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‘Dead Mail’: Inside the Buzzy SXSW Thriller That Feels Like a Sinister ’80s VHS Found Deep in a Midwest Closet

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From its first frames, “Dead Mail” feels dangerous.

Grainy footage shows a chained man desperately crawling out of a house to a mailbox, trying to mail a blood-soaked letter alerting someone to his address. Hazy synth notes dot the soundtrack. As he flees in terror, the film looks grainy and warm, something you’d stumble on in an insomniac haze on the high-numbered cable channels.

Courtesy of Dead Mail LLC

That nostalgic vibe was what inspired filmmakers Kyle McConaghy and Joe DeBoer, who wrote and directed “Dead Mail.” Despite the nightmarish opening, the action then moves to the titular department inside a Midwest post office, with a set that looks pulled straight from the ’80s. But this isn’t the neon-drenched ’80s that filmmakers often fetishize, but an era filled with neutral tones, drab interiors and carpets that look saturated with cigarette smoke.

“The big thing was finding locations that felt right, props that we knew were authentic to the era,” McConaghy said. “It was a mantra we had for all the departments. If we’re choosing between two phones or two sweaters, definitely go for the more atypical one, the stranger option. Collaborating with our production designer and costume designer, we weren’t trying to make a revisionist ’80s, but a version that feels new to us.”

Courtesy of Dead Mail LLC

DeBoer, who met McConaghy during sixth-grade recess, cites the “gritty, authentic Midwest that we grew up in” as the inspiration for their work. And while movies like Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 classic “The Conversation” gave them inspiration for the noir plot, the film’s visual language came from unexpected places.

“Street photography was a big influence, like Jamel Shabazz,” McConaghy said. “Then there was a Mormon production company in the ’80s that made all of these straight-to-VHS family films. It sounds corny, but also family photos in the ’80s. There was only film and a lot of those photos are pretty cool, even with normal Midwest folk taking them without any camera skills. So I dug through a lot of those for inspiration.”

Courtesy of Dead Mail LLC

McConaghy and DeBoer made their “very indie” film in six weeks, and by the end, money was so tight that the final days of shooting were done with by the duo and producer holding the boom mic. After McConaghy edited “Dead Mail,” then they sent it as a blind submission to SXSW, a stressful situation as they debated if they even had the $80 needed to have it considered.

With its world premiere in Austin on Saturday, the pair is excited to share their fresh and quirky vision with the world — a creative partnership built from a foundation of friendship and trust. In true indie film fashion, DeBoer sums up their collaboration with a self-deprecating quip.

“There’s an old adage we always go back to,” he said. “If we can both be an individual C+, but combined, we’re a B-, why wouldn’t we entertain that?”