They could be kinky Sunset Strip thrillers tucked away on late-night cable or, just as often these days, mainstream horror hits, but 9 out of 10 of the movies that deal with serial killers, hookers, and the perils of life in the sleaze lane can justifiably be labeled exploitation films, and it’s worth recalling why. They tap our voyeurism in a way that inspires fear, or a certain dangerous excitement — the lure of underground kicks — but not, for the most part, empathy. These are films that exist to scare and stimulate rather than to make you feel anything.
Karen Moncrieff’s The Dead Girl is a disturbing, and enthralling, exception. It opens with the discovery of a prostitute’s blood-caked corpse in a scraggly field, then spins off in half a dozen directions to look at the lives she touched. In scenes that are hushed and jagged, shot with murky natural light yet charged with unstable emotion, we meet the anonymous killer (Nick Searcy) and, more disquietingly, his wife, played by Mary Beth Hurt as a mouse of rage — the ultimate domestic enabler. A young woman (Rose Byrne), believing the corpse to be that of her lost sister, is jolted out of a depression, and we see the murdered prostitute in flashback on her degraded spiral — Brittany Murphy, her mouth a crooked smear, plays her as a little girl trapped in a grown-up body. Moncrieff (Blue Car) pushes a view of women as victims that might create its own pornography of masochism if it didn’t touch so many authentic shattered nerve endings.