Death Suspects a Murder (2012) – By Philip Smolen

Co-ed Natalie Winters (Samantha Smith) has just been found murdered on the campus of Chaplain Christian College. She’s the fifth student to be killed there in the last few years and now everyone knows that a serial killer has it in for the student body. Campus security chief Rachel York (Jayme Grant) has agreed to work with two Los Angeles Police Detectives to find the murderer – veteran Chris Michaels (Karl Andrew) and newbie James Summers (Andy David Bowland). But York knows that they will have to move fast to prevent another murder. Standing in their way is College President LeRoy Walker (Randall Wallace) who has prevented the trio from interviewing students, and smart-ass college radio host Marty Edwards (William Bouton) who has further inflamed the campus with his volatile rants. But as York, Michaels, and Summers delve deeper into the case, a number of suspects crop up. Could Natalie’s killer be her jealous roommate Savannah White (Haven Nutt), campus drug dealer Cameron Tate (Bobby Forestal), jilted ex-friend Joanna Jordan (Jessica White), or even Marty Edwards? One thing’s certain; if the trio doesn’t move fast, one or more of these suspects will wind up as victims.

“Death Suspects a Murder” is a production of the Pepperdine Film Society and looks as if it was filmed entirely on the Pepperdine campus. It’s similar to an Agatha Christie novel where a savvy investigator interviews multiple suspects and is finally surprised by the true identity of the murderer. While the film shows intelligence, effort, and good intentions, it unfortunately still has the look and feel of a college production and isn’t compelling. A primary flaw is the lack of production values throughout the film. Andrews and Bowland try to act like police officers, but because they lack the accoutrements law enforcement officials’ posses, they don’t look like cops and instead look like they’re play acting. Another problem is the distinct lack of official activity on the campus. Any location that had five murders would see a flurry of commotion and a heavy police presence. Indeed, during the first scene where officials congregate around Natalie’s body, there are no curiosity seekers. There would also be news reporters scurrying around looking for a good story. This lack of detail calls attention to itself and hurts the film.

Screenwriter Mathew S. Robinson and director Jenn Marlis are so concerned with the details of the murder plot (which is intricate) that they fail to create a true sense of fear and menace. Throughout the film there is no palpable feeling of unease or panic on campus. It would have helped to have seen groups of students talking in hushed tones about the deaths, or hurriedly getting to class (looking over their shoulders), or even groups of parents screaming for the authorities to act because they’re so frightened for their kids. Instead, only one parent is ever shown and the student body’s reaction to the string of deaths is merely to treat it as an inconvenience. Only in the final act do Robinson and Marlis succeed. Here, as the final victims are confronted by the killer, they generate an intimate feeling of anxiety and fear.

The film’s lead characters are very one dimensional. Andrew is the tough seen-it-all veteran stuck with a rookie (Bowland) who’s still learning the ropes, while Grant is the no-nonsense chief who wants results (although how a campus security chief holds jurisdiction over city police officers is never explained). But Robinson does bring nuance to some of the supporting roles. His shadings for drug dealer Cameron Tate and ex-friend Joanna Jordon prove that he can create solid and complex characters. He now needs to extend this to his leads who far too often are saddled with clichéd dialogue.

White, Forestal, and Wallace are the brightest stars in the film. Wallace (who is himself a well known author, screenwriter, and director) adds a good deal of style and grace (and a bit of menace) as the Chaplain President. Forestal is compelling as Cameron Tate. He works on several levels and allows you to see the emotions brimming behind his expressive eyes. White is fabulous and brings vulnerability to Joanna Jordon. And while Grant and Bowland hold their own, they (and the film) are let down by Andrew who can be seen reading off of cue cards far too often.
Another shortcoming is the music by Houston Fry. It starts out eerie, but the constant repetition of the themes diminishes its effectiveness and calls attention to the film’s obvious restricted budget.

A highlight is the film’s final credits. They are stylish and gripping. It would have been great to introduce the film with these since that would have created an initial bridge and drawn the audience into the story. Coming at the end of the film it is merely an interesting coda.
“Death Suspects a Murder” is an ambitious independent film that unfortunately looks and plays too much like a student project. While its creators are talented, they are still growing as filmmakers and have a lot to learn about making entertaining and intricate Hollywood style thrillers.

For more information on “Death Suspects a Murder”, please visit these websites:

http://www.facebook.com/pages/Death-Suspects-A-Murder/165865763502242

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=geWADpnPozA

http://rfmp.net/2011/11/21/death-suspects-a-murder-production-blog-112011