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Staying Friends Can Be 'Murder'

Native Alexandrians join forces to make horror/comedy film.

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Murder Party, now on DVD

Chris Sharp is standing inside an abandoned New York City warehouse while wearing a homemade suit of armor; a costume that was hastily constructed out of tattered cardboard boxes.

He thanks Paul Goldblatt — who is dressed as an 18th century vampire — for inviting him to a Halloween party. Goldblatt, with a sinister gleam in his eyes, promptly lights that invitation on fire, waving it around as Sharp’s eyes dart to follow the flame. It’s a parlor trick, a cheap distraction: Macon Blair, a frightening rubber wolf mask covering his face, creeps up behind an unsuspecting Sharp, wielding a hefty and deadly axe.

Just as the blade is about to plunge through that ragged suit of cardboard, the axe head gets caught on a metal chain dangling from the ceiling. Blair struggles to pry it loose, but not before igniting a light bulb overhead. Everyone is frozen in a moment of bleak comedy, as Sharp swiftly realizes that he’s the guest of honor in this bizarre party — the honor being that the other partygoers are going to murder him.

As the scene plays out, there’s a sense of horrific menace mixed with an undeniable absurdity — and that’s just the formula that The Lab of Madness hoped to create in its new film, "Murder Party."

Sharp, Goldblatt and Blair are three of the seven performers in "The Lab," a Brooklyn-based production team, who grew up together in Alexandria.

"No one else that I ever met was as close to their high-school friends. I think we invented and imagined a lot of it, but we had this strange mystique about Alexandria, Virginia," said Sharp, 32.

"Not to be gushingly nostalgic, but it was a time of innocence," said Jeremy Saulnier, who wrote and directed "Murder Party."

It all depends on how one defines "innocence." Saulnier, 31, started making films at about 8 years old while growing up on Old Dominion Blvd. in the Beverley Hills section of Alexandria. To him, "innocence" meant spending Halloween nights rushing from house to house without adult supervision, and creating D.I.Y. horror films that today would likely lead to a lengthy session with the school psychologist.

"We went around town playing guns, bloodying the streets with Karo syrup," said Saulnier. "My fondest memories are from Halloween in Alexandria. It’s hard to imagine now, but in the ‘80s there were always fears of random razor blades in apples. But other than that, from 7:30 to 10:30, it was a bunch of unsupervised kids flooding the streets. It was the true spirit of Halloween."

Saulnier and The Lab of Madness — which includes other childhood friends Sandy Barnett, William Lacey and Skei Saulnier, the director’s wife — created "Murder Party" as an ode to that chaotic, rebellious spirit. "The way we like to see it is as ‘The Breakfast Club,’ with chainsaws and hard drugs," he said.

Yet it might never had been filmed had it not been for something rather conformist: instant coffee.

SAULNIER, LIKE MANY of the other Alexandrians in The Lab, attended George Mason Elementary, then George Washington Middle School and finally T.C. Williams. He left town in 1994 to study film at NYU. Ten years later and still living in New York, Saulnier’s film "Crabwalk" won "Best Narrative Short" at the 2004 Slamdance Film Festival. His film career moving along, he found some on-set work, opened a special effects shop with Goldblatt and started working in commercials. He eventually landed a "spec" ad presentation for a major corporation; Saulnier did a "cheesy Maxwell House commercial with some singing firemen in upstate New York," bastardizing the song "Our House" by the band Madness.

If that commercial sounds familiar, that’s because it’s been in heavy rotation on television for the last year — the coffee giant ditched its big-budget campaign, ordered Saulnier’s spot instead and then six more from him. For the next 18 months, Saulnier traveled everywhere from Dublin to Dubai to film ads, earning and saving what would become the primary funding for "Murder Party" — although Jeremy and Skei Saulnier and Sharp emptied their savings accounts for the film as well.

"Murder Party" was a total team effort from the longtime friends, from the finances to the production. Saulnier built into the screenplay the opportunity for improvisation, so the actors used everything from their own experiences to stories they heard in high school to fill in the blanks. The Saulniers and Sharp are producers on the film; Goldblatt did the blood-splattering special effects makeup.

The camaraderie harkens back to those early days in Alexandria, when the group would make what Sharp called "god-awful movies" around town. Just like with "Murder Party," those movies featured some ingenious — and sometimes risky — filmmaking techniques. Like, for example, when Saulnier would use firecrackers as "squibs" to explode packets of fake blood on an actor’s chest.

"It brought our art to a whole new level," Sharp recalled.

"MURDER PARTY" was released this year by Magnet, a division of Magnolia Pictures, and has played in several festivals around the country before being released on DVD this month. It’s about a man in his late 30s (Sharp) who randomly finds an invitation to a Halloween party on the street, arriving in a creepy New York warehouse district to find a collection of deranged men and women in costume planning to murder him.

The film plays as a pitch-black comedy, skewering everything from the dilution of Halloween culture to the faux-temerity of art-scene hipsters.

"I don’t hate hipsters whatsoever. I reached an age where coolness loses its currency, and you just want to be around pleasant people," said Saulnier, his voice inflected with Kevin Smith’s slacker tone and an occasional drawl.

There was an experience that inspired this send-up of the tragically hip; one that gave birth to the film’s antagonist: Alexander, a self-appointed art guru whose credentials are later called into question, played by another one of Saulnier’s childhood friends, Sandy Barnett.

Barnett came to live with the director in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn in 1998. An experienced cook, Barnett went up and down Bedford Ave. seeking employment at any of its restaurants. He was repeatedly asked if he was an artist; when he’d say he wasn’t, they’d refuse to hire him. "It was insane," said Saulnier. "We couldn’t fathom how somebody who was qualified for a fry-cook job couldn’t get one because he wasn’t an artist."

The film lampoons that pretension at every turn; but, at its core, "Murder Party" is a gore-filled horror thriller and a far cry from Saulnier’s debut "Crabwalk," which he said played like a 1970s-style comedy.

"That was supposed to be my calling card," he said. "‘Murder Party’ was more of a safety net because it’s not high-art, it’s not my end-all-be-all film that establishes my cinematic style. It’s a good time, with lots of blood and guts and mayhem. We can be free to have fun, and not worry about if I’m going to get called to do the next action franchise.

"It’s good to go a little ‘gonzo,’ because if you fail, it’s just a gonzo horror movie."

WHEN THINKING about "gonzo horror movies," one of the last films that come to mind is the sweet indie comedy "Napoleon Dynamite." Yet that film is prominently mentioned as comparable to "Murder Party" in its press materials publicity materials. The connection between a droll celebration of an iconic nerd and a film that features characters doing lines of cocaine before attempting premeditated murder baffled The Lab.

"When we saw that ‘Napoleon Dynamite’ connection, we thought, ‘Well, this is a totally different film," said Sharp.

Part of that loose connection between the films comes from the eyeglasses Sharp wears as the hero; ones that bear a resemblance to Kip Dynamite’s and ones that the "Murder Party" crew affectionately referred to as "pedophile glasses." (In reality, Sharp wore them in the seventh grade in order to better see the blackboard in math class.)

Adjusting to the way the film was being sold was part of the post-production education for the group, according to Saulnier. That included a redesigned poster that featured Sharp holding a pair of chainsaws — one more than appears in the film, leaving The Lab wondering if the poster promised something their movie wasn’t going to deliver.

Saulnier recalled a dose of reality that was given to them by the studio: "[They told us], ‘OK, kids, here’s a little lesson. We’re going to the Cannes film market, where no one cares about your movie and there are two things that sell your movie — the trailer and the poster.’ And we’re like, ‘Really boss?’ and he’s like, ‘Really, kids.’"

Horror movies are big business these days, thanks to an offshoot of the genre that’s been labeled as "torture porn." Film like the "Saw" series and "Hostel" have made millions both in theaters and on DVD.

"We’re still a little broke from the movie, so we’d like them to sell as many DVDs as possible," said Saulnier, whose film recently received a major boost of attention when it was featured in Rolling Stone magazine.

As far as "torture porn" goes, Saulnier will support anything that’s entertaining. Where he sees danger to that trend, or any other genre fad, is when studios latch onto it and begin cranking out inferior products — like the current wave of "re-imagined" horror classics like "Halloween" and "The Hills Have Eyes."

"I think it’s blasphemous," he said.

CONSIDERING WHAT started Saulnier down the road to "Murder Party," that stance is understandable. He and his friends were schooled on classic horror films from the 1980s.

"I had some cousins in Reston, and they broke me in the hard way. They’d take me to the basement of my Uncle Dan’s house and make me watch ‘Dawn of the Dead’ and ‘Friday the 13th’ in slow-mo on their VCR," he said.

Picture an impressionable young man being forced to view a gruesome scene like the one in George Romero’s "Dawn of the Dead," in which one character blows another’s head off with a shotgun. "It was burned into my brain, with them looping it over and over and over, laughing as I cringed. I had to embrace it or be traumatized for life," said Saulnier.

He and his friends embrace it fully in "Murder Party," just like they did as children running around their old neighborhoods with packets of syrupy fake blood.

"For a film that was like a continuation of our little movies from Alexandria, we’re really stoked," said Saulnier.

Sharp said that if "Murder Party" is a success, The Lab hopes to make a follow-up: an action-comedy that could potentially bring them back home for filming.

"All the movies we ever wanted to do, we first picture them set in Alexandria," said Sharp.