Murder, Anyone? begins with a shadow – the silhouette of a male figure in a wide-brimmed hat, illuminated by a circle of light. This monochrome image, and the melodramatic orchestral score that accompanies the superimposed opening credits, point to the now rather passé genre of film noir, while that figure – a projected artefact of light and darkness who is more absence than presence – suggests something akin to a ghost story. As its very title implies, James Cullen Bressack’s film does indeed feature crime and a classic femme fatale, and even ghosts – alongside, improbably, séances, zombies, a man dressed as a chicken, a vampire, kung fu, and several bloody murders – but in the end it is a ghost story of a different kind, summoning the dead to show that art, even a low-budget labour of love like this, is the closest that we can come to immortality.
“Stupid”, “insane”, “awful”, “just bad writing”, “ten pounds of shit in a five pound bag”. Few filmmakers would wish to see these expressions levelled against their own work – yet they are all direct quotes from Murder, Anyone? which, like Shin’ichirô Ueda’s One Cut of the Dead (2017), features an overtly bad work wrapped inside its own more sophisticated behind-the-scenes commentary, so that the dumber it seems, the cleverer it becomes. The principal theme here is collaboration, as middle-aged father George (Maurice LaMarche, voice of The Brain from Pinky and the Brain) and his sparring partner Charlie (Charles M. Howell IV) work together on a script that they have only just started drafting, and argue with each other – in literal black and white – over the direction that their story is taking, over the kind of genre and audience that they want, and even over whether they are writing a play or a film.
As George keeps shamelessly stealing tropes from other works – The Mouse Trap (1952), Deathtrap (1978), Wait Until Dark (1966), George A. Romero’s zombie films, martial arts flicks, the Dracula cycle, David Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone (1983) and of course Stanley Kubrick’s writer’s block classic The Shining (1980) – the script itself is also expressly preoccupied with art theft. For as George and Charlie bicker about their creative differences and constantly revise their storyline (with George very much at the keyboard and Charlies his critical sounding board), their ever-shifting scenario is brought to life in colour, and we see Richard (Tyler Christopher) – soon recast and renamed as the younger, more ‘uppercrusty’ Cooper (Kristos Andrews) – insinuating himself into the suburban house of Bridgette (Galadriel Stineman) in the hope of purloining a priceless Picasso painting.
They are soon joined by the chicken-costumed Blain (Spencer Breslin), the medium Marie Clemens (Carla Collins), the married couple from next door (Michael Gaglio, Sally Kirkland), Bridgette’s ex Eduardo (Hector David Jr.) and even the ghost of Marilyn Monroe (Theresa Ireland). For what develops from the chaos of the blank page is a Pirandello-esque farce in which characters’ identities, provenances and motivations change at the whim of their author, all in the service of a script growing ever more monstrous – and ever more ridiculous.
Meanwhile George and Charlie’s Statler and Waldorf-like commentary presents the creative process itself as dialectic metatheatre (or is it metacinema?), where artistic and commercial concerns come into conflict, and where “the idea of a surrealistic avant-garde mind-bending neo-noir thriller” all too easily degenerates into “cheap exploitation film for the mindless masses”. Soon even the characters are making snarky reflexive asides to camera about the derivative nature of the work they are in. This is a truly self-conscious work about its own making, a script-writing poioumenon akin to, say, the Coen Brothers’ Barton Fink (1991), Spike Jonze’s Adaptation (2002),Lawrence Michael Levine’s Black Bear (2020) or Sylvia Caminer’s Follow Her (2022) in which every story beat is all at once vividly (if provisionally) realised, and coldly critiqued, in the ‘real time’ of the artist’s imaginative headspace.
At the heart of Murder, Anyone? is another kind of collaboration which lends all the on-screen absurdity a palpable poignancy. For the film is Bressack’s adaptation of a script written for the stage by his own late father Gordon – and in all its recurring discourse on the advantages (and disadvantages) of theatre over cinema, in its scenes of the dead being resurrected, and in its depiction of a loving parent distracted from home life by his writing, one can discern a necromantic negotiation between father and son, in which Bressack Junior is both commemorating and continuing the family line, and turning his father’s play into the film that its conflicted author had at least half-wanted it to be.
A mid-credits coda multiplies the meta, while also spelling out the film’s elegiac tone. For this sequence, an addendum that can only have been written by the director, also features a cameo from him – and invites us to reassess that silhouetted fellow from the film’s beginning as its (ghost) writer Gordon Bressack himself, conjured to cast a long shadow over art that both is and is not his own, in a paradoxical conversation both between the generations and across the posthumous divide of death itself.
strap: James Cullen Bressack’s genre-fluid film-within-a-film is a monstrously meta memorial to the director’s father
© Anton Bitel