Friday, August 15, 2008

Movies: It's a dead man's party.

The first recorded use of the word "parody" in the English language is, oddly enough, a definition of the word: 1598, Ben Johnson, "A Parodie, a parodie! to make it absurder than it was."

Murder Party, the 2007 indie horror comedy by director/writer Jeremy Saulneir, takes the already over-the-top conventions of torture porn and, in the spirit of Johnson's definition, makes them mo' absurder.

The plot of murder party is wonderfully simple. On Halloween, a lonely man by the name of Chris finds an unaddressed invite to a "murder party." Seeing this as a rare opportunity to get out of the house and live a little, Chris whips together a knight costume out of some old moving boxes and heads off to the party. To his dismay, the party turns out to be part of a demented art project. Four incompetent wannabe art hipsters plan to execute Chris: it's murder as transgressive performance art. The would-be artists hope their homicidal handiwork will impress a particularly vile art/drug dealer who claims to hold the purse strings to a boatload of grant money. Tangled motivations, drug induced stupidity, professional and sexual jealousy, a trap-within-a-trap plot, and the sudden appearance of a surprisingly tenacious will to live in Chris all ensure that the party disintegrates into bloody mayhem.

Visually, Murder Party is a functional piece of work. Unlike the works it spoofs, MP is not particularly stylish. It has the grimy look, but you won't mistake it for the opulent squalor of Saw or Hostel. That said, there's a welcome competence here at work that deserves praise. Saulneir enjoys playing with the space his warehouse set provides and he directs action without losing a sense of continuity or fudging things by losing the viewers in a flurry of cuts and edits. This is, I think, promising. Somebody with a solid grasp of the basics can grow stylistically, but stylistic bombast has a way of fooling the novice into thinking their flaws are flourishes.

Where Murder Party really shines is in its script. The dialogue snaps along, allowing the actors to fill their parts comfortably. The movie captures the earnestly over-serious and smug tone of torture porn while, at the same time, showing how surreal the "morality" of such films is: the artists, who can argue about the thematic and cultural implications of the word "nigger," seem to be unable to grasp the idea that killing somebody might be wrong. There's a odd but intentional obliviousness that hangs over the actions of the film's main characters that will remind some viewers of the strange justifications torture porn directors use to make cases for their films: Roth claiming that his depiction of a Europe where everything is for sale is a indictment of American smugness or the impenetrable philosophizing of Jigsaw from the Saw franchise that is increasingly "the point" of the films.

The intelligent writing is especially appreciated since it makes MP better than it needs to be. One can imagine an alternate version of Murder Party. This alternate version, created by lazier and less creative folks, has basically the same plot but instead degenerates in a vacuous exercise in gory physical abuse. Instead of wit, all you would have needed was a marginally competent make-up artist. That would have been more than enough to ensure the film gets some sort of traction with the gorehound film-as-endurance-test set. But the makers of Murder Party decided to do something different. And it pays off.

Murder Party isn't the next Shaun of the Dead. As a comedy its intentions are less dramatic (you root for Chris and he makes a likable hero, but he lacks the genuinely involving character development of Shaun) and its targets are far more predictable (there are few groups more inherently mockable than contemporary art scene bottom-feeders). Still, like a good one-liner, it doesn't need heft to work. Murder Party is clever, fast, and funny. So, what are you waiting for? A written invitation?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Contemporary art scene bottom feeders ? That implies there are some non-bottom feeders, and I'm not so sure I believe that ;)

And satire is hard. Very hard. Too easy to screw up. Though the 'scary movie' folks seem to have done it right. Oddly enough, I guess the "real" Scream was on cable a few nights ago, and I mistook it for Scary Movie. heh.