Queen of the Dead is a 2019 short surreal horror film with psychological undertones written and directed by Justin Bernard Head of Slasher Films. The film has won several awards including the 2019 Tabloid Witch Awards and the 2020 Chicago Indie Film Awards. It stars Trista Robinson as Jacqueline Gibson and Greg Standifer as Father Alan.
Justin Bernard Head’s love for black and white films and horrors of the 1940s as well as his admiration for Maya Deren’s iconic surreal silent shorts of the 1950s is made manifest in Queen of the Dead. His intriguing film follows a non-linear plot line and is informed heavily by The Seventh Victim, a 1943 American horror film noir directed by Mark Robson, Night of the Hunter a thriller from the ’50s directed by Charles Laughton, and Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon. Yet, Queen of the Dead has also brilliant sparkles of originality and successfully creates its own universe and atmosphere.
As Justin B. Head mentions in his interview with rabbitinred.com, he has conducted a lot of research on the founder of Wicca and the core elements of the religion and, as a result, the film is replete with all kinds of items used in this religion. The informative description in white that forms the outstanding opening credits, and appears on a black screen with a pentacle in the background provides the viewer with adequate knowledge to enter the macabre black and white world of the film, enabling them to piece together the narration.
Jacqueline Gibson, a young female author of fantasy novels whose latest novel has received trenchantly negative criticism, is fired by her own publisher. Bewildered, dejected, and forlorn, she tries to face the disgrace and navigate herself amidst the confusion and snafu the situation has created. As she moves back to her mother’s house as a resort, she finds out she is being stalked by some masked people who, as she discovers later, are the members of a devilish cult who plan to make her their leader. Jackie has lost her parents and the only one she can turn to for help is Father Alan, who lives two doors away and has apparently been married to Jackie’s mother after the death of her father. Discovering appalling facts about Father Alan, Jacqueline is eventually drawn to the cult and has to decide her fate.
The surreal attitude of the film is achieved through scenes where making a distinction between the workings of the conscious and unconscious becomes impossible with the help of black-and-white visual style, lighting and mise en scene as the narrative unfolds smoothly. The more the film proceeds, the more Jackie’s conscious and unconscious merge which is suggestive of her “surreal existential journey”, as the director puts it, of navigating her self and taking control of her life. Needless to say, the aim of the surreal movement was, according to its leader Andre Breton in Manifesto of Surrealim, to "resolve the previously contradictory conditions of dream and reality into an absolute reality, a super-reality", or surreality, and this is what Jaqueline accomplishes by the end of the film.
She becomes autonomous only after she connects with her subconscious and gains access to its repertoire of imagination and knowledge. This connection is symbolically represented by her meeting with Pan and Diana, both deities that are interestingly associated with the wild and fertility. After this dreamlike encounter, she is capable of resolving her inner conflicts and by liberating herself from the father figure and assuming the role of a true author.
Jacqueline gets her name from the sister in The Seventh Victim who is part of a Satanic cult. She is first introduced at the beginning of the film gazing vaguely out of the window. The camera then follows her look when she casts her eyes on the bed and the suitcase located there, and starts packing. This sequence along with the moving of the camera around the place allowing the viewer to explore the items and photos around the house introduce the theme of the self-discovery journey and the Wiccan cult. White candles, the pentacle in different forms such as an amulet or a pendant, images and statues of pre-Christian figures, and Father Alan’s photo beside her parents’ wedding photo are repeating motifs that reinforce the theme and accentuate the gothic mood. The locations, mostly vintage, compellingly “reflect the older look but also give a sense that the film could take place at any time” (Justin B. Head’s interview mentioned above) while the dreamlike flashbacks in color depict a different world.
The black-and-white visual style reflects the old classic horror movies and is perfectly aligned with the dark gothic atmosphere of the film. Another feature that helps render the mentioned qualities is the use of miniature effects, including the exquisitely crafted cemetery set. These miniature effects give the film “a sense of artificialness” that old horrors had.
Queen of the Dead can give the audience what every horror film must: horror, horror that is expertly heightened by the excellent use of music and professional editing. Persuasive acting has brought the characters to life and added to the overall tone of the film. It adeptly breaks the expectations of the viewer prompting them to watch the film again and again.