tye, Bret McKenzie

director: Jason Stutter

80 minutes (15) 2009
widescreen ratio 1.78:1
Revolver DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 6/10
reviewed by Mark West
Andre Chang (Raybon Kan) is not, immediately, the most likeable of characters - he's a teacher, who's not above taking bribes to change grades, or coming up with weird rules ("a date only lasts for an hour and a half") in order to get his end away - but then he is informed by his doctor (a cameo by Rhys Darby that is one of the funniest 'you are about to die' sequences this reviewer has seen) that he has terminal cancer and will die within three months. Except that there is a trial going on which Andre joins. Also with him is Juliet Reid (Jessica Grace Smith), a schoolgirl (the actress is clearly older - and shapely - but she wears a uniform for a while) who has lymphoma. For both of them, when they realise the cancer is present, skeletal ghosts appear behind them.

The experimental drug trial, supervised by nurse Margaret Bates (a 'Nurse Ratched' in waiting performance by Suze Tye) and Doctor Cruise (Bret McKenzie), is being held in a cancer ward (which, as Juliet is informed, didn't always fulfil that purpose). Andre, Juliet and their fellow patients are locked down for the weekend and our two heroes soon discover that their lives are in danger. They are told the drug causes disturbing hallucinations and both of them do hallucinate, but it appears to be the same thing - visions of a horrible murder/ suicide that took place at the facility. Many connections are made to Juliet's favourite writer - Charlotte Mansfield - who died in the building and Andre and Juliet soon realise the only way for them to escape unscathed is to solve the mystery behind the hallucinations.

That's it in a nutshell. Even with the brief running time, Diagnosis: Death feels like it's a bit soggy around the middle and - given that the audience will quickly realise whodunit - perhaps would have worked better as an hour-long TV episode. That might sound disparaging but it shouldn't because, otherwise, this is a pretty good film.

Obviously made on the cheap - the behind-the-scenes featurette reveals that the set is also the production offices and there are many 'thanks' in the end credits, most notably to WETA Digital - but with real passion and commitment, this is an enjoyable little slice of New Zealand mystery-horror. It's billed as a horror comedy, which it clearly isn't - there are a lot of laughs, but the bulk of them are one-liners ("I'm going to need a lot of therapy" and "No cell-phones - it interferes with our computers when we're playing Minesweeper"), rather than the situations - and the closest thing to this is probably The Frighteners (maybe the makers were aiming for a Peter Jackson style?). It's very well made, the images are sharp and often cleverly framed, the effects are excellent and the locations are well utilised. The quality of the acting varies (and it's unfortunate that the Flight Of The Conchords blokes get so much attention on the cover art since only McKenzie has any reasonable screen-time), from the very good Jessica Grace Smith and Suze Tye, through to the wooden, monotonous performance of co-writer and co-producer Kan.

I liked this - it had heart, it was amusing and even creepy in places and admirably over-rode the common pitfalls of a low-budget films. Worth a look, if you like some dry humour and a bit of a creepy ghost story. My screener came with some deleted scenes (wisely cut) and a 12-minute behind-the-scenes featurette which showed just how much fun the cast and crew had making this.
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