APRIL 20, 2016
One of the reasons I really hate the shift toward streaming over physical media is how it will limit our access to bonus features like commentaries and deleted scenes, as those things aren't usually part of the package (Netflix, on very rare occasions, will offer them, but I don't think I've ever seen them on a cable on demand service). Clearly, the filmmakers behind Murder In The Dark also lament that folks might not have access to their behind the scenes material, so they've offered it during the end credits in the same manner you might see outtakes or a music video or something. I don't think I've ever seen anyone take that approach, and as a bonus features (and credits!) aficionado I have to give them props for their novel idea.
Unfortunately, the sad truth is that if they DIDN'T include this material, we'd never know why the movie wasn't particularly involving (and also likely why it was never scary). As it turns out, this movie was not traditionally written or shot - the filmmakers opted for a Blair Witch-esque improvised "script" where they'd give each actor an idea/motivation that none of the others were privy to, and then let the cameras roll as the actors more or less made it up as they went along, with the notes to guide them. It wasn't SHOT like Blair Witch, thankfully - there's a lot of hand-held and shaky tracking shots, but it's not a POV movie - though it shares that very loose, unstructured approach. And, unfortunately, is also guilty of almost everything happening off-screen.
Now, in Blair (or any other found footage type movie), things happening off-screen is fine, even preferable if you consider the logic - why would someone stand there and film their friend being murdered? But this is ostensibly a slasher movie, and it gets fairly tiresome to keep finding bodies while being denied the chase/kill itself. As it employs a whodunit approach, there's at least some justification for having to keep things vague (finding a body of someone killed at an unknown/offscreen time allows everyone to remain a suspect), but that doesn't change the fact that without those scenes the movie itself offers little more than an endless (and ultimately grating) string of scenes where our protagonists find the dead body of one of their friends and then spend the next few minutes angrily accusing one another of being the culprit. Variations of "Empty your pockets!" or "Take off your shirt!" (to see blood or other marks of a struggle) come up pretty often - it's good we learn eventually that it was all improvised.
Of course, that doesn't make the movie any easier to enjoy in the moment. It's watchable enough, and in retrospect I can assign it some more respect and consider it an interesting approach (as opposed to a woefully generic slasher), but shouldn't the movie be compelling on its own? What if I didn't watch the credits? I'd be oblivious to the only notable thing about it, unless you count the pretty wacky twist where the over protective dad to an 18 year old turns out to be not her dad, but a guy she's having an affair with. I mean, that's pretty novel with or without thinking about the possibility that it was something the actor(s) made up on the spot (if it was supplied by the filmmakers we can almost guarantee that they didn't know about that reveal too far in advance), but that's one exception in an 80 minute movie. Besides, the movie spends very little time on character development before the first person turns up dead (in a scene with the one instance where finding a dead body works in the movie's favor), so I must say I don't really have much investment on how they really relate to each other. I mean if Armageddon sprang that twist on me right before Bruce Willis went into space ("By the way, Affleck, Liv Tyler isn't my daughter - she's my girlfriend and you're cuckolding me you asshole") that'd be incredible, but here it's like "Oh, OK. Fine."
On the plus side, the movie has a damn good setting for this sort of thing - a crumbling Italian ghost town, giving it an almost Anthropophagus feeling at times and impressively milked by the filmmakers. There's a healthy balance between day and night scenes, too, allowing them to show off the free production value throughout the film instead of cramming it all in the beginning before it gets dark and they might as well be on a sound-stage. The cast is multi-national (no "token" anyone - there's basically 1-2 of each!) and they're all introduced more or less at the same time, making it harder to guess who will die first and/or who will be the "Final Girl". And that goes for the killer too - I admit I didn't guess who it was (in fact the person I had pegged turned out to be the lone survivor! It'd be like guessing Alicia Witt was the killer in Urban Legend), but again - these aren't characters we have any real attachment to. There's an obvious appeal to getting things going early, but unfortunately the trade off is that the audience won't care as much about the endgame as they might for a film that gave us 20 minutes or so to really get to know/love these folks. The movie had a standard opening scene kill, so I don't know why they felt the need to rush to get to the scares again.
If you're wondering what the title refers to (it sounds like an Agatha Christie title, no?), it's a game where someone is assigned to be the killer (via secret draw - whoever picks the marked paper out of the bag is "it") and everyone walks around shaking hands, with the killer wiping a finger against the other person's hand to "kill" them - the goal is to figure out who the killer is before everyone is dead. Seems like a perfectly fun party game for 12 year olds, not sure why these college-aged kids (and one's "dad") are doing it, but the hook is that the real killer starts offing everyone off in the order they were killed in the game. It's no better/worse than any other "game turns deadly" setup you've seen, but for the gimmick to work they have to spend quite a while on the game - and in retrospect it's kind of obnoxious. We get to see these "kill" scenes but everything else is off-screen? WEAK.
The movie was an After Dark release; I didn't keep tabs on their last fest (released via Fox instead of the usual Lionsgate) but I assume it was part of that pack. The series has never been known for its outstanding and classic horror movies, obviously (though there are a handful of really solid ones), so I wouldn't say I was really "disappointed" with the movie - it was more or less what I expected, in that it didn't make me angry or anything but didn't really draw me in, either. It was "fine", and I'll forget everything about it in a few days - except for the fact that the most interesting part of the movie was a behind the scenes video playing alongside the end credits. As one of the biggest champions of supplementary material for our films, I feel it's my duty to also stress that they should never be a requirement for the audience to take anything away from their experience.
What say you?