I'm all for a low-concept horror film. Sure, a high concept horror film, one with a simple idea that is easy to market and produce, is more likely to be polished and clear in its purpose, but a nice broad-reaching, low-concept, throw everything out there and see what sticks horror film can be an experience. I applaud the ambition even if the execution winds up being far more than, say, a first time writer/director could really handle.
Writer/director Jeremy Saulnier is now best known for Green Room, his masterful horror film about a punk band fighting for their lives after witnessing a brutal crime at a night club filled with neo-Nazis. The film is full of fascinating themes and diversions into discussions of passing privilege, justice, and family. It's also absurdly violent and filled with action set pieces that are only as believable as they are because of the perfect pairing of casting and concept.
To get to Green Room, Saulnier would have to make his first feature length film Murder Party. There are parallels in concept and theme. A perfectly nondescript man finds an invitation to a "Murder Party" on Halloween. He has no other plans, so he carefully crafts a costume o make himself presentable for the party. He arrives at the mysterious location where he is promptly knocked out, tied up, and told he will be murdered for the sake of art. His captors are fighting for a $300,000 grant to continue their work in photography, video installation, oil painting, or undefined media.
Murder Party is well shot. Saulnier already shows off his eye for memorable action set pieces as the party guest tries to evade the artists in a warehouse filled with boxes and conveyor belts. It's a brutal show of force as everyone is willing to use everything--from a chainsaw to a giant jug of acid--to achieve their goals (murder or survival).
The rest of the film is not as good as it looks. There's an attempt at a throwback exploitation-era aesthetic that rolls down to intentionally terrible acting. The acting is inconsistent because the intentionally awkward stares and wacky personas drop whenever the serious issues of the film come in. The screenplay doesn't stop being absurd throwback slasher nonsense, but the far-too-serious discussion of what defines art and immortality is best described as labored.
The bones are there for a good horror film. There's a great narrative progression with a clear three act structure. The prologue--an homage to Halloween iconography in film, complete with sound-alike Halloween scoring--is a hilarious montage of Halloween in NYC, complete with a woman fighting over a parking ticket and minor vandalism (kids smashing pumpkins or throwing eggs, which is nothing in a city of millions). The epilogue similarly shows the typical November 1 reaction--no reaction: New Yorkers are used to weird. Each act is book-ended by one of the strange chase sequences that usually result in a brutal act of unexpected and accidental violence against one of the artists. The last act, like any good slasher, is that final sequence of horror gags as our survivor fights against the real killer in a series of convoluted set pieces.
Murder Party just doesn't have a clear voice. I can get down with a horror film about artists committing murder to make a meaningful piece. A film about art probably has criticism of art--artists, trends, culture, etc. I honestly can't get a bead on what's being said about art in Murder Party.
Is it all bad? Are just these artists bad? And if they're bad, why are we only shown one section of one piece--a clip of a rather well-edited if silly video installation piece--rather than more of their work? And if the film is supposed to literally pit different genres of art against each other, why are we never shown two of the artists' chosen media? If it's a commentary on the transgressive art movement in NYC, it's a couple decades too late to really have any bite--2007 is a long way away from heyday of "Piss Christ." If it's artists mistakenly trying to reclaim that transgressive art movement, it's not clear enough in the references or artistic philosophy that these artists believe murdering someone is the only way to create that shocking reality in their work.
That's not even getting into just how unsatisfying and inconsistent the "you came so we're killing you" invitation concept is. There's no play or subtlety; it just starts happening. The playfulness is left for the violence, which can work really well if committed to in horror. Think Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, Roger Corman's films, or even Tourist Trap. Murder Party shifts to straight up graphic violence with purpose and violent intent rather than the sillier anything goes vibe of the first 2/3 of the film and it just doesn't line up.
What's good in Murder Party is really good. The chases, makeup, and costumes are wonderful; the plot and acting, not so much. If anything, I think it makes for a fascinating companion piece to Green Room. Both films follow a similar structure with similar riffs on community vs outsiders. It's really the difference between an experienced and inexperienced director. I imagine Green Room would have been similarly unfocused but promising if it was also made by a first-time director with big ideas and ambitions; it has the benefit of building off the experience of Murder Party (and Blue Ruin, for that matter). I guess what I'm saying is Murder Party's worth a try just to see the origin story of writer/director Jeremy Saulnier, who quickly grew to make a straight up masterpiece in the horror genre.
Murder Party is currently streaming on Netflix.
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