“The Dead Ones” centers around teenagers cleaning up their high school at night as detention. Photos courtesy of Sick-O-Scope Motion Pictures

They say making an independent film is a journey, but for director Jeremy Kasten, “The Dead Ones” may have spanned an entire career.

The Baltimore-born filmmaker has some six features under his belt, including such moody and often unnerving horrors as 2001’s “The Attic Expeditions” (starring Seth Green and genre idol Jeffrey Combs), 2006’s bloody vampire film “The Thirst,” and the 2007 remake of Herschel Gordon Lewis’ infamous slasher anti-classic “The Wizard of Gore,” featuring Crispin Glover in the title role. When I worked at Videoport (RIP), we happily carried Kasten’s films without me realizing they were by the same director, a guy who, four years ago, moved from filmmaking HQ Los Angeles right here to Maine.

Kasten credits the documentary “Food, Inc.” for his family’s decision to set up a homestead farm in the town of Berwick, explaining, “It changed me. I never wanted to eat an animal that had had a sucky life again.” He also credits his adopted home state with helping him reclaim some of himself after decades toiling in the often bewildering world of Hollywood, where, in addition to his own films, Kasten served as the behind-the-scenes documentarian for everything from Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films to Clint Eastwood’s “Trouble With the Curve.” Referring back to his environmental awakening with “Food, Inc.,” Kasten says, “That, combined with a sense of the world getting complicated in a way that was uncomfortable, made me want to get away and do normal people things.”

Jeremy Kasten on his farm in Berwick. Photo courtesy of Jeremy Kasten

For the busy Kasten, that has meant filming promotional videos for the town of Berwick, raising goats (heard impatiently bleating during our milking-time phone call) and making the short “1918” for the 2018 edition of Maine horror film anthology Damnationland. He’s also renovating his barn to try to recapture some of the live entertainment magic he rediscovered when he and Glover frequented the famous Magic Castle in preparation for “The Wizard of Gore,” an experience that Kasten says is where he’s putting most of his creativity these days. “Maine has been kind of encased in amber,” says Kasten admiringly. “It doesn’t so much feel like it’s looking backward as it does appeal toward a little more quietude.” Kasten plans to liven things up by inviting professional entertainers (from Maine and away) who, likewise, think a second-story gig in a Maine barn with animals on the first floor is just the thing to get their – and the community’s – creative juices flowing (once this pandemic is past).

Still, Kasten’s filmmaking journey had one, perhaps last, monumental hurdle to overcome. That’s the long-delayed release of “The Dead Ones,” a high school-set horror film he shot way back in 2009, and which has languished unreleased for 11 years. Technically, the film is still unreleased (it hits streaming and VOD on Sept. 29), although it’s garnering not-inconsiderable buzz among the horror reviewers Kasten has sent it to. The cheekily named FilmSchoolRejects.com, in fact, put “The Dead Ones” at No. 1 on its list, “The Best Horror Movies of 2019.”

Kasten kindly sent me a screener, too.

A nighttime detention turns weird, then dark, then gory in “The Dead Ones.”

“The Dead Ones” (and here I get spoiler-circumspect) is about four teens sent to a nighttime detention cleanup of the high school they’ve been accused of trashing. (Shot in an abandoned Baltimore school, the film suggests they really did a number on it.) As the night goes on, things get weird. And dark. And intermittently – then unrelentingly – gory. So far, so standard for the genre, although “The Dead Ones” opens with disjointed scenes all too familiar, and real-world sickening. Flashes of surveillance footage show people in trench coats and gas masks, toting guns through the school’s halls. Without revealing more than that about the film’s twisting narrative, school shootings, self-harm, bullying, child abuse and more all wind into the plot until the 76-minute parade of horrors jerks to its end.

High school, as they say, is hell.

For Kasten, his long-ago ambition was to tell a story about young people, pain and what that pain can do to them, a lofty goal that he yet anticipated would alienate some potential viewers. And investors. And distributors. But now, in 2020 and embarked upon a new chapter in life, Kasten finds himself finally confronted with the challenge of selling his deliberately provocative and disturbing tale all over again. “It’s like I’m living two separate lives,” says Kasten, “trying to promote a film I made so long ago and do right by it.” Noting that he’s enjoyed his subsequent career making what he terms “cheeky and wonderful” genre movies, Kasten says that this feature was a story “about something, from the heart, and well-intentioned.”

Does “The Dead Ones” transcend the potentially offensive co-opting of such ugly real-life tragedy? Kind of. The young, then-unknown cast is committed, and mines teen angst for some genuinely wrenching emotion amidst the carnage. The film’s inside-out structure and temporal games nod toward the horrific cycle of cause-and-effect when it comes to abuse and violence. Eleven years of special effects tinkering and resourcefulness has lent a jarring visceral charge to some of the scares. It’s a horror film with a brain in its head and something it wants to say. It’s also designed to make viewers sick, a goal it accomplishes – for better or worse – right through to the fittingly somber end. Did I like “The Dead Ones”? I don’t think “like” is the right word. But it’s a real movie, and something horror fans with an itch to explore the fringes should seek out as soon as it’s released.

As for Kasten, there’s a Maine barn to fix up, goats to care for, and the chance to recapture some of the showbiz magic that drew him to directing in the first place. But first, there’s one last movie to put out.

Look for “The Dead Ones” on Sept. 29 on DVD, Blu-ray, and streaming on iTunes, Amazon Prime Video, GooglePlay, Vimeo, KinoNow.

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Auburn with his wife and cat.

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