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Fear Of Death Is Contagious In The Psychological Thriller 'She Dies Tomorrow'

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The new independent thriller "She Dies Tomorrow," written and directed by Amy Seimetz, was scheduled to premiere in March at the South by Southwest Film Festival before that event was canceled because of the pandemic. The film's now playing at some drive-in theaters and will be available on video on demand platforms on Friday. Our film critic Justin Chang says "She Dies Tomorrow" feels surprisingly in tune with our present moment of unease.

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: Everything you need to know going into "She Dies Tomorrow" is pretty much right there in the title. This moody and morbidly funny psychological horror film opens on a young woman who awakens one morning with a horrifying premonition of doom. She believes that she's going to die tomorrow, and it sends her into an eerily calm, almost zombie-like trance. She wanders the rooms of her recently purchased Los Angeles home. She plays Mozart's "Requiem" repeatedly on her record player and shops online for an urn to hold her cremated remains. She never explains why she thinks her death is imminent, but the look on her face is so grave and haunted that we find ourselves believing it, too. The woman, played by the excellent actress Kate Lyn Sheil, is named Amy. Not coincidentally, that's also the name of the filmmaker, Amy Seimetz, who has said that the movie was inspired by her own experiences with anxiety and her recognition of how easily that panic could affect those around her. In "She Dies Tomorrow," the fear of death proves contagious. The mere act of telling someone that you're going to die tomorrow is enough to plant the idea that they're going to die tomorrow - and so on, and so on.

The first person Amy tells is her friend, Jane, played with a sharp comic edge by Jane Adams, who thinks she's being ridiculous. But the seed has been planted. By the time Jane stops by her brother's house, where a birthday party for her sister-in-law is in full swing, she, too, has come to believe that she's going to die tomorrow. And once she voices this fear to the other party guests, it's only a matter of time before they also succumb. In the montage you're about to hear, Seimetz uses thunderously loud music, written by Mondo Boys, and wild strobe lighting effects to achieve startling moments of operatic intensity.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SHE DIES TOMORROW")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: I'm going to die. I'm going to die tomorrow.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: I'm going to die tomorrow.

CHANG: Throughout the movie, in these feverishly heightened intervals, Seimetz seems to be expressing a level of horror that the characters themselves cannot. Jane's brother and sister-in-law, that's Chris Messina and Katie Aselton, do panic a little over what will happen to their daughter when they're both gone. But for the most part, everyone here tends to retreat into their own private moods, showing little concern for others. Jennifer Kim plays a party guest who abruptly breaks off a relationship, something she'd been meaning to do for months. Her now ex-boyfriend, played by Tunde Adebimpe, does something much more frighteningly impulsive.

Interestingly, no one really tries to ward off the crisis or even figure out what's going on. A sense of futility sets in and stays there. There's something troublingly resonant for me about the characters' inertia. Speaking as someone who's able to work from home and hasn't suffered as so many have during the pandemic, I'm not afraid of dying tomorrow. But I recognize something of myself in Seimetz's characters, the ones who retreat into a state of false calm, maybe because screaming and expressing how they really feel might be too horrible or flat out exhausting to bear.

I don't want to overstate the metaphorical implications of "She Dies Tomorrow," which was made well before the pandemic. But Seimetz clearly has her finger on something about how people might respond - or not respond - to an invisible threat. She's made a fascinating disaster movie of the mind. This is the second feature Seimetz has written and directed seven years after her debut film, the lovers-on-the-run drama, "Sun Don't Shine." She's worked for more than a decade as an actor, writer, director and producer rooted in the independent film world, but with increasing forays into Hollywood. She's one of the key creative forces behind the TV series "The Girlfriend Experience." And you might also have seen her performances in recent studio thrillers like "Alien: Covenant" and "Pet Cemetery," a role that helped her finance this much lower budget horror movie.

Depending on your persuasion, a film like "She Dies Tomorrow" might not sound like ideal pandemic viewing. But I think one of the great virtues of the horror genre is that it can put our own fears into perspective. There can be enormous value in confronting our feelings of dread head-on and feeling a sense of kinship with characters who are confronting theirs, too. Seimetz doesn't provide easy answers. She also doesn't tell us if her characters' worries are justified. She closes the movie on a note pitched between serenity and alarm, leaving us to wonder if the end is as near as it seems or if tomorrow might, in fact, be another day.

DAVIES: Justin Chang is film critic for The LA Times. On tomorrow's show, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson talks about her new book "Caste." It's about the rigid, racial hierarchy created in America and why, she says, it qualifies as being a caste system. Wilkerson won a National Book Critics Circle Award for her previous book about the Great Migration of African Americans from the South to the North. I hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF KITTLE AND CO.'S "ALPENA")

DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering help today from Charlie Kaier. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF KITTLE AND CO.'S "ALPENA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.