CELL COUNT is the kind of indie horror film that “gets it.” There’s a great story that doesn’t get too ambitious; there’s good characters that go through some growth; and the f/x are well executed. Writer-director Todd Freeman understands what “restrain” means and doesn’t go to far beyond what his budget and story can handle. What we’re left with is a tight, well-paced horror film that delves into Cronenbergian ‘body horror’ territory and is hugely successful.
The story is pretty simple: The film opens with Russell (Robert McKeehen) sitting bedside with his terminally ill wife Sadie (Haley Talbot). The exact disease is never fully explained but an elder doctor, Dr. Brandt (Christopher Toyne) comes in to talk to Russell and is pretty blunt with him. He tells him his wife will be dead in a matter of days but he can give him a choice. Watch her die in a slow and painful way, or admit her into his (Brandt’s) private, government-funded clinic where he guarantee’s he will cure her. Brandt also tells Russell that he’ll pick up all the outstanding medical bills accrued up to now. Russell agrees and goes a step further; Brandt is also looking for healthy individuals for the research they’re conducting at the clinic.
Fast forward a few weeks; Russell wakes up with a small incision on his chest and his wife is all but cured. The clinic looks like something out of a Kafka novel. It’s sterile and very industrial looking; not at all comforting for the sick people it houses. Once Russell and Sadie are reunited, they meet up with the other volunteers and go through a very stoic and corporate introduction to the facility. The place is full of locked doors with handprint recognizers that will allow them into other rooms. They are told the place is not a prison but is organized this way for their protection. The volunteers, as well as the viewer, can’t help but feel they’re in a prison-like setting despite all the reassurances. They are then told the facility also houses two convicts: Tiny Tim Jacobs (Judd Eustice) and Abraham (Ted Rooney). Soon after their introduction, Dr. Brandt visits them and tells them they all have a lot of healing to do but they are all coming along well enough.
We then follow around the volunteers as they get to know each other and as they attempt to uncover exactly what’s going on in this research facility. A few things become clear right away: Dr. Brandt definitely isn’t telling them everything; there’s something wrong (very wrong) with the cure; and there’s more to this clinic than meets the eye. We also get very subtle hints that the disease Sadie suffered from is an epidemic across the globe. Again, the disease is never elaborated on but it seems to be like a new plague sweeping across the world. We also get hints here and there that the “outside world” may not be exactly like the world we, the viewers, live in. Hints of the world being some kind of dystopia are dropped in a few places. Freeman includes all the puzzle pieces, he just doesn’t tell us what the picture should look like.
First; what I really liked about CELL COUNT. The first thing I noticed is the acting; it’s excellent. Considering the main cast is made up around eight to nine people, everyone does a really nice job in their roles. There are no cases of overacting or anyone looking uncomfortable in front of the camera. Excellent job in casting this film!! I also really like the idea of casting an elderly man with a German accent to play Dr. Brandt. Once you hear him talk and then mention experiments he’s running, your blood kinda turns icy. Sorry to all my German friends out there, but German doctors in horror films never end up being good!! Sorry to be the condom with the hole in it, but it’s true.
Freeman also does an excellent job controlling the material. We know something ain’t kosher about the doctor, the facility, and the cure, and Freeman really takes his time developing a good amount of suspense before blowing his wad. Tension between the volunteers grows little by little, especially after the convicts are released into the common area with everyone else, and Freeman really manipulates the story to get the most bang out of it. As the viewer finally realizes what the ‘cure’ is, Freeman backs it up with some great special f/x. CELL COUNT isn’t a particularly gory film, but there are a few gag-inducing, body-horror moments that would make David Cronenberg himself dry heave. Trust me when I tell ya you’ll never pet a dog the same way again!!
The story keeps building in tension until it hits its boiling point and everything explodes. One of the convicts proves to be more than he at first appeared and as we enter into the last act of the story, the scope opens up to reveal that something bigger than we anticipated is at stake here. I still have mixed feelings over the final act and am not sure if it works as well as Freeman wants it to. After thinking about this film, I understand now what he’s getting at, but up to this point we were in a very isolated and contained atmosphere. There was a great claustrophobic vibe going on, and this is lost in the last act of the film. I understand from reading interviews given by Freeman that we shouldn’t look at the final act as an “ending,” but more as a beginning. Freeman will be going into production next year with part two of the story, CELL COUNT II: HUNDRED MILES OF BAD ROAD. I’m definitely looking forward to seeing the story continued, but I wish this film was more of a self-contained film that ended this story a little more than what we got. But at least it’s good to know that we’re gonna get a lot of answers in the sequel. I, for one, can’t wait to see what happens to the “human Billy bomb” (just watch the movie)!! Freeman, though, should be commended for creating characters that we really care about and are interested in seeing what happens to them in part two.
Yes; I’m being very vague about exactly what the cure is. Most of the fun here is finding out or figuring out what’s going on. I will tell you that the old saying, “Sometimes the cure is worse than the disease” has never been more true!! Great acting, story, and supporting f/x make CELL COUNT a really enjoyable and kick ass film. I read that Freeman is currently in negotiations for a distribution deal, so I’ll keep my eyes open and let you know when it’s available. When Freeman sent me the link to check out the screener he wrote to me, “I hope you like CELL COUNT; we’re very proud of it.” Well the cast and crew should be really proud of what they made. It’s not every day you get to experience such a well-made and executed indie horror film. Definitely check out CELL COUNT!!
Director: Todd E. Freeman (& writer, producer, cinematographer, & editor)
Plot: 4 out of 5 stars
Gore: 6.5 out of 10 skulls
Zombie Mayhem: 0 out of 5 brains
Reviewed by Scott Shoyer