Tamara (2006)

2006-02-16 (Limited release)

Early, positive reviews of Tamara, which premiered at the New York City Horror Film Festival to a standing ovation last year, compared it to Brian DePalma’s Carrie. Both movies follow the tribulations of a “misunderstood” teenaged girl with antagonists who meet with vicariously vengeful comeuppance. And both feature unstable parental figures, though in Tamara, Piper Laurie’s bible-pounding mother is replaced by an alcoholic, abusive father (Chris Sigurdson).

But Tamara suffers by the comparison. Carrie’s (Sissy Spacek) shift from sorrowful outcast to blood-drenched, vindictive killer is gradual and grindingly inevitable, such that viewers feel worried and engaged, praying the bucket of blood won’t fall on her. Tamara at first seems a next step after that film, as if Carrie had emerged from her grave to continue wreaking revenge on her torturers. But Tamara (Jenna Dewan) is afforded none of her precursor’s high-school gravitas. Her death, which comes early, is treated in a perfunctory manner, and her ensuing brutality is not a matter of emotional “development.”

Tamara starts typically, but convincingly. Tamara is an aspiring witch with a crush on her English teacher, Mr. Natolly (Matthew Marsden) and a flair for writing. Her latest article for the school newspaper, exposing the use of steroids among athletes, leads to disparagement by her mean classmates. The popular kids decide to manipulate her crush into a public humiliation. Needless to say, the prank goes south, and within 30 minutes, Tamara is dead on the floor and later buried in the woods. The next day at school, however, she’s back as an undead sexpot, with her skirt hiked high, her shirt cut low, and the ability to manipulate people by touching them. Sexy yet creepy, she engineers a lulu of a first vengeance killing.

Still, we root more for her nemeses, Chloe (Katie Stuart) and Jesse (Chad Faust) than for her. In addition to explaining the plot to us, these two are also supposed to stop Tamara’s rampage, in between discussing their guilt and regret in equal measures. And they are dull: whenever they’re on screen and Tamara is not presenting a clear, cogent danger, the film drags painfully. Mr. Natolly fares slightly better. Unlike his younger counterparts, he never patronizes the viewer with his moralizing. Aroused and frightened by Tamara at the same time, he also appears worried about his wife, whom Tamara marks for death.

But all characters in slasher movies are deployed in supported of the kill scenes. And Tamara‘s are suitably creative. Some of the deaths and torments Tamara doles out take on a Se7en-like quality, turning sin against the sinner and doling out justice (a weight-conscious girl is forced to vomit until she bleeds; a boy is forced to act out the phrase “Hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil” in literal fashion, with help of a knife). Other assaults, including impalement, are less innovative.

Many of the film’s flaws might be overlooked when one realizes that it was originally planned as a direct-to-DVD project. Watched in that light, Tamara is sexy, gory fun, but it’s certainly nothing more. Though it lingers on weighty questions of moral choice and culpability, without performances or a script to grant such problems some context, they tend to dissipate. The cheesy poster for Tamara shows a pouty Jenna Dewan in a miniskirt, carrying a huge axe. The tagline reads, “Revenge Has a Killer Body.” I wish I had seen that movie instead.