Halloween Horror: Murder Party (2007)


Jeremy Saulnier’s Murder Party has most of the signifiers of a low-budget horror debut: muddy visuals, questionable acting, down-and-dirty special effects, and a premise that is quickly undone if you question any of the characters’ motivations. But for all of its technical shortcomings, Murder Party shows glimpses of the accomplished filmmaker that Saulnier would become in Blue Ruin and Green Room. The film is rough but also clever, tense, and uncommonly perceptive about the desperate lengths people will go to when they’re cornered. It’s also vicious in its satirizing of the art world. As far as horror debuts go, it’s a sturdy work that deserves attention.

The plot follows hapless parking officer Christopher (Chris Sharp), who discovers an invitation to a “murder party” on Halloween Night. With no friends and nowhere to be except his own pathetic living room watching horror movies on VHS, he makes a cardboard knight costume and shows up at the party in an abandoned warehouse in Brooklyn, thinking he can at least pass the night in the company of others. Well, he gets more than he bargained for when the Murder Party turns out to be exactly what it sounds like. A group of art students (Macon Blair, Stacy Rock, Paul Goldblatt, William Lacey) tie Chris to a chair and plan to dispatch him in an effort to push the boundaries of art and secure a grant from their wealthy patron (Sandy Barnett).

Like in Blue Ruin and Green Room, Murder Party presents an ordinary hero with an impossible scenario and watches as he violently flails about in an attempt to save himself. However, unlike his subsequent two films, which take their life-and-death situations very seriously, Murder Party is aloof and mocking in tone. You aren’t supposed to be attached to the characters, aside from Chris, who garners some sympathy through his sheer ineptitude and patheticness. Most deaths are played for laughs like in a Sam Raimi flick. In fact, the first death is pure slapstick, as one of the artists has an allergic reaction to pumpkin bread and falls onto a rebar that pierces her skull. Like many low-budget comedy-horror hybrids, the film also revels in ironic references to other genre pictures in its dialogue and costuming. For instance, one character is dressed as a Baseball Fury from The Warriors, while another sports Daryl Hannah’s makeup and jumpsuit combo from the end of Blade Runner.

However, Murder Party doesn’t play with comedic gore and film references purely for their own sake. Instead, the film uses these elements towards a pointed satire of the art world. The villains are all exaggerations of the worst tendencies of postmodern artists in any medium, and Saulnier takes every opportunity to rib them and show how their quest for originality and meaning in their art is merely a public form of ego-stroking. In one sequence, he even has the characters inject themselves with phenobarbital (truth serum) in order to have them verbalize and confirm their own superficiality and pretension, revealing that they want other artists to fail and only see their own art as a means of projecting themselves onto the world.

Murder Party also drives home how postmodern artists can be divorced from reality and oblivious to the needs around them. The main villains have no problems with murder since they’re only preoccupied with the edginess of their art, but other artists the characters interact with late in the film lack the instinct for self-preservation since they’re unable to divorce art from reality. In the late moments of the film when the proceedings turn bloody, one of the main artists chases Chris through an art installation in a nearby warehouse, wreaking havoc on the installation’s performers who don’t do anything to defend themselves or help Chris, thinking that the violence is all a part of the show.

By the end, Saulnier’s disdain for pretentious artists is made perfectly clear, as is his predilection for squirm-inducing gore (there’s a chainsaw to the face that is impressively gruesome considering the film’s budget). Murder Party has its fair share of shoddy acting and weak dialogue (Saulnier and the cast are way too enamoured of the word “dildo” as an insult), but the film’s consistent atmosphere and pointed satire of the art world compensate for the technical messiness. Murder Party might be a modest accomplishment, but it has thematic coherence and comedic chops that makes it worthwhile, especially for anyone invested in Saulnier’s later, better works.

6 out of 10

Murder Party (2007, USA)

Written and directed by Jeremy Saulnier; starring Chris Sharp, Sandy Barnett, Macon Blair, Paul Goldblatt, William Lacey, Stacy Rock.