Synopsis: When a likeable schlub of a man, Christopher S. Hawley (Chris Sharp), finds an invitation to a costume party blowing down the street, he decides to forgo his plans of staying in and watching movies with his cat Sir Lancelot, builds himself a knight costume out of a cardboard box and shows up. MURDER PARTY, the invitation states and that has to be a Hallowe’en gag, right? He makes some pumpkin bread out of the smashed gourd on his doorstep, and then he heads on over. He is early, arriving to find five folks in costume with implements of slaughter laid out on the floor and cameras ready to roll. He gives them the bread and in turn gets tied to a chair. The party invitation is not a gag at all but a real thing: He is going to be murdered tonight to help one of these budding artists get grant money from a mysterious benefactor. As the dreaded witching hour—the time for the murder to take place—closes in, tables turn, hidden agendas are revealed, surprise visitors show up, and games are played. Before he made the highly regarded BLUE RUIN (2013) and the masterpiece of tension GREEN ROOM (2015), writer director Jeremy Saulnier made a satiric, comic, suspenseful, low budget feature: Welcome to Saulnier’s MURDER PARTY (2007).
MURDER PARTY might have been shot for $200k, but it’s a classy and creative piece that manages to walk a tightrope of suspense, action, and comedy for its lean 79 minutes running time. The film opens establishing the regular world for put upon Christopher. He’s a medicated dude who has to take pills at intervals (his watch reminds him to do this) renting horror tapes and passing a bunch of people out having fun on Halloween night, and he’s content to go home to his crappy apartment and watch movies with his cat. It’s a chance encounter with the invitation that sets off this picture and a decision of “why the hell not?” that kicks over the ash can of Christopher’s world.
The minutes used here are all used to great effect, providing a wealth of details with minimal dialogue. This is classic cinema building setting, character, and situation with some choice and straightforward visuals. The sense of humor comes to the foreground, as the party is being held way, way, WAY off the beaten path. The long walk Christopher takes to get to the party is almost a mythic decent from civilized territories to remote, isolated underworld (certainly an industrial zoned hell).
The party itself shows plenty of inspired visuals as well as showing off the writer/director’s movie knowledge pedigree. The killer artistes in the room are in costume, Macon (Macon Blair) is dressed up in a Hammer Horror type vampire finery, Lexi (Stacy Rock) is dressed up as Pris from 1982’s BLADE RUNNER, quiet Bill (William Lacey) is dressed up as the leader of the Baseball Furies gang from Walter Hill’s 1979 action classic THE WARRIORS, Sky (Skei Saulnier) is dressed as a zombie cheerleader, and tubby dude Paul (Paul Goldblatt) is content to wear a rubber werewolf mask and hoodie. Here is a production team versed in visually engaging cinema cleverly showing off the sorts of pictures they like without being too cute about it. When the benefactor Alexander (Sandy Barnett), also done up as a vampire, and his Russian drug dealer Zycho (Bill Tangradi) show up (not the last to make their way into this picture or this scenario), there’s already plenty of tension to work with. Alexander only adds a weirdly menacing stalker vibe to the proceedings, since he is equally interested in Making Art and Pushing Artists To Excel as he is in satisfying his libido. The movie demonstrates character and the relationships between them all in intriguing ways using all the tools of cinema.
There are a lot of clever moments in the film, rising from the screenplay, the camera work, and the directorial choices. Saulnier might be working on a shoestring budget, but he makes the money work hard for his picture. MURDER PARTY is one of those movies that has energy to spare, funny lines and scenes throughout, a real quality of building tension, and an awareness of audience expectations for exploitation/low budget suspense pictures. It uses these expectations to its own advantage.
Take the scene when Chris first gets away. He races through the warehouse location, shoving through racks and past boxes while the party hosts chase him with baseball bats, chainsaws, axes, etc. He finds himself faced with a closet. In he goes, and closes the door behind him. It is a janitor supply closet, and the camera offers numerous flash cuts to various objects in there. Cut to outside the closet, with the killer artistes closing in like ghouls in a NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) clone. Chris is working out a plan, and when the door bangs open and he appears, his arms are filled with the results of that plan. The murderers stop, startled. Chris then throws all the crap he has amassed onto the floor, and runs through the startled mob, getting away for a short amount of time.
We know these movies. Chris is supposed to come up with an ingenious way to use a fire extinguisher, some duct work, and other things he finds. He is supposed to MacGuyver and John McClane his way out of the mess. However, Chris is neither of those characters. He’s a guy in way over his head. The scene builds tension and expertly undercuts it with an honest laugh (full disclosure: I guffawed when Christopher’s “plan” was enacted). There are a huge number of moments like that in the film.
Saulnier demonstrates his creativity for the mayhem that would carry over into his future features. MURDER PARTY has heart and a sense of humor, and it stretches its modest budget quite nicely through creativity and wit. The grisly effects are well done, and as the movie kicks into its third act, it also breaks out of the single warehouse locale as well, venturing across city rooftops and into a completely different party where more bedlam is unleashed.
It’s one hell of a fun ride and a rewarding watch whether during the Hallowe’en season or any time, really.
Next time, we will take a look at the new thriller WIDOWS (based on the novel by Lynda La Plante), which is currently playing in theaters. It’s a heist movie about those left behind by failed heisters, and it’s got a great cast and some rave reviews from plenty of other critics. Let’s see what a suspense fan (who has been reading a bunch of heist novels this year) like myself has to say . . .