Friday, March 7, 2014

Among Friends (2012)

It's amazing how our minds can take a few details and fill in the blanks to create our own facts. Judging by the varied reviews from multiple sources (IMDB, Netflix, various blog, and so on), I wasn't the only one who suffered from flawed expectations, but, going against my own inclination to turn the movie off, I seem to be one of the few naysayers who watched the whole movie. And, admittedly, I was ready to write the movie off as an embarrassing failure for first-time director and beloved horror icon Danielle Harris. But something just didn't seem right with my assessment. I felt as though I had missed something, like everyone was in on a joke except me. So, I sought out the special features where, sure enough, there was an option for director commentary. If not for rewatching the film with commentary, this would've been a scathing review.

I know what you're thinking, because I'm thinking it too: I can't call a movie good if I have to rewatch it with director commentary to find its charm. Well, perhaps you're right. But, had I had my expectations of the film properly calibrated, I think it would've been a much better experience. You see, harkening back to my opening statement about how our minds make stuff up, I took the title, the cover art (spoiler: it's not Danielle), and the little blurb about this dinner party being "killer" and I thought this was going to be a gruesome slasher wherein Danielle Harris butchers her friends. Wrong on all counts. This is not a slasher (arguments welcome), and Danielle only makes an appearance for under a minute (although, it is a pretty awesome little segment!). So, yeah, I spent over half the movie fighting perception against reality.

Let's talk about my perception first. The movie begins with a playful montage that introduces all the friends, of whom we get the familiar faces of Jennifer Blanc-Biehn (who co-produced) and the always dependable AJ Bowen (The House of the Devil, Hatchet II, Chillerama, You're Next, Rites of Spring, and a handful of cameos and other credits). There's zero exposition concerning these characters; they all hop into a limo one by one and head to an 80s-prom-themed dinner party (forst of many horror movie references) where they will play a murder mystery "game." Upon arrival, we are given a delightful performance by the legendary actor who played the original Jason (yes, Mr. Kane Hodder). As the creepy limo driver, Hodder holds the door as the characters get out and he mutters a one-line comment about each of them.

Then the pace and mood comes to a screeching halt, and the movie seems to meander for a while. In fact, the duration of the time from arriving at the house to the time they all realize they've been drugged, rendered useless from the waist down, seems like an eternity of awkwardness. All the characters just sort of mill about, stand around, drink, make smalltalk, and the one character, Bernadette, whom we already know is the villain, doesn't try to hide her sinister grins and subliminal dialogue. Then, with the "game" announced and commenced, the characters give a halfhearted performance of going to separate rooms and disinterestedly opening cabinets and looking under beds to find the murderer or clues or something--whatever; it obviously wasn't an important pat of the script. (I noticed, too, that the male actors did pretty much nothing to help make it believable, while the female characters aimlessly stumbled upon "clues." Granted, the male characters were, for the most part, just trying to get laid.) Finally, they all end up at the dinner table, where they open gifts (I was confused by this part) or something, some of which (all of which?) connect to a horror movie. Then they realize they're all paralyzed except for Bernadette (played by Alyssa Lobit, who happens to be the writer of the movie!). Hilariously, Jennifer Blanc's character jumps immediately into extreme freak-out mode, screaming and cursing and crying and calling Bernadette insane, while the others maintain the pace of trying to get their heads around the situation.

From there, the entire movie (aside from one outdoor scene with Kane Hodder, and some surveillance footage) takes place in the dining room. That's not to fault the movie; some of my favourite flicks have a single-setting (Buried, for one). Characters become obviously tired of trying to keep up the acting--at one point a male character gives zero reaction to his fingers being lopped off. And unfortunately we can't even care about these people because we don't know anything about them other than the bad things they've done. Zero points for character development and empathy-generation. Luckily, with the single setting and the empty characters, we get to enjoy the performance of Bernadette, who, although she doesn't hold a candle to Robin McLeavy's performance in The Loved Ones, is still entertaining and engaging. The script of course gets into moral dilemma and Crime and Punishment territory, giving way to several cringe-inducing elements of torture; however, the philosophical ruminations of Bernadette are actually pretty good (one that sticks out is her assertion that a string of little mess-ups is a lifetime). I didn't feel they were too far-reaching or even misplaced in a movie of this nature. But, by the end, and with one more post-credits scene that was compeltely unnecessary (we already surmised the way in which events took place), I was ready to write the film off.

(In light of my skewed perception and my disdain for a trainwreck of a movie, there is one sequence in which we get a metafilm experience from one of the characters on a drug trip. This was by far the greatest part of the film, and the part in which Harris makes an appearance. I will not give the details away, but suffice it to say that genre fans will love the nod that was almost required of Harris!)

Now, on to the reality of this film. Like The Victim (also boasting Jennifer B-B, her husband, and Danielle Harris), this is a low-budget B-movie put together by real-life friend who've pooled their resources, time, and love for the genre. Listening to the commentary, recorded by Harris, Jennifer B-B, and AJ Bowen, you can't help but be enticed by their dedication and the fun they had making the film. You learn a lot of amusing behind-the-scenes facts like Kane Hodder being a huge prankster on sets (apparently he has an aerosol spray that smells like poop, and AJ sprayed Drakkar Noir on people the whole time), and Danielle urging her characters to say and do sinister little things (some they did; some they did not). Halfway through the movie, I realized that Harris is a very quirky, off-the-wall person in real life, and she wanted her movie to reflect that. She even points out that the song that plays during the end-credits is nothing like what you'd expect in a horror movie, and that's just the way she wants it.

So what's my final takeaway and assessment? Lighten up and have fun. This is meant to be quirky, and it's the product of a group of friends having fun doing what they love. Get a group of friends together and laugh at the movie's offbeat vibe, make fun of the characters' expressions and reactions (especially Jennifer's and AJ's), appreciate the heart of the film and what the filmmakers managed to do with limited resources. I could only be so lucky to have a life where I could spend time doing such a collaboration. By all means, banish the thought that this is a suspenseful slasher (tags I've seen used on various sites), and be sure to realize that Harris truly puts her effort into directing, not acting, and not writing.

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