Director: Danielle Harris
Writer: Alyssa Lobit
Producer: Jennifer Blanc-Biehn, Athena Lobit
Stars: Christopher Backus, Jennifer Blanc, AJ Bowen, Dana Daurey, Brianne Davis, Kamala Jones, Alyssa Lobit, Chris Meyer, Kane Hodder
A group of friends has their loyalty tested and their secrets exposed when a dinner party becomes a night of torture.
Danielle Harris’ name has a meaning to horror movie aficionados that is on a level of reverence with Larry Bird’s significance to Boston Celtics fans. As an actress, she first stole hearts as Michael Myers’ adorable mute niece in “Halloween 4” before carving out an extensive career of genre credits that almost makes Lance Henriksen’s résumé seem short by comparison. In the eyes of many, she can do no wrong. And when word came of her first turn behind the lens in the captain’s chair, the buzz was as high as the anticipation.
Now, “Among Friends” is available to the world, and Harris loyalists have taken to message boards and blogs to proclaim her directorial debut as triumphant proof of a depthless talent for making scary movies no matter what her role is. Very few would debate Harris’ appeal or star power. Her Scream Queen title has been rightfully earned. But separate her name from the equation at hand. If the Danielle-colored glasses are removed for an unbiased perspective on “Among Friends,” one can see that the movie is only mildly above average.
A half dozen friends don mullet wigs and crimp their hair for a 1980’s themed murder mystery party at their friend Bernadette’s house. Once they make it to the dinner portion of the evening’s festivities, the sixsome discovers that psychiatrist Bernadette is also a psychopath. She has a bone, finger, eyebrow, and scalp to pick with each of them. With everyone paralyzed by drugs and duct taped to their chairs, Bernie takes her party in a different direction for a public airing of private secrets.
For story purposes, the characters are intended to be an incestuous circle that snorts cocaine, pops psychotropic drugs, and plays musical chairs with each other when looking for the next bedroom partner. The ladies are attractive and have the most defined personas. But the two males not played by AJ Bowen have personalities as thin as a cracker and just as much substance. In short, everyone is relatively loathsome to a degree. No rational person would want any one of them for a friend, let alone as a protagonist to root for in a movie.
At the antagonist end, it is impossible to be on Bernadette’s side as an anti-hero because of the quizzical motivation behind her twisted game. As soon as the first domino falls, all of the backstabbing lies and crimes that the salacious six has committed against one another are laid bare. This nearly accounts for some perverted justice in Bernadette’s logic for exacting punishment. Except it is revealed that Bernadette came by her knowledge through convenient placement of surreptitious surveillance cameras that captured everyone’s sordid activities on tape. Why she put in this effort before knowing the awful things that would take place casts her in as sick of a light as her pals, erasing any illusion of admirably warped crusader.
Had the script called for a cleverer way to introduce the group’s transgressions that did not involve unbelievably serendipitous footage, “Among Friends” might have been more satisfying as a mind game. Going a visceral route delivers the thrills flat. The torture scenes are mild in a post-“Saw,” post-”Hostel” era of visualized pain. Layer them onto unlikeable characters and the moments of torment fall short of engaging. The only investment left for the audience is on an entertainment level, which never peaks above merely okay.
It helps immensely that Harris has a cast familiar with this particular rodeo. The majority of performances are right where they need to be for the scene and for the role. The exception is screenwriter Alyssa Lobit playing the maniacal Bernadette. Her screen presence has the wrong tone for the part and her take on psychotic strains too hard. Many times, Lobit’s deliberately exaggerated behavior puts Bernadette in a different movie altogether, and it does not mesh with the rest of atmosphere.
On the plus side, which is still a generous portion of real state, “Among Friends” does certain things well. The lighting is crisp and the camera movements are sharp. The latter two-thirds of the runtime is spent mainly in the dining room, making for a smart way to craft a film on the cheap. Kane Hodder has a chuckle-worthy extended cameo, but Danielle Harris’ is even better. She clearly knows what side the bread is buttered on when it comes to pleasing her fans with a nod to her roots that will have “Halloween” hounds grinning like the Cheshire Cat.
The successes that “Among Friends” does have can be attributed to Danielle Harris’ able directing, but the film is inherently limited by its core idea. “Among Friends” is already late to its own party anyway, as “Would You Rather” (review here) offers far more satisfying squirms when it comes to airing dirty laundry at a dinner that turns into a torture game.
“Among Friends” is a movie that asks to be liked more than it deserves. When it clunks to a goofily staged ending, it is even easier to recognize that the film would drift through the cracks without Harris’ bankable draw on a title card. Aside from her touch, “Among Friends” misses the mark for leaving a lasting impression.
NOTE: There is a mid-credits scene.
Review Score: 65