Serial killers: they’re just like us. While most horror movies try to make us afraid of the anonymous figure with a knife who’s left a trail of bodies in their wake, every once in awhile a film comes along to make us relate to the “maniacs” of the world—to reach inside our souls and make us realize that maybe, just maybe, murderers aren’t so bad after all. Writer-director Rollyn Stafford’s 1 Dead Dog is just that film.
(Joking, of course. Murder is pretty bad. Please don’t do it.)
With a title like 1 Dead Dog, you might expect Killer Valley Horror Film Festival’s 2020 feature presentation to run on the wrong side of exploitation and violence against animals, but it’s far from that sort of movie. Stafford’s second feature film is an offbeat dark comedy about Treacy and Noah, two brothers who travel to their family cabin to find a place to bury their beloved family dog, Dot. When they find a squatter named Emily living in the cabin, they begrudgingly let her stay, and she helps them bond with each other and reconcile their differences. It just so happens that Treacy, Noah, and Emily are all prone to sudden bouts of stabbing people to death, and that might get in the way of their time together…or help them relate to each other even more.
A movie like this lives and dies by its cast, and luckily 1 Dead Dog delivers on a solid ensemble of well-written and well-acted characters. Each of the protagonists is portrayed so well that I could swear I’d met them before somewhere. Treacy (played by Daniel Timothy Treacy) appears stoic and reserved at first, slowly letting more of himself show through as the story plays out and he connects with his brother and new friend. On the other hand, Noah (played by Brian Sutherland) seems to have it all with his well-paying job and loving wife, but it’s not enough to conceal the tension he still has with his brother, despite trying to maintain a friendly vibe with most people he connects with. Both brothers’ personalities are even reflected in their murders; Treacy is a silent killer while Noah revels in gloating over his victims.
Rounding out the main cast is Killer Valley Best Actress award winner Meagan Karimi-Naser as Emily, who absolutely steals every scene. Emily is talkative, witty, and almost too cheerful, enough so to make Noah want to get rid of her almost immediately. As time goes on, however, she proves to be the catalyst for their reconnection and gets them to talk to each other about their secrets while revealing some of her own, as well as helping the brothers contribute to their own respective body counts. Rollyn Stafford’s writing and Karimi-Naser’s portrayal allow Emily to walk the line between comedy, darkness, and humanity without ever stepping too far one direction or the other; she’s funny, a little bit scary, and most importantly, feels like someone you could meet in your everyday life.
Mark Patton of A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge also deserves special mention for his welcome appearance as Treacy and Noah’s mildly irritating (yet lovely to watch) Uncle Ted; Patton only appears in a handful of scenes, but he’s never not fun to watch.
As the story plays out, you might expect it to devolve into much darker territory than it begins in, but Stafford’s confident direction and lighthearted sense of humor keeps 1 Dead Dog’s tone from veering too far into one genre. The film deftly balances comedy, heart, and the occasional knife to the gut as Treacy, Noah, and Emily open up to each other (and open up the people that rub them the wrong way), and manages to maintain that balance all the way up to the ending credits. It’s a bold choice to tell a heartwarming story about nostalgia, family, and friendship through the lens of a group of people whose main methods of expressing themselves always seem to end with another corpse to hide, and yet it works far better than one might expect.
This lens even contributes to the horror undercurrent of the film—Treacy, Noah, and Emily are all ruthless killers, but they’re all human. Several offbeat horror comedies have attempted to humanize the killers at their center before, but 1 Dead Dog’s upbeat tone and excellent writing manages to make the viewer forget that the protagonists here do some very bad things to unwind. It took some time after watching the film for me to remember that the murders committed by Treacy, Noah, and Emily are such an important part of the story, and I think this contributes to the film’s brilliance in making us feel for people who kill to relax.
Composer Bryan Minus also deserves some important credit for his original score, which brings the film’s offbeat mood and sense of humor to the forefront. Minus’s music for 1 Dead Dog is a downbeat yet fun concoction, using guitar and organ parts to reinforce the story’s woodsy setting and tongue-in-cheek silliness. A string section appears to add tension to the film’s moments of murder, and the consistently jazzy rhythm of every piece helps to tie everything together. The more somber and serious scenes are accompanied by appropriate music as well.
I sincerely hope 1 Dead Dog gets the recognition it deserves. Nearly every aspect of it, from the story to the characters to the tone to the music, works so well toward accomplishing what the filmmakers clearly set out to do. If you get the chance to see it, I highly recommend giving it a watch.
Check out the trailer here: