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“POKER NIGHT” (Film Review)

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There’s a certain beauty in independent films that the VOD/STV market has instilled in the viewing experience that otherwise is only found around film festivals, and that’s the absence of expectation. Looking at the promotional material for POKER NIGHT, the film could be confused for a masked slasher film or a late stage addition into the torture porn subgenre. And yet with little in the way of hype or criticism before the screening, I couldn’t really nail down what the film would be and, more importantly, where it would go.

And to that point, if you’d like to see the film on it’s merits alone, stop reading this review and seek it out, because it is worth your time. It takes a little bit to really settle into a groove, but once our masked madman takes center stage, the film suddenly becomes a different beast entirely. The dark humor is hilarious, the painful moments reek havoc on your empathy and, suddenly, the pieces of the puzzle come together to that you become invested in the characters and their experiences. But above all, POKER NIGHT is confidently its own unique story, and doesn’t give a shit about expectations or conventions of the genre that may otherwise have taken it to frustrating or familiar territory.

POKER NIGHT, for all intents and purposes, isn’t necessarily about a poker game or the night that it happens. Instead, the film uses the titular event to foreshadow events that happen alongside the main narrative, which follows a young detective who finds himself and his lover at the mercy of a know-it-all masked maniac. But where you may think that falls into predictable torture nonsense, it certainly doesn’t: the maniac at hand is as charismatic and hilarious as he is sadistic, and his backstory leads to some of the best moments of the film. Conversely, the protagonist isn’t quite squeaky clean either, and his inexperience makes for one of the most interesting story arcs of the year.

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With a compelling story and top notch character work, director Greg Francis makes the most out of POKER NIGHT’s story, even at the cost of tonal consistency. While the first fifteen minutes or so are atypical of low budget horror, Francis plays the long con with POKER NIGHT, and it’s a con that definitely works. Francis also takes the film into bold places, and while fans may not be satiated with his bait-and-switch ending, POKER NIGHT definitely has enough beforehand to justify it and then some. And Francis is also in good company behind the camera, as cinematographer Brandon Cox, editor Howard E. Smith and composer Scott Glasgow all contribute to the look and feel of Francis’ cinematic voice.

Francis also has the benefit of a stellar cast behind the film, featuring a wealth of great supporting actors who thankfully take their roles above and beyond the film’s budget. Beau Mirchoff and Halston Sage are both quite good in the film as our captive protagonists, with the former really excelling in moments of both terror and drama. Ron Perlman, Ron Eldard, Giancarlo Esposito, Titus Welliver and Corey Large are also rather great in their more limited roles, with the likes of Esposito and Welliver bringing a level of gravitas to their stories that sell the material as organic. But the film is really stolen by a superbly physical Michael Eklund, who is spot-on perfect in every moment of the film in a role that welcomes mix of eccentricity and intensity.

Overall, while POKER NIGHT isn’t looking to change horror’s history books, it’s exactly the kind of fun and darkly bizarre fright film that just aren’t being made anymore. Between Francis’ precise vision for the film and the performances on display, POKER NIGHT is certainly better than many of the films in its marketplace, and while rarely traditionally scary, the film doesn’t spare on cringeworthy chills. When the cards are on the table, though, POKER NIGHT is a damn good story, regardless of craft both practical and technical, and that’s all a viewer should ever ask from a film.

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POKER NIGHT is now available on DVD/VOD from XLrator Media.

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About the author
Ken W. Hanley
Ken W. Hanley is the Managing Web Editor for FANGORIA and STARLOG, as well as the former Web Editor for Diabolique Magazine and a contributing writer to YouWonCannes.com. He’s a graduate from Montclair State University, where he received an award for Excellence in Screenwriting. He’s currently working on screenplays, his debut novel "THE I IN EVIL", and various other projects, and can be followed on Twitter: @movieguyiguess.
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