MURDER PARTY (2007): Art is Dead, and So Are You
With Netflix releasing Jeremy Saulnier’s new film Hold the Dark, I decided to take a look back at the writer & director’s debut.
You’d have to try pretty hard to have, if not a worse, then certainly a weirder Halloween than Christopher does in Murder Party. Content to sit at home watching the low-budget horror movies he rented with his cat Sir Lancelot, his plans change when he happens to discover an invitation to a “Murder Party” on the street of his Brooklyn neighborhood. Donning a cardboard suit of armor barely held together with duct tape, he heads to the listed address for the party, only to soon find the "Murder” part of the description to be more than just the theme, but the event itself.
The group of art dweebs he wanders in on are awkwardly caught off guard by his arrival; none of them expected anyone to be stupid enough to actually show up for them to kill. They quickly tie him up in preparation for what they have termed their newest art installation. See, they’ve been promised a massive grant from their fellow art snob, Alexander, for completing this heinous act in an effort to make something shocking and real. Whether or not any of them actually have any talent is questionable. As the night wears on though, the group’s various hang-ups and resentments get the better of them, and they all turn on each other in messy, violent manner.
Premiering at Slamdance Film Festival in 2007, where it won the Audience Award for Best Feature, Murder Party is the writing and directing debut of Jeremy Saulnier, who would later go on to make Blue Ruin and Green Room. After attending film school, Saulnier and his childhood friends Christopher Sharp and Macon Blair, who both star in the film, reformed The Lab of Madness, an unofficial production company under which the trio had made numerous short films and video projects together as kids. After not being able to find investors for another feature film screenplay, they decided to begin production on Murder Party instead with no budget and whatever and whoever they could pull together to get it made.
The lo-fi aesthetic is evident from the start, cutting straight to credits with no studio logos. More indie than Indie, the movie feels like the work of a group of friends hanging out and making art just because they love doing so. In addition to Sharp and Blair, Saulnier’s own wife, Skei, even makes a brief appearance, before being unceremoniously killed off by a horrible accident. Much of the runtime is spent in the warehouse that serves as the story’s single location, and the film continues finding reasons to keep the group there. Some are more clever and convincing than others.
Unlike Saulnier’s later output, in which Blair would continue to star, Murder Party is effectively a straight comedy. His work would continue to carry an absurdist undercurrent, especially so in the case of Blue Ruin, but humor is the primary mode of operation here, even once the blood begins to flow. The film is a vicious skewering of the New York art culture, the script derisively mocking the would-be murderers pretenses. A real sense that none of them know what they’re talking about pervades, and each of them has clear insecurities about their own skills. After taking barbiturates together, one of them, Lexi, admits to Bill, who up to this point has kept quietly to himself playing video games, that she’s jealous of his talent. She later wishes that all art was bad, because otherwise she fears there wouldn’t be room for hers.
In micro, Saulnier posits a culture of inept hucksters and frauds. Their threat is first undercut when a character catches his axe mid-swing on a lamp string. The same character later makes another attempt on Christopher’s life by emptying the jug of acid he had brought onto his face, only to discover it to be labelled as vinegar. Each attempt to do the deed either fails hilariously or backfires massively. The fact that Christopher represents the ideal mark makes their efforts all the more pathetic. He’s a pitiful loner and with no friends and no real-world significance even in his job as a traffic cop; he poses so little threat that he struggles to make his cat move out of his chair. It would be very easy to kill him and get away with it. It’s only when a revelation about the veracity of Alexander’s claims that the violence gains weight, fittingly at the hands of Bill, ostensibly the only person there with any real “talent.”
And even then, the violence is brutal and messy, brought to life with surprisingly grisly make-up effects. Saulnier depicts the carnage as distinctly graceless, unsanitized, and inept - in other words, the way most real violence occurs. It’s a stylistic and thematic choice he would carry over into both Blue Ruin and Green Room, making audiences squirm with discomfort and disgust as his characters fight - badly - to survive their predicaments.
Judging on its own merits, the film is surprisingly well-crafted, often employing spinning steadicam long takes that show off the whole space of the warehouse and achieving some very unique camera angles. The hang-out vibe hampers the pace near the halfway point - at a very short 80 minutes it still feels a bit on the long side - and the script doesn’t always have as many creative places to go with the set-up as it could. It’s inconsequential, but has a certain shoestring-budget charm and daring gumption that’s worth observing. To date it’s the only satire Saulnier has made and is much broader than he’s come to be known for, but it signals a promising start for his particular penchant for brutal, uncompromising bloodshed and the bumbling losers who find themselves the wielders and/or victims of it.
Murder Party is currently streaming on Netflix and is available to buy on DVD.
Hold the Dark arrives on Netflix and will be playing in select theaters on September 28th.