Death Suspects a Murder Image

An undergraduate is murdered, her body is found sprawled across a patch of lawn on her college’s campus. Johnny on the spot is a pair of Los Angeles Police detectives, one an old hand, the other a green go-getter. Along the way, they find that the victim was loathed by any number of her fellow students. More troubling still, the campus has been the scene of other murders. Could there be a serial killer terrorizing this small Christian college? You bet there is, and the school’s president wants to keep it quiet. If parents get wind of what’s was going on they’ll stop sending their darlings to this institution of higher learning. Public safety is one thing, but tuition dollars the college rakes in don’t grow on trees.

Death Suspects a Murder sticks to the trusty police drama format we’ve seen so many times on TV. We follow the detectives as they interview suspects and chase down clues. There’s a tough but fair detective supervisor who bristles at the senior detective of the investigating duo when he flaunts the rules, which is often the case. Little by little the truth comes out until the perp is finally unmasked. Along the way, some perfunctory red herrings are tossed out to make it seem like the case is going wrap up quickly, but then it doesn’t.

Could there be a serial killer terrorizing this small Christian college?”

Fans of vintage crime shows will like the subject matter here, despite, or maybe because of how familiar it all seems. Still, it’s got to be tough for creative types to tease out something surprising from such well-worn material. But this first-time director has managed to assemble the pieces — most of which were shot on the Pepperdine University campus in Malibu on a $1,500 budget — in a coherent fashion that keeps the story moving along. Parts of the film are a little rough around the edges. Scenes could have been punchier if they were a bit shorter, and a lot of the dialog is too on the nose for comfort. But the director makes a real effort to mix comedy with drama, a touchstone of the police buddy picture. Some of it works, other parts could have used a bit more polish.

It’s hard to ignore that DSAM seems to be taking its cues from Brick, the 2005 Rian Johnson film noir set in a Southern California high school. There, comedic possibilities abound. Teenagers talk like Humphrey Bogart one minute, the next, mom is serving them glasses of juice and graham crackers in the kitchen. The surprising part is how perfectly film noir’s conventions fit in a teen comedy-drama. That is, once you get used to the 1940s-style crime jargon coming out of high schoolers’ mouths.

Death Suspects a Murder hasn’t quite got the same golden touch for comedy, nor are its characters as well focused as Johnson’s bigger budgeted studio release. Admittedly, it’s not exactly a level playing field. Never mind, director Jenn Marlis’s hard work is evident here, and her next effort will no doubt be even stronger.

Death Suspects a Murder (2012) Directed by Jenn Marlis. Written by Robby DeVillez, Jenn Marlis. Starring Karl Andrew, Gutemberg Bobby Forestal, William Bouton, Andy David Bowland.

5.5 out of 10

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