The dinner mystery has been a staple of the suspense thriller since filmmakers began playing with the genre; the bringing together of seemingly disparate strangers for some kind of experiment offers the viewer a chance to play sleuth and try to keep one step ahead of the twisting narrative unfolding before them.
Most Horrible Things, from fledgling director Hiroshi Katagiri, certainly has all the hallmarks of a successful dinner mystery. Six singles are invited to a lavish Valentine’s Day dinner and are put through their paces by a wealthy, mysterious host and his manservant, in order to find a breakthrough to true love.
The film is shot stylishly, with a keen eye for colour and choreography that elevates it beyond its small budget. Katagiri has a knack for finding beauty in the mundane and order in chaos, helped by a strong editor in Robert Gajic, who many may know from his stellar work cutting together John Carroll Lynch’s Lucky.
While the script never really sings, it does have some surprisingly clever moments — particularly the way it sets up the twist right at the beginning. There is some neat juxtaposition as we flip in time between the dinner party action and subsequent interrogations. The nugget of excitement that sits at the film’s core prevails, bristling with menace even while everything around it becomes flabby and uneven. The requisite twists and fake-outs land at just the right time, every time, to keep carrying you along with the characters — just on the cusp of things becoming tiresome.
Simon Phillips and Sean Sprawling are standouts, following Katagiri from his previous feature, Gehenna: Where Death Lives. Both clearly relish the opportunity to slurp the scenery as their characters toy mischievously with their guests. Most Horrible Things is at its best when the two are working their manipulative magic on their prey, and ultimately, it’s their collective performance that injects some much needed life into things when the action becomes lumpy. Individually, Sprawling plays with an impish sexuality that the film never really acknowledges, which is interesting in itself.
In stark contrast, the gruff-cop-bad-cop interrogations are extremely clichéd and reminiscent of generic crime-drama TV. The biggest names here, Sean Patrick Flannery and Natalie Burn, manage to be lethargic and over-the-top all at once. These scenes are mercifully brief in the first half of the film, but draw out as the dual timelines begin to collide.
It’s clear that this was a quick shoot on a quick script, with performances to match, and the film isn’t quite as smart as it thinks it is, failing to find the level of wit or intelligence necessary to execute a flawless mystery plot. But there is just something about Most Horrible Things; it somehow amounts to more than the sum of its parts. In spite of so much, it’s compelling, exciting and surprising. Just as a dinner mystery should be.
Sarah J. Butler
14 November 2022