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Murder Party (2007)
Writer and director: Jeremy Saulnier

review by Michael Bunning

Chris is a lonely traffic warden who lives in a small apartment with only his cat, Sir Lancelot, for company. He's making his way home on Halloween, armed with a selection of horror films to watch when he notices an envelope blowing along the pavement. Picking it up, he sees it's actually an invitation to a 'murder party', with the instruction to 'come alone'. Chris makes it back to his apartment and, feeling dissatisfied with his plan to watch videos and eat candy; he decides to attend the party. He fashions himself a knight costume out of cardboard and sets off.

Upon arriving at the party, he discovers that it's not a traditional Halloween bash at all, but a 'party' in which he's going to be a murder victim. He's knocked out and tied to a chair by a bunch of would-be avant-garde artists who are planning to murder Chris as a piece of performance art. Luckily for Chris, though, they're a bunch of complete incompetents.

Researching Murder Party was interesting for a couple of main reasons. Firstly, because it turns out that the film has won several awards at film festivals such as Slamdance (audience award) and Vail (best feature). Secondly, several reviews suggest this is a love-it-or-hate-it film. These facts are interesting because I didn't have that sort of reaction to the film in any way. I find it unbelievable that Murder Party has won any awards at all, yet I neither love it nor hate it. It's too bland, predictable and facile for such strong emotions. The main reaction I had to it was a feeling of disappointment, because Murder Party starts extremely effectively, but quickly (within 10 minutes) becomes so utterly obvious that, while it's never quite bad enough to turn off, there seemed little reason to keep watching.

This is Jeremy Saulnier's first feature-length film, and it shows. The set-up is obvious, but that wouldn't matter so much in a short film. The script is largely abysmal, but there are a few good lines that could have shone with a much-reduced running time. The direction is mostly workmanlike, but a more focused piece would have given him a chance to better show off his few interesting ideas. The acting's atrocious, and that wouldn't have mattered so much if the actors weren't all on-screen for an hour and a quarter. That the characters are one-dimensional is intentional, but it's part of a joke that wears thin after one minute: these 'artists' are talentless egotistical fools. Unfortunately, this is about the only joke in the film, and the script tries to stretch this single thin premise out for the entire running time.

It's not all bad, luckily. No one really expects high-quality acting in a low-budget film like this, so that can largely be forgiven. The gore looks good, and is used sparsely, which adds to its effectiveness. Saulnier and the rest of his group ('The Lab of Madness') have realised that low budget doesn't sit well with large-scale, and have limited themselves to three or four sets, no costume-changes and a minimum of over-ambitious effects (which always, always fall flat and look laughable). It's a lesson that the vast majority of low-budget horror filmmakers refuse to learn, and Saulnier should be applauded for it. Also worthy of applause are the opening and closing five-minute sections.

These sections are lovingly created montages that worship Halloween and evoke memories of being young enough that Halloween seemed like a truly chilling and magical day where vampires and werewolves might actually exist. Saulnier's camera moves slowly across scenes of spookily-decorated houses, children running around in home-made costumes, pumpkins being carved, dusk falling across a neighbourhood filled with Halloween potential and (in the denouement) the sun rising on the same neighbourhood, this time spent and finished, with empty egg-cartons and toilet roll draped everywhere. In film terms, it's reminiscent of The Lady In White or Something Wicked This Way Comes: spooky, but enjoying the fun that their spookiness brings.

If only the rest of the film had managed to retain some of this fantastic mood, Murder Party's score would be a lot higher. Unfortunately, as soon as the actual story begins, the mood disappears completely, leaving the viewer with sub-Home Alone standard jokes and 'comedy' accidents. The two bookend scenes show that Saulnier has natural talent as a director, but the rest of the film shows that it's an immature talent, and possibly one that should remain behind the camera rather than in front of a typewriter.
Murder Party DVD

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