Wednesday, November 4, 2020

A Belated Halloween Round-Up: Modern Takes on the Classic Country House Murder Mystery

As I’ve said on here several times now, I’m not watching much traditional scripted television anymore. I’m a Youtube fiend (give me all the travel, cooking, and foreign language learning channels!), and I still love me a good calming stand and stir or cooking competition. I’m also trying to learn Spanish (I was actually supposed to be in Mexico for Dia de Muertos right now, but that has been postponed for probably at least two years), so finding content in Spanish on streaming services has also been a focus for me. La Casa de la Flores on Netflix is especially fun. All this is to say I wasn’t originally intending to do my usual seasonal posts this year. Then, when I was watching “Clue,” one of my favorite movies, on Halloween night, I had an idea for a belated, not really about TV Halloween post. I’m going to talk about modern takes on the classic country house murder mystery. Three are films, and one is a web series, and all are quite entertaining. Welcome to Jen’s Halloween mystery dinner party. Will you survive?

Clue (1985)

When I was growing up, Clue was one of my favorite board games. My Dad taught me a strategy that would give me a very high chance of winning (I’m not telling), and I always relished a chance to put that strategy into action. Movies based on any existing piece of intellectual property a studio can come up with (Battleship, anyone?) is kind of a cliché joke these days, but “Clue,” coming decades before this trend, is truly a well developed, clever film.

It’s a dark and spooky night of course, and a group of Washingtonians (and one New Yorker who works for the WHO) find themselves at a remote mansion dinner party at the invitation of “Mr. Body.” They are all asked to use pseudonyms, of course, and so we meet Professor Plum the kind of skeevy psychiatrist, Miss Scarlet the madam, and Mrs. Peacock the Senator’s wife, to name a few. The events that follow weave together blackmail, state secrets, and “me too” before its time. There are so many great, classic performances in “Clue.” I think the late, great Madeline Kahn describing her anger at her husband as “flames on the side of my face” is always quotable. Tim Curry, in a memorable turn as Wadsworth the butler, says “no” in a unique way that uses all the vowels. Christopher Lloyd is always a treat, even as the super creepy psychiatrist. Eileen Brennan (you’ll hear about her again) brings both comedy and an edge to Mrs. Peacock. Michael McKean as the hapless (so it seems) Mr. Green is also memorable. To top it all off, there are three endings to the story, and any way you watch it, you’ll get to see all three.

Edgar Allan Poe’s Murder Mystery Dinner Party (2016)

As a Baltimorean, I’m a bit of an Edgar Allan Poe enthusiast. I have raven bookends on my kitchen cookbook shelf and a picture of a “passive aggressive raven” that says “nevermind” near that. I also lived across the street from Poe’s grave for three years, and some friends who lived in the same apartment building even threw a Poe’s birthday party one year. So I was predisposed to like this literary take on a country house murder mystery featuring Mr. Poe and his friendly household ghost, Lenore.

“Poe Party,” as it is known among fans, was written by siblings Sean and Sinead Persaud and produced by their web video production company Shipwrecked Comedy. It was funded by Kickstarter (full disclosure: I was a backer). Shipwrecked always tries to do work with a literary bent, and “Poe Party” was the epitome of that. Poe, in a bid to win over the heart of Annabel Lee, hosts a big murder mystery dinner party and invites all famous authors like Mary Shelley, Charlotte Bronte, Earnest Hemingway, Oscar Wilde, H.G. Wells, and more. The murder mystery party turns into a real murder mystery, and the twists and turns keep coming. “Poe Party” is mostly a very clever comedy, but it has its tragic moments as well, and the cast clearly loves what they are working on.

Knives Out (2019)

I spent New Year’s Eve 2019 seeing “Knives Out” at one of those upscale eat a mediocre yet overpriced dinner while you watch your movie places because it was close to my house, and I don’t like to do a whole lot of driving on New Year’s Eve. Little did I know that I would only see one more movie in a theater (Parasite) before the pandemic would hit. I decided to watch “Knives Out” because I generally like country house murder mysteries, and I thought it would be fun to see a contemporary take on it. As much as I love all things Disney (the animated movies, Pixar, Marvel, Star Wars – all of it), I was also craving something with an original plot not based on existing intellectual property.

“Knives Out,” directed by Rian Johnson (I liked “The Last Jedi." Luke has always been a whiny brat. Fight me.), has quite the all star cast, including Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, and Christopher Plummer. Plummer plays famous mystery writer Harlan Thrombley, who has serious health problems and is nearing the end of his life. His nurse, Marta, is played by Cuban-Spanish actress Ana de Armas, who gives a very memorable performance (and is now currently dating Ben Affleck, but that’s a subject for another blog!). Thrombley is found dead of apparent suicide after hish eighty-fifth birthday celebration, and the plot takes off from there. What is a bit different about “Knives Out” compared to the other works we’re talking about here is that the police and famous Louisiana detective Benoit Blanc (Craig) are investigating a murder that has already happened, as opposed to a bunch of unrelated people being gathered for a party, and then a murder taking place that they have to solve. It is a lot of fun and even manages to work in some immigrants’ rights material.

Murder by Death (1976)

“Murder by Death,” written by Neil Simon, is the oldest of the murder mystery parodies I’m showcasing here, and there are certainly aspects of it that don’t age well at all (mostly having to do with Sam Diamond, who is played by the legendary Columbo himself, Peter Falk, and the stereotypical Chinese detective Sidney Wang, played by the talented, but Caucasian, Peter Sellers). I tend to take films as products of their time and not completely disregard them for how women and minorities are portrayed, but I felt it was important to point out those aspects here, because they are definitely problematic in 2020 and don’t reflect the world as it should be.

Like “Poe Party,” “Murder by Death” has a literary bent. Lionel Twain, played by none other than Truman Capote, has called together five of the world’s greatest private detectives and their companions for what essentially turns into a competition for who can solve his murder first. Each of the detectives are parodies of detectives in literature and pop culture, such as Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot, and the Thin Man. I feel like “Murder by Death” is the most farcical and out there of the four parodies. It includes twists and turns such as multiple versions of the same room and simulated thunderstorms. Lionel Twain (or is he really Lionel Twain?) is one sick puppy. I do enjoy watching the mystery unfold, though, and I also enjoy the caricatures of famous fictional detectives. Oh, and at the risk of not following the Chekhov's gun rule, Eileen Brennan was in this film too, as Sam Diamond's harried assistant, Tess Skeffington.

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