Chris von Hoffmann’s Monster Party is both surprisingly good yet somewhat disappointing. Starting with the logistically flimsy but insanely fun set-up of three petty criminals accidentally targeting a dinner party filled to the brim with recovering murderers, Monster Party is, to its credit, creative and vicious throughout. Unfortunately, it pulls some punches, particularly when it comes to the motivations of its main characters, who all end up being rather one-note despite solid performances and the intriguing premise.

Casper (Sam Strike), Iris (Virginia Gardner) and Dodge (Brandon Micheal Hall), the criminals, use Iris’ catering job to gain entry to the Dawson mansion. Though they are thieves, they’ve got their reasons; Casper needs 10,000 dollars to save his father from a loan shark, while Iris and Dodge are expecting a baby. They arrive to find that the Dawson family – patriarch Patrick (Julian McMahon), matriarch Roxanne (Robin Tunney), daughter Alexis (Erin Moriarty) and son Elliot (Kian Lawley) – are aloof in a manner beyond that of even the stereotypically rich. When a group of friends arrive for a dinner party, led by the pontificating Milo (Lance Reddick), it becomes clear to the three thieves that the Dawsons and their friends are celebrating being five years clean and sober. But from what?

The answer is quite obviously murder, but Von Hoffmann does a great job of milking the tension. While the audience will have guessed the Dawsons’ drug of choice, the three innocent burglars don’t know, and waiting to see who will snap and how is paced beautifully. The problem is that when murder does finally arrive, it’s a bit of a letdown. The death itself is startling, gory and suitably horrifying, but it comes on the tail of some interesting character development that is basically abandoned the second the knives come out. Which is sad, because by having this set-up of murderers who’ve managed to curb their “habit” for five years, Von Hoffman has made the backstory of the Dawsons and each of their guests very tantalizing. But no backstory is given, and rather than flesh out the swiftly relapsing psychopaths, Monster Party barrels forward and simply makes everyone batshit crazy, aside from the women, who apparently take to Murderer’s Anonymous better than men, as not a single lady gets to do anything remotely as weird or wild as what the men get to do.

And that’s the other disappointment with Monster Party. While the cast is initially diverse and there are some bold subversions of who is safe and who is not in a horror movie, the action ends up being mostly driven by straight white male characters while the women and minorities are either murdered or set to sidekick mode. In a genre filled with strong heroines, a genre where racially thought-provoking work is the current North Star in terms of quality and financial success, this simply isn’t good enough.

Though clearly influenced by a number of horror movies like Scream, Hostel, Don’t Breathe, Society and even The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Von Hoffmann’s primary inspirations, at least in terms of style and choreography, seem to be Tarantino’s films, Kill Bill in particular. The killing is fast, graphic and insanely bloody, and few are spared from the film’s cold violence. While Tobias Deml’s cinematography does well to capture the film’s grindhouse sensibilities and high-income, low-imagination California setting, the action can’t possibly compare to that of the work it so clearly evokes.

Overall, however, Monster Party is still worth a look. The first half’s excellent tension gives way to fountains of blood and some clever action, even if that action ends up ringing hollow. If the film had concerned itself with revealing why the titular monsters were quite so monstrous, the party would be that much more exciting to attend.

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