Introducing the screening at Dead by Dawn, festival director Adèle Hartley described Joseph Wartnerchaney’s feature debut Decay as “a very familiar setup,” but praised the writer/director’s ability to “do something new with it.” Filmed in Denver, Colorado at the Elitch Gardens in 2013, the sense of displacement of an out-of-season theme park has been used before in Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood, but rather than the focus of the film it is just the backdrop of groundskeeper Jonathan’s alienated state of mind.
He is not a recluse. He is not agoraphobic. He is not socially maladjusted. But he is different, awkward, uncomfortable around people, his daily rituals speaking of obsessive compulsive disorder, a need to impose a frozen order on his life as he hides behind multiple locks and eating his packaged dinners at a table set for one in the home he has styled as a shrine to his terrible childhood.
Jonathan is not entirely alone; he cycles to work every day and tends the park equipment and listens patiently while his colleague bends his ear about anything and everything, and his well-meaning but somewhat overbearing neighbour (Kissing Jessica Stein’s ever wonderful Jackie Hoffman) visits daily to fuss over him and ensure he’s taking his medication, and so the equilibrium of his life is maintained.
Until one day he comes home to find his home has been broken into by two teenage girls; they are startled, and one falls from a stepladder and hits her head while the other flees from the house without looking, straight into the path of a moving vehicle. That dead body is not his problem, but the one in the basement is, and as methodically as he approaches everything else in his life Jonathan sets to taking care of the young woman who came to stay.
Wonderful and bizarre, as off-kilter as the sympathetic lead performance of musician and magician Rob Zabrecky (Lost River), there is much which reminds of two key televisual celebrations of the weird. Physically Jonathan is Nick Chinlund’s Donnie Pfaster in appearance and mannerisms, the “death fetishist” (the word “necrophiliac” being “unacceptable for broadcast standards) investigated twice on The X-Files, while the basement of orchids and secrets, tended, watered, lovingly photographed and catalogued, once belonged to Lenny Von Dohlen’s Harold Smith, lonely soul of Twin Peaks to whom Laura Palmer delivered meals on wheels.
With the seemingly deserted suburbia stretching out forever, the aerial shots, presumably shot by drone, add huge production value, while Jonathan’s present is forever framed in the memories of his past, monochrome photographs of his family and colour saturated flashbacks to his demanding mother, Breaking Dawn’s Lisa Howard, imprinting on him a whole spectrum of erratic behaviours he still carries.
With Michael Shaieb’s soundtrack moving through Vangelis, Goldsmith, Glass and finally a love theme worthy of Badalamenti, Jonathan lays out the silverware and electronic candles as he props the girl up at the dinner table in a scene which recalls Colin Firth and Hart Bochner’s final date in Apartment Zero, but inevitably Jonathan is unable to prevent the decay of their relationship, and his own health deteriorates in accordance.
A sweet and gentle love story of a very messed up man, Decay is well made and performed but moves towards its conclusion with too little purpose, the repetition of the number eight (bed at 1:08, alarm at 8:08, the incident on March 8th) signalling little more than moving in circles, and though fortunately remaining more tasteful than the film suffers from its own degeneration as Jonathan and the remains of his guest.