Monday, September 3, 2018

Crushed It

As a fairly optimistic horror fan, nothing pleases me more than discovering a new hidden gem from a fairly unknown filmmaker. 

Especially when it comes from the bargain bin sewage bucket that is usually Amazon Prime.

Quick Plot: Happy couple Ollie (co-writer Chris Dinh) and Blair (Katie Savoy) are professional thieves, finishing up one final house robbery before retiring from their life of non-violent crime. When their final score turns into a deadly domestic violence situation, ex-con Ollie ends up in jail. The only thing worse? Blair's decision to get a powerful gangster to free him at the cost of their life savings.

Eager to start paying their debt, Blair teams up with her dim brother Connor and his far dimmer minion Riley to start a new job on an isolated mansion deep in the hills. Very quickly, the quartet learns that two weeks of scouting is nowhere near enough time to determine that your mark is actually a serial killer with Jigsaw levels of home design skill. 

That synopsis makes Crush the Skull sound like yet another entry into the post-John Kramer villain landscape, but it's far from Die and Starve and the many, many direct-to-not-theaters genre fare so often covered here. To put it in simpler terms, Crush the Skull is a damn delight.

This Kickstarter-funded indie was clearly made on a dime, but what it lacks in budget is more than made up for with smart performances, clever writing, and key direction that finds the perfect way to balance both. Director and co-writer Viet Ngyuyen has essentially made a horror comedy, but his ability to never sacrifice the effectiveness of one subgenre for the other is genuinely impressive.

Bad things happen in Crush the Skull, and the movie never makes light of them just to score an easy laugh (although there certainly ARE laughs when said bad things happen). The sense of humor is established early on but carefully grows throughout the movie's brisk 83 minute running time. Most importantly, the humor itself is tied in specifically to its characters. Sure, Riley is comically dumb, but there's a genuineness to him that makes some of his stupidest comments believable and sweet. Crush the Skull evolved over several years and multiple short films, and it's clear that writers Nguyen and Dinh knew these characters inside and out.

Take, for example, Blair's inconvenient (but understandable) nervous tic of letting out a large spurt of laughter when nervous. The film establishes it early on, and Savoy's repeat delivery is so perfectly awkward that every time it arises, it rings true. The timing, both from the actor and filmmaker, is pitch perfect. 

These kinds of precise character mannerisms are rampant throughout Crush the Skull, and they help to make the film such a fun watch. The movie has more fun than scares, but it doesn't make light of the horrors at hand. This is something special.

High Points
Whenever called upon to explain the many reasons why I despise Bella Swan, I find the easiest default is to point to a key moment in the second Twilight movie, where the teenage "heroine" and her immortal boyfriend walk by a long line of innocent civilians (including children) who are about to wander straight into a den of hungry vampires. When she considers warning them, her pasty paramour gently pushes her onward and she continues without any guilt of, you know, sending a gaggle of innocent civilians and their children straight into death. I reference this moment because it's so key in explaining how important it is for a character's real moral center to resonant. In the case of Crush the Skull, Ollie makes the exact opposite decision, choosing to try (in vain) to help his initial robbery target at the expense of his own freedom. Sure, he fails miserably and screws his own life over in the process, but it's such a smart move to ensure the audience is firmly on his side.

Low Points
I'm a little more curious about the nature of Crush the Skull's villain than the movie is itself, but it's really not a worry when his victims are so much fun

Lessons Learned
Never underestimate the importance of learning to play dead

Avoid offering a meal to a torture victim if you're nowhere near a bite of food

True love means choosing your girlfriend's new boobs over a trip to Mars

The Winning Line
"Oh I'll step up if I have to, I'll step up to the streets!"
Seriously, a movie after my own heart

Crush the Skull is a true treasure from the often rusted box that is American low budget horror. It understands how to use its strengths (tone, performers, and script) and wisely doesn't try too hard to cover up what it lacks. It's a hearty recommendation, and an eager call to the production team to make more.


  1. Thanks for pointing this one out!
    I'd passed it over a few times... the title put me off, had me assuming some sort of 'Saw' knockoff.
    You're right that it left me with lots of questions about the villain.