I enjoy the work of director Jeremy Saulnier. He did the bleak, regular-dude-sloppily-getting-revenge movie BLUE RUIN in 2013, followed by the punks vs. bigots favorite GREEN ROOM in 2015, and then he kind of went off the radar because HOLD THE DARK (2018) only exists in the mists of Netflix, but I liked that one too.
Those three movies paint a certain picture of what kind of filmmaker Saulnier might be. They may have moments of humor, but they’re all very grim and dry, the emphasis on their unblinking look into the dark fringes of life, with a particular fascination for people not too cool to step into enormous fuck ups and messes that movie characters usually don’t. In BLUE RUIN, for example, the protagonist steals a gun to use in a murder, but it has a lock on it, so he tries to break it off with a rock, and breaks the gun. In HOLD THE DARK a guy shoots at cops from a barn with a high powered rifle and they just scurry around helplessly for several minutes until our protagonist gets a gun and takes careful aim… and then he can’t hit him either.
What I think is fairly unknown or forgotten about Saulnier is that his first film, a whole six years before the wide acclaim of BLUE RUIN, presents that view of life in the context of a straight-up horror comedy.
MURDER PARTY is about a meek, lonely, nerd named Christopher (Chris Sharp) who randomly finds an invitation to a Halloween “Murder Party” on the sidewalk in his Brooklyn neighborhood. He plans to watch horror movies by himself that night, but his cat Sir Lancelot won’t move off the chair, so instead he makes a costume and goes to this party. (One silly joke is that he goes to a big cardboard box marked “Halloween costume,” removes said costume, and makes the box itself into a suit of DIY armor.)
One of my favorite character moments for Christopher is when he’s leaving the apartment and wishes his cat a happy Halloween, because he sounds like he doesn’t really mean it and just feels obligated to say it. Another one is when he seems very intimidated by a guy (Damon Lindsay, Navy Seals: Untold Stories) rapping at him on the subway.
This character does alot of a particular type of eye bulge I think of as “Weird Al acting.” I believe it’s a comedy technique that has been abused by some of the Youtubers in recent years, but it’s effective here.
Christopher goes to the address on the invitation, and it’s a warehouse/artist loft, where five people in costume are surprised to see him. He makes awkward conversation while glancing at the plastic on the floor, with weapons laid out on it, the rope, the chair, the jug of acid, the camera on a tripod. And without much ado they grab him, gag him, tie him to the chair, and argue right in front of him about their vague plan of murdering him as an edgy art project.
The costumes of the main characters seem well thought out to represent different types – Christopher represents the shitty but elaborate home made costume. Lexi (Stacy Rock) has the best – Pris from BLADE RUNNER, with the stripe painted across her eyes and everything. Bill (William Lacey) is a close second, dressed as a Baseball Fury from THE WARRIORS. Paul’s (Paul Goldblatt, also the makeup supervisor) costume is “vampire, er, 19th century vampire” – not very imaginative, but not just Dracula, and with mutton chops. I guess Sky (Skei Saulnier) represents that one you’re not sure what it is (zombie cheerleader?). And then Macon (Macon Blair, THE FLORIDA PROJECT) has the lazy costume – just a rubber werewolf mask with normal clothes.
So that’s what they choose to wear to their “Murder Party.” There’s no pretending it’s a make-believe murder mystery or anything like that – it’s just that idea of young people who are so detached and depraved that they’ll get together and make a snuff movie for fun. The jokey spin on it is that they’re also very self conscious artists who are trying to make a name for themselves in New York, and are nervous about trying to impress some guy named Alexander (Sandy Barnett) because he supposedly has access to grant money. He shows up acting like a dangerous gang boss, accompanied by “my new best friend, Zycho,” (Bill Tangradi, ARGO), a Belarusian drug dealer who’s willing to shoot people for him and participate in his bizarre whims. For example he points the gun at Paul as jealous Alexander, who is also dressed as a vampire, demands he remove his “vampire fangs,” “vampire coat,” “vampire shirt” and “vampire pants.”
They pitch Alexander their ideas for this art project. Macon’s first try is, “Okay, we’re gonna cut this guy in half. We’re gonna dump his body in a vacant lot, we’re gonna use the press clippings as part of the paper mache elements of a massive multi-media meta-structure with participational, er…”
Lexi talks about “incorporating tonight’s event” into her almost completed video installation “Valediction In Black,” which we see in the clips includes scenes of her in a bath tub having a bunch of hot dogs thrown at her.
Bill says he just wants to cut the guy’s dick off and light him on fire – cut to tied-up Christopher’s Weird Al acting.
Alexander sits down and gives them a little pep talk that includes the claim, “When our masterpiece is complete, and the coroner’s report is back in, they will read the cause of death: art,” and ends with a plan for everybody to stab Christopher to death at “the witching hour.” Then Christopher unties himself and makes a run for it while they’re arguing about what kind of food to order.
Like RESERVOIR DOGS, this low budget debut is carefully designed to mostly take place in this one warehouse, and to involve lots of scenes with all these characters talking, and then it transcends its home-made qualities with some nice Steadicam work and a few high quality gore effects. There’s lots of mayhem worked in, including a funny/horrible/random accidental death, and a big chase during the escape attempt. A part that gives me a big laugh is when they corner him in a closet, and the camera scans around to several random objects – a pipe, some rope, a fire extinguisher – like he’s calculating how to use them to fight back. Then he bursts out of the door with an armload of junk, which he pathetically dumps on the ground, fakes left and then runs right while they stand dumbfounded.
(Two cuts later he’s fully chained and locked to the chair.)
Alexander has more ideas for debauchery. He proposes a game of “extreme truth or dare,” in which they all inject sodium amytal, then start making bad puns and telling embarrassing stories. Also there’s dancing and Alexander doggystyles two different members of the collective. Paul upsets everybody by letting in an assistant (Beryl Guceri) to help with the lighting. Macon gets really drunk and accidentally sets himself on fire while lighting a cigarette, which leads to my favorite horror image in the movie: his face horribly burnt with parts of the werewolf mask melted onto it.
Soon they turn on each other, there are some gruesome deaths, laid back Bill finally puts down the handheld video game he’s been playing for most of the movie to go on a bloodthirsty rampage. Bill with an ax and Macon with an electric chainsaw chase Christopher to another artist party held by another guy they’re all impressed by named Cicero (Beau Sia, SLAM, RICKI AND THE FLASH). Christopher is inevitably pushed to that point that most horror survivors are, where he has to commit a horrible act of violence (chainsawing Bill in the face). But he cries, “Oh, it’s gross!” as he does it.
A few years after I first saw MURDER PARTY I was talking to the friend who recommended it to me and we wondered whether that director had made anything else. We looked him up and saw that he had recently done a Kickstarter to get his second movie going. By the time BLUE RUIN arrived, having won a prize at Cannes, I didn’t make the connection that it was that movie or that director until I finished watching and looked it up on IMDb. I can’t remember if I recognized Blair or not. I’m guessing I didn’t.
But this movie might be the missing puzzle piece you need if you don’t understand where those two are coming from. It’s credited as a film from “The Lab of Madness,” which turns out to be a group of friends who made VHS and Super-8 movies together as kids. The making-of featurette shows clips of their silly, squib-obsessed backyard movies. It’s a bunch of these same actors as tiny little sixth graders getting shot in an action movie parody called MEGACOP. So yes, of course their first movie is a horror comedy, and of course Blair went off and directed I DON’T FEEL AT HOME IN THIS WORLD ANYMORE and THE TOXIC AVENGER. (Less predictable that he’d be in OPPENHEIMER.)
I really like this movie – it has a distinct tone and manages horror comedy without having to riff on a specific formula or subgenre. It’s got a good mix of satire, the occasional broad gag, and some well executed bloodletting. As far as using this as Halloween viewing, it’s not the most spooky or atmospheric option, but one thing it has going for it is that it shows many jack o’lanterns, decorations and trick-or-treaters in Brooklyn instead of some midwest or faux-midwest suburb. You don’t usually get a Halloween movie in an urban environment. Also I like that somebody smashes the pumpkin on his stoop so he makes pumpkin bread (which he politely brings to the Murder Party).
Anyway I feel sorry for the guy, it’s too bad he had to go through this shit, but I’m glad it gave him the courage to stand up to his cat.
Happy Halloween, everybody. Except Sir Lancelot.
P.S. I don’t know the context but according to IMDb Sharp appears as a character with the same name in Blair’s remake of THE TOXIC AVENGER.