Magnet has released Murder Party, the 2007 indie gore fest/hipster smart-ass romp that's been attracting a lot of attention at the festivals and in the media - and deservedly so. One of the most enjoyable films I've seen this year, Murder Party comes at you fully formed as an instant cult classic; watching it, I got the same feeling I've had watching other films like Night of the Living Dead or Halloween that seemingly come out of nowhere to become a fact, a recognizable signpost, however large or small, within its genre.
Chris (Chris Sharp), a civilian member of the NYPD (he writes parking tickets but isn't a cop) and a complete cipher of a human being, returns to his Brooklyn home one evening to find a wind-blown Halloween party invitation on his sidewalk. Addressed to no one, the elaborate card invites the costumed bearer to a murder party. Thoughtfully baking a loaf of pumpkin bread (what a dork), Chris fashions a suit of armor out of cardboard and duct tape, mapquests the directions to the party, says goodbye to his cat Sir Lancelot, and sets out for a fun Halloween evening.
Once at the party's location - a seemingly deserted warehouse in a bombed-out part of New York - Chris finds his unknown hosts more than accommodating - to kill him, that is. Quickly seized by the group, Chris is tied to a chair, gagged, and introduced to his own demise. Apparently, Chris' invitation to a "murder party" was literal: the motley group of hipper-than-thou art students plan on murdering whomever was dumb enough to accept their blind invitation, with the intention of turning the murder into performance art to impress Alexander (Sandy Barnett), a cruelly superior snot and assumed arbiter of taste in this particular sphere of the art world. More importantly, the not-as-yet arrived Alexander has been dangling the promise of grant money in front of the starving artists, and they're willing to kill to get their hands on it.
The members of the group include Paul (Paul Goldblatt), the insecure photographer who secretly resents Alexander; Macon (Macon Blair), the carefully rumpled "wildman" with a werewolf mask; Bill (William Lacey), the computer game-playing silent one who sports a baseball costume right out of The Warriors; Sky (Skei Saulnier), the cheerleader who really doesn't want to kill Chris; and Lexi (Stacy Rock), the amoral tease dressed like Pris in Blade Runner, who keeps all the boys in the group sniffing around her. Chris' only hope, Sky, who wants to try another way of satisfying Alexander's need for sensationalism without killing Chris, dies almost immediately after getting dizzy on Chris' raisin-laced pumpkin bread (she's allergic to non-organic ones), puncturing her skull on a metal floor brace. And once Alexander arrives with his drug dealer friend Zycho (Bill Tangradi), things look pretty grim for Chris. That is, until the group start to fight amongst themselves, and their shallow, petty grievances turn deadly.
What immediately struck me about Murder Party was its willingness to be both silly and quite smart in its comedy. Had the film stayed on the same course it charts at the very beginning - a nebbish on the run from a bunch of psychotics - it would have been amusing and nothing more. Chris Sharp surprisingly gets quite a few laughs out of just bugging his eyes in dorky horror every time someone comes back to suggesting killing him. He has a funny physical presence, as well, whether it's during his battle of wills with his unmoving cat (the cat wins), or when he's careening around the warehouse in his cumbersome knight costume, trying to evade the screaming art students who want to hack him to pieces.But Murder Party gets smart very fast, when it introduces us to the murderous art students. If you've ever had any contact or interaction with pretentious, shallow, blindly flailing art snobs, you'll recognize that Murder Party gets these characters and their dynamics dead-on right. It's nice to see an indie film that not only doesn't kowtow to the art snobs, but actually attacks them. The script's smart-alecky tone continues with the first death in the film - Sky's accidental self-inflicted blow to the head. It's shot humorously in a deadpan manner, and sets up the audience to feel Chris has absolutely no hope to survive, since the only person who wanted to save him was Sky.
Of course, for Murder Party to really take off at this point, and move beyond just a witty knock-off, a villainous ringleader needs to appear to push the buttons of the various students and to provide a catalyst for the mayhem to begin. Thankfully, Murder Party has Sandy Barnett's Alexander, a delightfully bored, blasť psychopath who sneers at everything. Barnett, who instantly reminded me of a fey, full-faced version of Bradford Dillman right out of Compulsion, is really quite amusing throwing out snarky one-liners and rolling his eyes in apathetic exasperation every time someone says or does something plebian. When the director gives us a chance to momentarily like these incompetent creeps - with his self-described homage to The Breakfast Club where the group, at the goading of Alexander, shoot up sodium amytal and reveal their rather touching worries and concerns - Alexander fakes shooting up, because he has a secret he'd rather not reveal. When Alexander finally does reveal his true identity (think The Wizard of Oz), it's the film's best scene, with Barnett dreamily moon-gazing into the camera, while still managing to be hysterically funny detailing his pathetically bourgeois background and ambitions. I hope the DVD commentary track, which indicates Barnett has given up acting, isn't true; he gives one of the funniest performances I've seen this year, and certainly one of the most offhand, nonchalant - and utterly hilarious - performances you're likely to see in any low-budget gore fest.
The final wrap-up of Murder Party will definitely be a treat for gore hounds, with the producers still making smart, funny choices as the body count rises (Macon, his werewolf mask now horribly melted into his charred face, runs around with an electric chainsaw, looking for an outlet). I'm not sure the whole "Bill with an axe" moment works at the very end, where the filmmakers try to be too self-consciously funny (and hopefully, not "meaningful") by having Bill hack apart a live "performance art" tableaux while the director keeps cutting back to a sign that says, "Art?" but that's a minor quibble, more than compensated by Bill's chainsaw-to-the-head death. By the time the credits roll on Murder Party, you know you've seen something unique in the horror genre.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography .