October may be coming to a close, but that doesn’t mean the mayhem ends. If you want to keep the murder train running even when everyone else is turning toward giving thanks, look no further than RLJE Films’s latest feature, Monster Party. Conceived and directed by Chris von Hoffmann, Monster Party is a delicious nasty bit of violence which both leans into the tropes the horror genre is known for while adding some new flavor along the way.
Thieves Iris (Virginia Gardner), Dodge (Brandon Michael Hall), and Casper (Sam Strike) have a good thing going: Dodge breaks into homes, Casper clears security, and Iris is the lookout. This three-person team is keen on taking their time, but when Casper suddenly needs cash quick, Dodge and Casper convince Iris to rob the rich family she’s going to be waitressing for: the Dawsons. Used to being the predators, the three don’t realize that as soon as they step foot inside the Dawson house, they are now the prey.
From the jump, von Hoffman is all about mood and cinematographer Tobias Deml (Drifter) ensures it’s Big Mood. From the kid’s choir singing as the black of the screen opens from the center to reveal the sun, the initial glimpse of each of the Dawsons in turn – Roxanne (a perfectly restrained Robin Tunney), Patrick (scene-chewing Julian McMahon), Elliot (Kian Lawley), and Alexis (Erin Moriarty) – as they relax on their property, to the way each area of the Dawson estate maintains a specific and individual lighting, Monster Party is designed to feed into the tropes audiences know, creating an anticipation von Hoffman’s script toys with from beginning to end. In the initial shot, just as the audience begins to wonder why we’re seeing the family first, the camera turns to show Alexis casually walking into frame, taking center position in an extreme close-up, smiling sweetly in a familiar yet comforting manner. Slowly, her smile changes to a pained grimace, the sides of the screen move in as if to crush her until the title cards suddenly pop into place – and abrupt shift that hints at the danger and discomfort to come. This introduction does a wonderful job establishing that our heroes – the thieves – are not the focus of the film. All horror films must have fodder and the thieves fit the bill to a tee. Between the Dawson’s more compelling introduction and the somewhat fantastical elements surrounding the narrative – including the heighten colors, the choir, and intense emotions they provoke – combine to form a general unease that never leaves the audience. Not once. This isn’t to suggest that von Hoffmann doesn’t insert brief moments for both the audience and the characters to catch their breath, it’s that the pressure never lets up. Whether by the tilt of a camera, the costuming, a line of dialogue, a visual homage to another horror series, the undulating score from Felix Erskine and Nao Sato, all of these build upon each other to twist the knife of discomfort further for the audience (and the thieves) in the most clever and delicious ways.
If the feel of Monster Party doesn’t instantly grab your attention, the approach to the story no-doubt will. On the surface, the film feels like generic fare: not-so-innocents stumble upon bigger trouble and end up in a fight for their lives. In fact, some may notice a slight similarity between Monster Party and 2016’s Don’t Breathe as they both involve thieves trying to survive a house of horrors. von Hoffmann’s script does a lot like Don’t Breathe in finding engaging, inventive, and terrifying ways to constantly keep the audience guessing. It toys with genres – jumping from dark comedy one moment into thriller before dipping its toes in fantasy – and, in doing so, establishes a consistent unease that flows from the three thieves straight into the audience. The audience certainly knows the trio’s in trouble, but how much and at what cost only gets revealed as they find out for themselves and it is a glorious revelation time and again. With words quick or gestures subtle, the cast quickly establishes individual motivations so that as death comes for the trio, the audience, along with the thieves, understand what’s at stake beyond individual mortality. However, von Hoffman understands that there are certain expectations and, in concert with Moriarty’s performance of Alexis, makes sure that there’s always someone working in seeming opposition. By establishing in the opening shot that there’s a deep concern for Alexis, the combination of script and performance leans into the audience’s concern, making every line of dialogue, every glance, every gesture pregnant with possibilities. Every time the audience thinks they’ve figured it all out, something new emerges, establishing new chaos. And chaos reigns in Monster Party in large part to the way von Hoffmann carefully establishes relationships, shifting allegiances, and reveals motives, making the straight nature of the experience more and more unsettling.
Once more RLJE Films backs a movie that takes quite a few chances with a genre that’s seen almost every iteration, homage, or remake explore every nook and cranny possible. So, if you’re looking for something a bit more menacing than Arizona and far less phantasmagorical than Mandy, Monster Party is where it’s at. Every member of the cast portraying the thieves, the Dawsons, and their guests elicit humor, unease, and revulsion with something as simple as a gesture or a line reading. The narrative is tightly designed, loading Monster Party with countless set-ups which play out in consistently unexpected ways. Von Hoffmann’s direction in collaboration with Deml’s cinematography will make you question whether what you’ve witnessed is real, a dream, or some kind of night terror. Though aspects of it may seem a touch predictable and it does require a bit of investment with your patience as not everyone is introduced in a manner audiences expect, but the pay-off is absolutely worth the watch.
In select theaters, on VOD, and digital November 2, 2018.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.