Blending found footage and what appears to be grainy 16mm (they shot the film on an early DV as a matter of fact), Kyle McConaghy and Joe DeBoer’s Dead Mail embraces the creepiness of its concept. Like Jane Schoenbrun’s I Saw the TV Glow or Kyle Edward Ball’s Skinamarink, this is the stuff of subconscious nightmares, though Dead Mail falls slightly more into the slasher camp. The film is effectively creepy from the feeling that––à la Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers––it’s a relic of the past. Also, like Schoenbrun’s film, it suggests a story that could have been imagined from a 20/20 segment or a late-night documentary that a child should not have watched after their bedtime but nevertheless did.

Dead Mail delivers something original, playing its horror down the line, no doubt influenced by lesser slasher movies. Yet the picture is grounded in a gritty midwestern realism that at times feels like a cold institutional study. The concept is quite simple: a man crawls towards a neighborhood mailbox to send a letter asking for help. That letter arrives on the desk of Jasper (Tomas Boykin), a dead mail investigator at a local post office branch. Largely considered the best in the business by his co-workers, he lives a quiet life outside the office––keeping to himself, going between his solitary workplace and the boarding house he stays in––which suggests he’s been down on his luck more than once.

He has some help and support including from chatty women Ann (Micki Jackson) and Bess (Susan Priver) and a computer wiz Renée (Nick Heyman) who helps him narrow down leads, determine weather patterns that might have impacted the moisture of packages, and also provide some assistance to him for the international packages.

McConaghy and DeBoer then introduce us to Trent (John Fleck), a sinister keyboard enthusiast who befriends an engineer Josh (Sterling Macer Jr.) who agrees to refurbish his synthesizer. The friendship goes south when Trent starts expecting more and more, leading to a brutal scene where he plots to keep him locked in the house all to himself. The film is both claustrophobic and mundane as Trent realizes what Josh has done in potentially giving him up.

The film largely becomes a psychological cat-and-mouse game that’s better left unspoiled. It’s also unexpectedly an ode to civil servants––including those at the boarding house who provide a safety net to mostly men down on their luck––and a love letter to the rhythms of operating the local postal branch. Set in the 1980s, when computers were relatively new and not widely used, the period-perfect production design by Payton Jane and costume design by KerriAnna Savastano also amp up the creep factor. 

While some twists and turns are to be expected, what sets Dead Mail apart from a run-of-the-mill slasher or psychological thriller is the film’s distinct look and attention to detail. It’s a meticulously crafted film that manages to get under your skin. While not quite the visionary masterwork that I Saw the TV Glow is, something is going on in indie cinema amongst filmmakers in their 30s and 40s returning to strands of stories and popular culture they may have enjoyed (or had been accidentally exposed to) and imagining the very worst outcomes. Dead Mail marries the aesthetic of a cold institutional documentary with a slasher flick and, in its best moments, is one of the most exciting horror films of the year.

Dead Mail premiered at SXSW 2024.

Grade: B

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