We don't know if you've heard, but Judge Kerry Birmingham is totally engaged. To a girl. Um, she lives in Canada. You don't know her.
In Death Will You Part
As a darkly comedic take on love and lust, Death by Engagement sets itself up to take down the hypocrisies of modern courtship and commitment and the folks who seek it out. In practice, however, very little of the movie comes together in an effective way, burdened by a limp script and a writer-director who seems to know what he wants to say, just not how to go about saying it. Much like love itself, it's all about timing and opportunity, and more often than not Death by Engagement fails (another thing you can apply to love, if you're the cynical sort). As a wise woman once put it, "Love is a battlefield," but in this case, love is more like a morgue. Let's get it up on the slab and dissect it a bit, shall we?
Facts of the Case
Spencer Tarkington (Brandon Largent), jilted at the altar, won't let his wayward bride escape with the prize engagement ring that has been in his family for generations. This determination leads to a dead bride-to-be and the murderous Spencer in a coma, left in the care of his doting mother (P.J. Soles, Halloween). Strange things happen, though, when the ring, stolen from the scene of the brutal crime, bounces from one couple to the next-and the brides-to-be wind up murdered. Skeptical detective Rikki Moore (Sascha Knopf, Vampirella) and her partner track the ring's murderous trail, and soon discover that Spencer's obsession with getting the ring back won't be stopped by a mere coma.
There's a lot of promise to this premise, melding the slasher genre with the Freudian overtones of Psycho and satirizing the modern anxieties inherent in the compulsion to marry. Played a certain way, this concept could be used as fuel for dark humor and skewed social commentary. Marriage, after all, is built on this notion of staving off loneliness and perpetuating ourselves through our children and family; what could be a more ripe metaphor for our attempts to cheat death and oblivion than a murderous groom out to kill those unions before they have a chance?
Writer-director Philip Creager observes these ideas, at least obliquely, in Death by Engagement, following, in episodic fashion, a series of doomed couples as the ring falls into (and onto) their hands. The ring, and subsequent brutal deaths, aren't really what doom these marriages—it's the mismatched, loathsome, and generally self-absorbed couples themselves. The way some of these characters behave towards each other, death by strangling at the hands of a super-strong coma patient wearing a life mask is probably a less horrifying fate than their eventual divorce. From the unscrupulous cop and the inconsiderate frat boy, to the sleazy con and the sugar daddy, these men are uniformly reprehensible. The women, a collection of mistresses, bimbos, princesses, and overeager spinsters, are just as vacuous. Creager seems to be saying something about the rote, automatic nature of commitment (or lack thereof) as, more often than not, the viewer is rooting for Spencer to put these couples out of our misery. Knopf's cynical cop Rikki, the least believable casting of a woman in a professional role since Denise Richards as a nuclear scientist in The World Is Not Enough, shows Creager is in on the joke: detesting "chick flicks" and traditional notions of marriage (at least until the plot demands she doesn't), Rikki, at least, sees how silly and strange a lot of these couples are, regardless of their grisly ends.
While the right tone is struck—it's clear things aren't to be taken TOO seriously—death by engagement's major problems are, by and large, structural. Ideally, the ring would be the connective tissue between vignettes, dragging Rikki and her somewhat typical police detective partner with it. Creager, however, can't quite make all the different couples' doomed romances interesting, mostly relying on sketches of cartoonish stereotypes in heat, spending extra time on sleazy Bobo, played by Jeff Parise apparently channeling Sam Rockwell. Things become positively non-linear halfway through the movie, breaking the follow-the-ring rhythm and providing little payoff for doing so. From there, the movie never quite gets back on track, giving Rikki a random, otherwise inconsequential fiancée whose purpose is only to make sure our heroine gets possession of the ring (and she's all too gushy to get it). There's a time jump, a heap of exposition, and a last-minute twist that isn't set up properly, by which point the momentum's lost and the novelty of the concept remains underexploited.
A lot of the film's problems could have been amended by some script polish, but there's more that drags the movie down. The murders themselves aren't played for much suspense, mainly awkwardly edited walks through empty houses before cutting to Spencer's reveal or the found body, a slasher standard Creager shows little affinity for. Likewise Creager's ability to coax performances from his actors, as Knopf woodenly recites Rikki's anti-relationship screeds and P.J. Soles, as Spencer's decidedly much-too-involved mother, Mrs. Tarkington, sadly seems rusty and unengaged (though kudos for the casting. Soles, she of Rock 'N Roll High School and Carrie fame, deserves a comeback as much as any cult icon). Ultimately, the shortcomings pile up and the plot limps along until Rikki's plot-mandated change of heart puts her in possession of the ring and exposes the dark secret of the Tarkingtons, by which point there's little enthusiasm left for the denouement.
The screener copy provided for review did not include any special features or audio and subtitle options, and so do not get a mention or a review here.
There's no lack of potential to the idea of a ring that bounces from one doomed couple to the next, but a half-baked execution in the script and in the performances keep Death by Engagement a strictly average indie horror flick. If you don't have the gloss or the gore, your indie horror movie better have one hell of a gimmick, and Creager's inability to keep things tight and moving robs the movie of that gimmick's power.
What Philip Creager has brought together, let this man tear asunder—it's okay, I can do that, I'm a judge. Death by Engagement is guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Maverick Entertainment
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