Ever witness a really great performance by a street musician or a student actor? A display that makes you think “why the hell aren’t they famous? They’re better than most of the professionals.” Well, part of that is because, unfortunately, opportunities aren’t usually given entirely on merit. You may have all the talent in the world, but getting your foot in the door of most industries is a Herculean task unless you happen to be friends with, or related to, someone within the business already. For Jeremy Saulnier, this film was his epic drum solo… that was played on a pair of trashcans because that’s all he could afford.
SUMMARY OF A SUMMARY
Lonely guy finds invitation to Halloween “Murder Party.” Finds out it’s an actual Murder Party with him as victim. Fortunately, the murderers are all incompetent art students who mostly kill themselves trying to kill him, before he gets free and turns the tables.
Christopher (Chris Sharp), a super sad and lonely guy, finds a random invitation to a Halloween “Murder Party” on the street. Rather than re-use his previous Halloween costume, he makes a new one, a suit of armor, out of a cardboard box. He makes pumpkin bread and heads to the party, which takes him through some bad neighborhoods to a crappy warehouse on the Brooklyn Shore.
There, he meets the hosts of the party, a group of art students who, being broke, are all also in cheap costumes. There’s Vampire Paul (Paul Goldblatt), The Warriors Baseball Fury Bill (William Lacey), Zombie Cheerleader Sky (Skei Saulnier), Werewolf Macon (Macon Blair), and Lexi (Stacy Rock) who’s dressed as Pris from Blade Runner. Macon tries to murder Chris, but fails, forcing the group to tie Chris to a chair, revealing that he is the victim of their very real Murder Party.
While they wait for the mysterious “Alexander,” their patron (Sandy Barnett), Sky eats Chris’ pumpkin bread which contains non-organic raisins, which she is allergic to. She says she just gets dizzy, but falls down and impales her head on some rusty machinery, killing her comically. Angry, Macon pours a bottle of acid on Chris, but it turns out to be diluted Acetic Acid (Vinegar) and does nothing. The group finds out that Alexander is near and hides Sky’s body. Alexander arrives with his friend Zycho (Bill Tangradi), who no one knows.
Throughout the night, the remaining art students get high and kiss up to Alexander hoping he’ll pay them to make art, resulting in them starting to turn on each other. Then, it’s revealed that Alexander’s not actually wealthy, resulting in the group turning on him as well. Everyone starts killing each other, mostly with Chris watching, until finally Chris escapes and is chased down by Bill, who Chris is forced to kill, before finally heading home, exhausted, in his knight costume.
So, if you’re a regular reader, you’ve heard me talk about Jeremy Saulnier’s other two movies Blue Ruin and Green Room because I think they’re both masterworks. Green Room, in particular, is a horror movie that somehow never has any character acting irrationally, takes place mostly in one room, is almost unnervingly realistic, and is intense from start to finish. This movie shows where a lot of those elements would come from.
This movie was made on a small budget. I mean, it’s estimated to have cost $190,000 by Saulnier, but that’s still a pretty cheap for this kind of film. To put this in perspective, Roger Corman, the king of B-movies, thought you couldn’t make a professional-looking film for $250,000. Sure, Clerks was shot for $27,000 and El Mariachi only cost $7,000 (and $250,000 of labor by Robert Rodriguez), but you can see the difference in the quality of the camerawork and lighting versus those movies. It does explain why the majority of this film is set in one location and consists mostly of the characters just talking to each other. There aren’t a ton of effects in the film, so the ones that are there tend to be used very well.
One interesting thing about the movie that helps make it feel less awkward that we’re just watching the people talking in a circle is that the protagonist is in the same state. Chris spends most of the movie bound to a chair, just watching these events unfold, frequently being the only one to see certain things happen, which makes us feel connected to his PoV.
It’s also interesting that the movie forces Chris at points to deal with the bland inconveniences that are mostly hand-waved by other films, something that is hinted at early on when it has Chris return to the kitchen to turn the light off before he leaves. When Chris first tries to escape, he’s unable to figure out a plan despite being in a room full of objects that could be used as weapons in a traditional horror film, opting instead just to throw stuff at them and try to run. He can’t resist making a pun when the group starts doing it. When he does escape, he has to pee immediately, having held it for hours, resulting in Bill finding him. He stops to take his meds during the climax chase. Best of all, at the end of the movie, he’s lost his wallet and has to walk home while dressed as a cardboard knight and covered in blood. It’s little touches that distinguish the movie and show the origin of the elements of realism that set Green Room apart.
Also, much like Green Room, the protagonist in this movie isn’t a complete dumbass. Yes, he goes to the party in the first place, but who would have thought it was an actual murder party? When he tries to escape, he takes the freight conveyer up, then when Bill follows him, he reverses it. When he gets to the student house, he keeps trying to find a phone first. He does actually do a decent job of representing how an average person would deal with something this crazy.
The villains aren’t exactly brilliant, however, and that’s part of the fun of the movie. They’re the least competent people to attempt a murder plot and they’re desperately seeking the approval and money of a man who is manipulating them with basically no effort. The movie takes a not-so-subtle shot at the nature of many “artists” who are more focused with the image of being an artist than with the actual work. They even have one of the characters admit that the rest of them want to kick Bill out of the group because he actually has talent and makes them feel inferior. At the end of the movie, Bill seems to be rejecting the art scene in favor of just killing everyone, but then stops to have a fancy drink at a party and talk with his friend who likes his work, indicating that even his rejection is still just an act.
I also love that they kowtow constantly to Alexander on the almost inane hope of getting a magically huge grant, to the point that they’re willing to ritualistically murder a person for it. It’s also a nice touch that each of them has a different medium (Painting, photography, film, performance art) which kind of reflects their personalities within the film. They’re actually much more traditionally explored than Chris is, except that we are given some great scenes to get to know Chris in a short amount of time without a lot of dialogue (which every other film should take note of). By the end of the movie, you feel like you know a surprising amount about each of these people.
Overall, I think this movie needs to get more attention, particularly with Halloween approaching. It’s funny, it’s got a lot of the Halloween spirit in it, it’s got gore, it’s got two scenes of costume sex, it’s got candy… it’s basically everything that’s great about the holiday. Give it a watch this October!
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