SXSW 2024: DEAD MAIL is a Period Perfect Thriller

Dead Mail is a queer-centric psychological horror film that is a throwback in every sense of the word. The film just screened at SXSW and it’s an intriguingly nervy vision that is full of captivating performances. The second joint effort by the writer/director team of Joe DeBoer and Kyle McConaghy begins with a very true to period setting, the dead mail department at the Peoria County Post office. This is where a mysterious piece of mail – a shard of cardboard with no return address that simply says “I was kidnapped, help me” and covered in what appears to be blood lands in the hands of seasoned dead letter investigator Jasper Lawrence (Sterling Macer Jr). This opens up a rabbit hole of a narrative that channels our current infatuation with true crime, through a very 80s lens. 

Thankfully the cast here takes the rather pulpy premise seriously, delivering steadfast performances that are more restrained, yet still introspective and feel like they are also trying to honor the material and time. Sterling Macer Jr’s, Jasper is a much different protagonist than I expected, while he’s seen hardship and is completely sympathetic to the audience, the character is empowered and resilient thanks to his nearly superhuman ability to track these letters down. That being said, character veteran John Fleck steals this film completely from Sterling and is a delight on screen as the kidnapper who offers up a time appropriate queer coded character that may puzzle and frustrate some, but totally works here in the 80s context. It’s a performance that knows when to skate the line and when to go full on camp, and it’s a complete and utter delight. 

It’s obvious the directors did their homework when setting the film in its early 80’s period. The occupation of our protagonist isn’t simply the only thing that’s period centric, the whole film feels like it was a lost film, now just seeing the light of day. Dead Mail appears to be shot on film and the look here feels like the old industrial films of the period. They didn’t just throw a grain filter on a digital image either, the lighting feels very much like some of the films at the time, it’s harsh on the characters faces, and the contrast of the image is a bit on the bright side. That coupled with a rather keen eye for production design and costuming really make you believe this was an artifact misplaced from that time.

Dead Mail is a rather impressive period piece in both tone and execution. It gets pretty much everything right from the anatomy models that were seemingly everywhere, to the tone of the performances and even the abrasiveness of the lighting. Instead of falling prey to nostalgia or using it as a crutch, or a novelty – Dead Mail goes full-on period in a way that raises the bar for everyone attempting to channel the 80s from here on out. That paired with a gripping script and a fictional story that feels ripped from a viral Netflix doc, makes Dead Mail definitely worth hunting down after its finished its festival run, depending on where it lands afterward. Needless to say I will be patiently waiting to see Joe DeBoer and Kyle McConaghy do next, because their resourcefulness, is no doubt on par with their craft and attention to detail, so consider me a fan from here on out. 

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