Dead & Beautiful mostly protects its hand like a seasoned and sober rounder. On the surface — style and composure; the action plays out with clarity as the plot thickens. But like a high-on-their-own supply trickster, David Verbeek’s 2021 Shudder thriller often says too much, just in case the audience didn’t hear the first time around. Fortunately, Dead & Beautiful never gets too loud or didactic with its commentary about the new generation of wealth and the dangers of false personas.
Aviis Zhong stars in Dead & Beautiful as Lulu, a privileged young woman who hangs with the children of billionaires, including the Harvard-educated Mason (Gijs Blom), the happy-go-lucky Bin-Ray (Cheng-En Philip) and the stoic Alexander (Yen Tsao). They assemble for a brand new “game,” in which one of them directs an event that will philosophically enlighten the group. Anastasia (Anna Marchenko) of the Rublov Family organizes an outdoor peyote trip with an Instagram shaman; an experience that will theoretically deepen the brat pack’s understanding of the collective unconscious. In the morning, the moguls-in-the-making find the corpse of their spiritual guru and realize that they all have vampire teeth. The characters flee to a luxurious home owned by Alexander’s family and once again try to entertain themselves, unsure about how to behave as vampires (if they are indeed dead and beautiful creatures).
A film like Dead & Beautiful doesn’t necessarily need strong character depth, as the protagonists clearly lack identities due to their privileged lifestyles, and thus embrace the possibility of becoming vampires while retaining their wealth. Still, the flick lacks meaningful conversations about the bigger picture (such as death) when Lulu and company decide to drink human blood (san Mason). There’s a deeper meaning to the scene — one that sets up a late-movie twist — but the moment itself feels somewhat hollow, even if benefits the premise about detached rich kids. These characters may feel empty inside; however, Dead & Beautiful shows that they do indeed care for each other, albeit in a twisted and deceitful way. In fact, the humanity of one particular character functions as the emotional foundation for the largest twist of all. So, a tighter focus on character ethos and pathos would’ve helped key scenes, rather than just separating the wild ones from the sober group outlier. By the final act, the screenwriters take an explanatory approach with character dialogue and thematic messaging, yet there’s an argument to be made that it’s merely blatant camp that sets up the audience for the final reveal.
To Verbeek’s credit, he and cinematographer Jasper Wolf, along with editor Axel Skovdal Roelofs, know exactly how Dead & Beautiful’s framing and pacing will impact the audience. Characters often stand center frame; the camera zooms during transition shots. There’s a sense of the rich kids feeling trapped but always in search of temporary satisfaction. In one telling moment, Anastasia spontaneously decides to perform at a karaoke venue — perhaps just to feel that she’s still alive — only to exclaim that it’s all “useless.” As a performer, Marchenko’s large, expressive eyes communicate Anastasia’s despair. The character want to help others but doesn’t know how to help herself. The same concept applies for Lulu. Both women receive support from male characters but neither feel a genuine connection — the words don’t translate; the men “hear” but don’t listen. Anastasia and Lulu stand out the most in Dead & Beautiful because they are more than paper-thin archetypes like Mason, Alexander and Bin-Ray; characters who were seemingly designed to guide the women to the promised land of absolute clarity.
With Dead & Beautiful, Verbeek foreshadows the inevitable clash between the progressive leaders of tomorrow and conservative vampires who seek blood. As new generations of wealth emerge, will the enlightened prioritize reality over their personas? Dead & Beautiful suggests that it’s not enough to have a card up your sleeve — you have to know how to play it, and when.
Q.V. Hough (@QVHough) is Vague Visages’ founding editor.