Winner of the inaugural “Nightfall Award” at the 2015 Los Angeles Film Festival —an accolade bestowed upon the festival’s best horror or “midnight” film— Viet Nguyen’s feature directorial debut “Crush The Skull,” is a hilarious, thrilling hybrid of a heist film and a gory, old-school slasher flick. The screenplay, written by Nguyen and one of the film’s stars Christopher Dinh, skillfully balances comedic moments with frightening, unexpected twists and turns. Nguyen’s direction also adeptly brings many of funny and fear-inducing scenes to life, an effect no doubt bolstered by the excellent performances of a stellar cast that includes Dinh, Tim Chiou, Katie Savoy, Chris Riedell, Lauren Reeder, Walter Michael Bost, Leonard Wu, Jerry Ying and Lincoln Hoppe, in a film reminiscent of other comedy-horror hybrids such as Eli Craig’s “Tucker & Dale vs. Evil” or Drew Goddard’s “The Cabin in The Woods.”
The film follows Ollie (Dinh) and Blair (Savoy), a couple moonlighting as professional thieves specializing in the ransacking of upper class homes while dressed as house painters. During a supposed “last job,” Ollie decides to save someone in a cheating spouse situation —which unexpectedly ends up landing him in jail. Forced to do something desperate against her better wishes, Blair reaches out to a shady criminal underlord named Timmy Song to bail Ollie out through a pair of his henchmen, Koji Miller (Wu) and Yoji Miller (Ying), resulting in her suddenly being saddled with a debilitating debt. To pay it off, the pair team up with Blair’s brother, Connor (Riedell) and his right-hand man and “crew” Riley (Chiou) to raid a country home in the middle of nowhere: there’s that good ol’ horror trope of the “abandoned cabin,” except this cabin is a pretty impressive estate that seems to lack any furniture whatsoever. Once the team enacts their plan to rob the home, they realize that they have become trapped in the secret labyrinth-like hideaway of a deranged serial killer (Bost), who uses the house to torture and butcher his unfortunate victims, including a girl named Vivian (Reeder) – who they save at first but who Blair immediately doesn’t trust. Armed with only their wits, fists, and burglary skills, the robbers plot their escape from a cunning and diabolical villain.
The film’s mix of throwback genre tropes (including some great scenes of gore taken to extreme and humorous heights) and straight-up comedy is well-executed. Chiou is highly entertaining to watch and listen to as Connor’s “criminal wingman” and the duo of Connor/Riley almost bears an interesting buddy-cop dynamic, especially when their implied “6 month” history is rendered deftly by the acting of Chiou and Riedell. Dinh and Savoy also exhibit strong chemistry, and Dinh’s “straight man” performance makes many of the scenes where the team gets in trouble a lot funnier than initially expected. The slapstick hijinks combined with unrepentant bloodshed make for a great combination, playing like a raw, uncensored Scooby-Doo adventure, say if the “gang” got lost in Eli Roth‘s “Hostel” and had to fight their way out.
Having its origins in two short films initially uploaded to YouTube on Halloween in 2011 and 2013, the feature version of “Crush The Skull,” is an excellent spiritual successor to the existential dark comedy initially envisioned by Nguyen (and co-writer Dinh) in those earlier works. Extremely entertaining and well-crafted, “Crush The Skull” promises a bright future in genre films for Nguyen. [B+]