Early last year, I took a chance on an independent New Zealand feature called "Eagle vs. Shark," a decidedly off-beat romantic comedy which introduced me to the cinematic brilliance of Jemaine Clement. Since then, I've blindly delved into the talented actor/songwriter's ever-growing filmography, leading me to unearth such quirky gems as "Tongan Ninja," the HBO series "Flight of the Conchords," and an endlessly amusing series of marketing clips for Outback Steakhouse. And if you've yet to behold the trailer for "Napoleon Dynamite" mastermind Jarred Hess' upcoming project "Gentlemen Broncos," I highly recommend that you do so immediately. I'll wait here until you return.
It was by way of Jemaine Clement that I discovered "Tongan Ninja" director Jason Stutter's 2009 impossibly dry supernatural comedy "Diagnosis: Death," a film which strives to poke fun at the J-horror genre while attempting to infect you with an incurable case of the giggles. The results, I'm afraid, are a mixed bag. Co-written by frequent collaborator and star Raybon Kan, the film lacks the snappy zing of Stutter's previous efforts, resulting in a somewhat muddled experience that misses several golden opportunities for both laughs and scares. In fact, if you stripped the film of all its comedic elements, you'd have the basis for another installment in Takashi Shimizu's "Ju-On" series.
Kan stars as amoral English teacher Andre Chang, a strangely pathetic individual who has recently been diagnosed with cancer. His only hope for a complete recovery lies within the halls of a medical research wing at a nearby hospital, where a series of questionable drug trials are about to begin. Figuring he has absolutely nothing to lose by submitting himself as a guinea pig for the advancement of modern science, Andre signs up and checks himself in for an entire weekend of injections, hallucinations, and oversized suppositories.
Within hours, Andre is completely smitten with 18 year-old student and reluctant lab rat Juliet Reid (Jessica Grace Smith), a fellow cancer patient who believes that her favorite author died in the hospital during its infamous days as a mental health facility. As the treatments intensify, the duo begin seeing a variety of spectral beings roaming around the building’s ominous corridors. Are these visions merely hallucinations associated with the drugs they’re taking, or is a supernatural mystery genuinely underway? I’ll give you one guess, and it isn’t the medication.
“Diagnosis: Death” is packed with all sorts of spooky imagery: vanishing pools of water, creepy ghost children, sudden noises of unknown origin, and vanishing apparitions are in abundance, though none of them provoke fear nor laughter from the audience. Stutter and Kan never seem to know what, exactly, their movie wants to be when it grows up. Is it a serious genre picture? A laugh-out-loud spoof of all those silly clichés we’ve come to loathe from the bowels of Asian horror? Your guess is as good as mine, I’m afraid.
That said, the film does sport a few noteworthy moments, most of them stemming from cameos by “Flight of the Conchords” alumni Jemaine Clement, Bret McKenzie, and Rhys Darby. Raybon Kan, meanwhile, is almost too annoying for words, and he never seems very comfortable carrying the picture on his mildly-entertaining shoulders. Considering he’s in almost every scene, this becomes an unfortunate problem by the end of the picture. Had his character been a genuinely likeable fellow, the impact of certain jokes, as well as the ill-conceived romantic subplot, would have been a lot stronger.
Although I desperately hate to label the film in such a manner, “Diagnosis: Death” will probably only appeal to die-hard fans of “Flight of Conchords.” In addition to being extremely slow on the uptake, the picture never properly finds its footing, leaving you with the feeling that a bit more spit and polish could have been used to smooth out the rough edges. The jokes are mediocre, the scares are mediocre, and the performances are painfully mediocre -- in other words, it’s your basic middle-of-the-road horror/comedy sprinkled with a handful of memorable moments. Were it not for my affinity towards its cast and crew, I doubt I would've even bothered.