Thursday, July 21, 2016

AAIFF ’16: Crush the Skull

Aspiring young burglars should remember you should case the joint for at least two months before pulling a job and always try to get an inside look first. That might sound like misguided advice, but nobody should end up like the clueless thieves who blindly stumble into a serial killer’s tricked out house in Viet Nguyen’s Crush the Skull (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 Asian American International Film Festival in New York.

Blair and Ollie’s last job was supposed to be their very last job, but it went spectacularly wrong. To get her lover out of prison, Blair goes deeply into debt with a ferocious loan shark. Like it or not, she and Ollie will have to sign onto her brother Connor’s dodgy home robbery plan. The secluded house looks like primo real estate, but Connor has no idea what awaits them inside. Someone hasn’t done his homework.

Of course, they find precious little furniture or valuables of any kind, but there are piles of grisly home movies lying about. They also find an apparent torture chamber and plenty of restraining devices. The doors are looked from the outside, the windows are shatter proof, and a cell phone jammer blocks all signals. Unable to reach the skylight they entered through, the dysfunctional band of thieves finds themselves in deep, dark danger.

Even though the implications of Skull are often profoundly disturbing, the film is tremendous fun, in the evilest way possible. The strong characters give Nguyen a solid foundation to build on. Katie Savoy and Chris Dinh have terrific chemistry as the bickering but devoted Blair and Ollie. We can really believe they are a couple with some intense history together that are still into each other. Chris Riedell unleashes industrial strength attitude as Connor, while Tim Chiou frequently upstages everyone as Riley, Connor’s dimwitted “crew,” who always manages to stay on the right side of shtick and ridiculousness.

Although the opening prologue is a bit grim, Nguyen follows up with a wonderfully outrageous, blackly comic sequence of misadventures. The house is also a minor triumph of production and art design that just spews out atmosphere and foreboding (even though it bears some surface similarities with the Rube Goldberg house in Adam Schindler’s Intruders, a.k.a. Shut-In). It is a creepy film, but it earns laughs more regularly than the Scream franchise. Highly recommended for horror movie fans (who will especially dig the final scene), Crush the Skull screens tomorrow (7/22) at the Village East, as part of this year’s AAIFF.