U Be Dead (2009)


UK. 2009.


Director – Jamie Payne, Teleplay – Gwyneth Hughes, Producer – Elinor Day, Photography – Mike Southon, Music – Dominik Scherrer, Production Design – James Lewis. Production Company – Darlow Smithson Productions


David Morrissey (Dr Jan Falkowski), Tara Fitzgerald (Debra Pemberton), Lucy Griffiths (Bethan Ansell), Monica Dolan (Maria Marchese), Thomas Craig (DC Lee Rutter), Daniel Betts (Mark Fenhall), Pip Torrens (Peter Higginson), Alexis Zegerman (Gemma), Richard Lumsden (DC Steven Thorpe), Simon Snashall (DC Foggy Horne), Sean Blowers (DC Simon Nation), David Kennedy (DS Malcolm Davies), Lucy Robinson (Kay Scudder), John McArdle (Brian Pemberton), Jan Francis (Irene Pemberton), Guy Henry (Stephen Perrian)


Jan Falkowski is a successful psychologist in Poole, Dorset. Out of the blue, he and his fiancee Debra Pemberton begin to receive a series of text messages threatening them, saying that the anonymous sender has hired a hitman and will kill Debra if she marries Jan. There are soon dozens of text per day and the two of them live in fear of their lives. Calls also go out to their friends and family, even maliciously cancelling their wedding arrangements. The police are unable to trace the mystery caller as they are using a public phonebox to send the messages. The stress is such that it pushes them apart and Jan begins an affair with the much younger Bethan Ansell. The police finally lay a trap for the date of the wedding, telling nobody that Jan and Debra have cancelled the wedding and then tracking the phoneboxes around Poole as the stalker texts everybody. They arrest Argentinean-born woman Maria Marchese, who was the friend of one of Jan’s patients. However, the police are forced to release Maria because there is not enough evidence to convict her. Maria then presses charges of rape against Jan, showing a pair of her panties stained with his semen as evidence. Charged by the police as a rapist, yet knowing he did nothing, Jan is unable to believe what is happening.

U Be Dead is a British-made tv movie about a female stalker. Of course, what sets U Be Dead above all the other films about deranged female stalker films out there since Fatal Attraction (1987) is that it takes place in the 00s where the stalking has been updated to take place amid modern innovations like cellular technology and DNA evidence. U Be Dead never does anything radical with the psycho-thriller genre. It doesn’t even come with any of the dark and twisted surprises that the genre is constantly foisting on us. That said, UK tv director Jamie Payne does create a commendable sense of oppressiveness out of the ever-present ringing of cellphones. The constant texts and threats insidiously invading David Morrissey and Tara Fitzgerald’s lives creates a strong and effective sense of paranoia.

Of course, what one did not know until they had finishing watching is that U Be Dead is based on a true story. Exactly as the film recounts, respected Dorset psychologist Jan Falkowski and his fiancee Deborah Pemberton were targeted by a vicious series of anonymous phone calls, emails and in particular text messages over an eleven month period between October 2002 and September 2003, with the stalker even breaking into and vandalising Jan’s riverboat. Police eventually arrested Argentinean-born sales assistant Maria Marchese but then released her for lack of evidence. It turned out that she had attended Falkowski’s office along with her then boyfriend in 2002 and became fixated on Jan. In 2004, Marchese stole a condom that Falkowski had used, smeared her underwear with semen and pressed rape charges against him, which ended up wreaking ruin on Falkowski’s professional reputation. Although twelve months later, the police dropped all charges against Falkowski due to inconsistencies in Marchese’s story. Falkowski then pressed to have charges brought against Marchese, which resulted in her being convicted for nine years in 2007. After the story hit the news, other people who had been subject to harassment by Marchese came forward with similar stories.

Given that U Be Dead is recounting a true-life story (and it would appear very faithfully), there is no particular surprise as to why it is devoid of classic psycho-thriller tropes and set-pieces. At most, we get a sequence with the police racing around the phoneboxes in the town trying to find the caller. I was surprised to find one aspect that I had thought was artistic licence upon the part of the writer – that you could send text messages from a public phonebox – appears to be something that is technically possible in reality. The story comes together effectively, building to its greatest strength during the trial scenes as Marchese’s story gains surprising sympathies and is progressively pulled apart on the witness stand.

David Morrissey – the fine British actor who has been gaining a reasonable international profile in recent years, oddly as a result of the reviled Basic Instinct 2 (2006) – gives a reasonable and worthwhile performance, even if he is stuck with a character who does not seem the most sympathetic due to the fact that he deals with his problems by engaging in an affair with a younger woman. Tara Fitzgerald gives longsuffering support as the fiancee, while Monica Dolan brings out a perfect balance of the disturbed and plausibly sympathetic as Marchese.

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