Among Friends (2012)

Starring Christopher Backus, Jennifer Blanc, AJ Bowen, Dana Daurey, Brianne Davis, Kane Hodder, Kamala Jones, Alyssa Lobit, Chris Meyer

Directed by Danielle Harris

Oooh, the trepidation one feels when someone they respect decides to put down their current tools and take up a new trade. Sometimes a respected basketball star will attempt to swing a bat on the diamond and not do such a great job of it. Sometimes a musician will want to foray into acting, with varying results. And then sometimes an actor will want to direct. After years spent in front of the camera, a thesp will venture behind it to call the shots. Sometimes that can lead to wonderful films. Sometimes…not.

I’ve been a Danielle Harris fan since I was a wee tyke. Halloween 5 was one of the very first horror movies I ever saw, and it left an impression. As a result of seeing this film so young, I’ve always kept an eye out for Ms. Harris throughout the years – seeing her again in Tony Scott’s uber-fun The Last Boy Scout, then again with her recurring role on “Roseanne”, and again years later with Rob Zombie’s Halloween remake. Love it or hate it, that film seemed to put Ms. Harris back on the genre map after years of obscurity, and she’s been working steadily in horror films since.

Now, years later and with several more acting credits under her belt, she has finally taken on the directorial reins of a feature film. While she’s a wonderful presence onscreen, does her talent translate from behind the camera?

Conjure up, for only a moment, your own personal group of friends. Now imagine, within that group, there is someone who might readily stab you in the back. Or lie to you. Cheat you. Or leave you to the wolves when they might have offered a helping hand. Imagine one of these friends is no friend at all.

Now, shudder, imagine all of your friends are backbiting, backstabbing, underhanded douches. And worse still, imagine that one such friend knows everyone else’s secrets and plans to use them against the group in the most terrible of ways.

That’s the premise behind Among Friends, a shocking and wickedly funny film from the currently reigning Princess of Horror. Friends opens with a group of pals decked out in 80s garb, gearing up for a murder mystery party thrown by Bernadette (actress and Friends writer Lobit), an eccentric acquaintance who delights in throwing quirky get-togethers.

The pals drink, chat, and toss a few barbs at Bernadette behind her back, all the while wondering where their missing amigo Lily is (ohh, poor Lily). In short order, the party turns horrific: It seems Bernadette has tranq’d each of her visitors, leaving them conscious but near paralyzed. Now, with the aid of a few voyeuristic videos, some torture, and a bit of psychology, “Bernie” will show each of these people who their close companions really are, underneath their fake smiles, bullshit civility, and fair weather camaraderie. And before the night is out, blood will run as frequently as tears, as Bernadette takes her time in tearing the group apart, both figuratively and quite literally.

Any hesitation I might have had as a fan and viewer was quickly allayed by Harris’ skill behind the camera. The movie works incredibly well. The setup is engrossing, the performances strong, and Harris does a brilliant job as director with balancing the film’s tricky mix of humor and horror. You’ll be laughing one moment, squealing the next, and loving every minute of it.

In addition to having Lobit’s strong script to work from, Harris managed to wrangle quite a talented cast of relative unknowns. The entire ensemble is a joy to watch, with the standouts being Lobit’s turn as an intelligent psycho and Brianne Davis’ hilarious Jules, who really, really shouldn’t have taken mushrooms before being thrown into the dinner party from hell. Also noteworthy are the always great AJ Bowen and Jennifer Blanc (from husband Michael Biehn’s directorial debut The Victim). But the real star here is Harris, who deftly juggles terror and pitch-black wit like a pro (seriously, if Heathers were ever to be remade, here’s hoping she’s the one at the helm).

However, don’t take my praise to mean that the movie is entirely without fault. While likely intentional, the lack of detail concerning Bernadette’s madness and motivation is a bit annoying. A mid-credits tag suggests sequel potential, but a bit of that character’s backstory would’ve been more than welcome. In addition, the film’s ending feels quite truncated (especially so as it follows up a genuinely gripping climax). An extra moment or two of wrap-up would’ve done the film a world of good.

Still, I nitpick. Horror movies this concerned with character depth and sharp dialogue are sadly rare these days, especially ones so effectively intense and humorous. While the film is without distribution at the moment, I can’t imagine that will last much longer. Whether it be by festival or the eventual DVD release, see Among Friends ASAP.

3 1/2 out of 5

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