On the third day of the Spooky Movie International Film Festival, showing at the AFI Silver Theater in Silver Spring, Maryland, I caught the home-invasion thriller Crush the Skull, directed (and cowritten) by Viet Nguyen. It’s a reasonably solid movie, with agreeable performances and some slick dialog, but it begins to fall apart about halfway through. Still, you could do worse.
Ollie (Chris Dinh, “Play It Again, Dick” TV series) and Blair (Katie Savoy, “Everything Before Us”) are a married couple that just happens to rob homes. Some couples do yoga, some do rock climbing, and these two steal things. When we first catch up with them, they’re parked in front of their intended target, waiting for the house to be vacated. One last job, they tell each other before breaking in. One last job, indeed. (Foreshadowing!) Ollie and Blair get their robbing thing on, but one of the occupants comes back much earlier than anticipated, which leads to a husband finding a man in bed with his wife, which leads to murder, which leads to Ollie going to jail, which leads to Ollie getting out of jail at the behest of a local mob boss, which means he and Blair need to pull off, you guessed it, one more job. All of this occurs within the first twenty minutes of the movie and isn’t even the heart of the story.
It’s that second last job that gets them. Blair’s brother Connor (Chris Riedell, “Fruitvale Station”), who fancies himself a gangbanger leader, has a place all set up for the robbin’. Connor and his crew, one guy named Riley (Tim Chiou, “A Foundling”), have scoped out the house for two whole weeks, so they have a pretty good idea of when the homeowners are gone. Ollie and Connor don’t get along, so Ollie’s not part of the plan. He’s allowed to tag along anyway, as a lookout.
This all sets up the second half of Crush the Skull, in which our antiheroes stumble into a house from which there appears to be no escape. The windows are thick, single-paned glass. The doors are unopenable. Nobody can get a cell signal. It’s madness. And then the quartet of thieves realizes they’re not alone in the house, which — by the by — has a sprawling basement with movable walls and insurmountable doors. Kind of a murder room, really.
At least, it would be if we could see it. It’s tough filming in a dark basement. Some movies get around this by using a camera as the catalyst for a forced perspective, perhaps with a night-vision lens. Here, though, Nguyen’s characters find themselves trapped in this basement with nothing other than their phones, so that’s the light we get. And guess what, it’s insufficient light. It is apparently enough light for the characters, who can see things that the viewer simply cannot, even with prolonged squinting. But the audience cannot see the doors that shut, the walls that move, the people under the house, nothing. For the final half hour or so of this film, I had almost no idea what was transpiring. It’s not as if the characters pause and give us all a brief synopsis of what’s happened thus far.
Finally, and somewhat happily, we come to the end of the movie, a scene that coincidentally gives us the title of the film. It’s a pretty lousy ending. When you experience it, you get the sense that more was to come — but alas, that’s it. End of movie, roll credits. All of that buildup for a one-liner that should have been a no-liner.
Crush the Skull doesn’t even rise to the level of a serviceable thriller. It’s tedious, despite fine chemistry between Dinh and Savoy, until it becomes ludicrous and unfathomable. There’s some potential here for a fine scary movie, but it’s lost. In that dark cellar. That no one can see anything in.