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Watch Horror movie The Dead Ones drop the ball

The condemned: The Dead Ones (2020)

The plot: In the opening minutes of The Dead Ones, a principal delivers a stern admonition to some kids who are serving a lengthy detention. Very quickly, however, her language and behavior veers into not just unprofessional but actively disturbing territory. The viewer’s entirely understandable question would be, “Wait—is this just bad writing, or is something very weird going on?” As it turns out, the answer is a resounding, “Both.”

The kids in question are a quartet of high school students who took some time out of their summer vacation to trash their alma mater, Arcadia High. Now, with only a week of summer break left, their punishment is to clean it up themselves. There’s lunkheaded misfit Louis (Torey Garza); shy and awkward nerd Alice, a.k.a. “Mouse” (Sarah Rose Harper); metalhead outcast Scottie (Brandon Thane Wilson); and Emily (Katie Foster), a girl whose sole personality trait seems to be that she’s severely mentally ill. (Within minutes of meeting her, we discover that she hallucinates patterns on her skin, which she then carves into herself with a knife. The others shrug off this behavior with a “Ha, that’s just Emily bein’ Emily!” attitude that beggars belief.)

A lot of other things very quickly beggar belief. For starters, they’re being taken to school to start cleaning up just as the sun sets, which seems weird to say the least. Next, there’s that odd behavior of the administrator overseeing their punishment, Miss Persephone (Buffy The Vampire Slayer’s Clare Kramer), who comes across more like an intoxicated dinner-theater performer than someone who works at a school. (After explaining in a purr that the school’s janitor was stabbed to death recently—what?!—she announces she’ll be locking herself in her office until they’re done. Great plan!) And the school doesn’t look trashed—it looks more like a crime scene, but with severe property damage to boot.

But before you can say, “Huh, none of this feels remotely plausible,” in comes the plot driver—or the ostensible one, anyway. A group of four people arrive at the property, don black outfits with elaborate masks and military-grade gas masks, pull out weapons, and proceed to lock down the school with themselves and the others inside. Presumably, they’re going to pose a major threat to our gang, no? If only it all didn’t feel like someone’s badly written fever dream to begin with.

The jig is already up about five minutes into it, when Mouse lugs her cleaning bucket past a case containing the school’s sports trophies. Because they’re not normal trophies; all the little gold-colored figurines atop the awards are monstrous, non-human beasts. At this point, any viewer can probably guess what’s going on here—this is some hell dimension, or maybe purgatory, and the four main characters have been sent here for reasons unknown. Whatever it is, it’s not reality. Still, the film continues to act as though we’re building to a big reveal, intercutting between the masked ones setting up some elaborate plan to release gas into the vents throughout the school and the kids slowly realizing something weird is going on. (You’d think Mouse happening upon Miss Persephone with half her face missing and muttering strange things—about 15 minutes in—would’ve clued them in to the fact that magic is afoot.) After the masked quartet starts appearing in flashbacks where they stormed the school and took hostages, it’s obvious what happened: These four teens are also the masked ones who committed this school shooting, and they’re all paying for their sins—which, once you see the true extent of their crimes, are numerous and horrifying—while fighting to see if they can resist the supernatural evil that’s tormenting them.

Skip this paragraph if you don’t want to know how it ends, though allow me to assure you that you should not care in the slightest. (And at only 73 minutes, “slight” is an apt word for The Dead Ones.) We soon realize that these four banded together to get revenge, but there was a little miscommunication about the endgame. In the flashbacks to their assault on the school, we learn Mouse didn’t think they were actually going to kill anyone, just scare them—a bit hypocritical, since Mouse agreed to be part of the team only on the condition that they murder her abusive father first—so when the shooting starts, the group fractures. Emily ends up dead after trying to kill Mouse, and Mouse then races to stop Louis and Scottie before they can hurt Persephone’s pre-teen daughter. She hacks the former to death then shoots the latter in the head, ultimately sacrificing herself to get the gas mask onto the girl and save her life. This same order of deaths then plays out again in the present, only with the malevolent spirits taking out the kids. The movie ends with the group once more being driven to the school to begin their eternal cleanup-punishment of supernatural torture, memories wiped, with one exception: Mouse is no longer with them.

Over-the-top box copy: “Best horror film of the year!” claims a glowing endorsement on the Blu-ray cover, apparently from someone who only saw one horror movie this year. The tagline below it—“High school is hell”—isn’t bad, though. And if you flip the case over, there’s a very funny quote on the back arguing that The Dead Ones is “a juddery, disorienting trip into the psyche of the school shooter, as well as a catabasis into the mor