Studio: Breaking Glass Pictures
Director: Viet Nguyen
Writer: Viet Nguyen, Chris Dinh
Producer: Aya Tanimura, Jimmy Tsai, Chris Dinh, Viet Nguyen
Stars: Chris Dinh, Katie Savoy, Chris Riedell, Tim Chiou, Walter Bost, Lauren Reeder
A misfit band of thieves unknowingly attempts to rob a sadistic serial killer and ends up trapped inside his torture den.
“Crush the Skull” is a horror-crime thriller with a thick swath of dark humor, although you wouldn’t be sure about that last bit by the way the movie undersells itself as comedic. Before spinning into a full-length film, “Crush the Skull” initially earned Fantastic Fest fame as a fan favorite short that tugged playfully at expectations by twisting tired tropes, always winking slyly with a tongue jutting from between its lips. Either the cleverness in that concept can’t find its footing as a feature, or the direction is hesitant to let the same smarmy charm play loose with higher budget stakes, but the rhythm here is hobbled. “Crush the Skull” can be entertaining. Yet the tempo is mistuned enough that laughs come tentatively, as though unsure if the movie actually provides permission to find it funny.
After a poorly-timed extramarital affair unexpectedly populates the bedroom of a house targeted by thieves Ollie and Blair, the couple finds themselves in debt to a mobster who bails them out of their jam. Forced to throw in on a slapdash heist plan orchestrated by Blair’s hapless brother Connor and his hip-hop wannabe sidekick Riley, Ollie and Blair unknowingly end up robbing the vacation home of a deadly serial killer. Trouble is, said killer is not away from the property like everyone thought. Once inside, the fumbling foursome discovers that all doors are locked from outside and a cellphone jammer is blocking outgoing calls. There is no escape. And they are not alone.
Despite the description, “Crush the Skull” is not a bumbling madcap romp. It’s not a tightly tied torture suspense yarn either, no matter how much its premise might sound somewhat similar to “The Collector” (review here). “Crush the Skull” aims at being a Jack of both trades, and in the course of so doing becomes a master of neither. The needle between its two tones stays close to a safe center when it needs to ping further in one direction or the other to fully break free.
Going in blind, there is no overt indication from the opening that black comedy comes into play. An early shot is of a creepy doll head. A child is chained in a windowless room of cement brick. A mother attempting a rescue meets a grisly end for her effort as a jump cut back to the creepy doll head unnecessarily repeats the clichéd visual. When hints of absurdist humor eventually enter, the sudden shift moves the mood into a different-feeling film altogether. This kind of approach requires an ability to switch seamlessly between styles without making the movie seem out of synch with itself the way “Crush the Skull” does.
The actors are apparently instructed to play their parts straight and read lines with realism, except jokes do not always filter through the delivery. I criticize genre blends when they take things over-the-top, but this is a case where subtlety cuts off creativity. The cast appears to be doing the jobs they are called to do, but the direction can’t corral all of the elements together into a singularly consistent cadence. “Crush the Skull” is always choosing one atmosphere or the other, and it makes for a disorienting experience overall.
The idea is a lot of fun, and it does work at times, just not reliably. The story loses steam because the techniques used for telling it are an amalgam of styles that do not always fit the atmosphere. An obvious culprit in that department is a dated shaky camera that fell out of fashion when “NYPD Blue” went off the air. Employing unmotivated zooms and sudden bobs even in simple scenes of two seated people talking, the camerawork makes it look like the operator is being continuously bumped by careless crewmembers behind the scenes.
A better movie exists here than the one “Crush the Skull” ends up being. While the effort onscreen from everyone involved shows passion for the project, something is off about the rhythm, and it stays off for the duration. The characters and the concept come just close enough that the movie still captures some of the promise that the shorts showed. Things just don’t quite coalesce into a tone that can hit hard on the horror while still staying humorous at the same time.
Review Score: 60