Marc Hampson’s thriller boasts the sort of simple but exciting premise that fueled the best film noirs of the 1940s. A man is enjoying a romantic evening with his wife during the holiday season when there’s a sudden knock at the door late at night. The unexpected visitor is his old friend and college roommate whom he hasn’t seen in five years. Looking disheveled and anxious, the friend says, “I need your help.” The man agrees, only to discover a few minutes later that the help his friend needs is getting rid of a dead body stashed in the trunk of his car. If The Man in the Trunk had been shot in black and white, it would be easy to imagine Humphrey Bogart and Pat O’Brien in the lead roles.
Unfortunately, the film’s execution doesn’t quite live up to its promising setup. Feeling attenuated despite its brief 84-minute running time, it too often seems like an unnecessarily stretched-out version of the short film it was originally conceived as. Not that it doesn’t offer some compelling moments along the way.
After a brief prologue in which the protagonist, Andrew (Ace Marrero), enjoys a flirty striptease from his Santa hat-wearing wife, Sara (Vanessa Reynolds), the film wastes no time getting into suspense mode. Andrew reluctantly agrees to accompany his friend Steve (Erik Bogh) on a mysterious mission that is quickly revealed when they stop in a shopping mall parking lot and Steve reveals the contents of his trunk.
It’s at that point that credibility starts to go out the window, such as the men parking right underneath a bright light where they can be easily seen. Or Andrew, once he agrees to Steve’s horrific request that he help him bury the body, annoyingly complaining, “You don’t even have shovels.” Or that they can stop at a hardware store, which is apparently open in the middle of the night, to get the tools.
The two men eventually arrive at some isolated woodlands to do their nefarious deed. To reveal the plot twists that ensue would be too much of a spoiler, except to say that it involves a very bad guy (Ryan Schwartzman) who, in the tradition of many screen villains, is deceptively soft-spoken.
Director Hampson, who co-wrote the script with Aaron Fairley, doesn’t yet have the technical chops to put the suspenseful material over. A particularly egregious example is the awkward intercutting that occurs during a chase scene in which Andrew, while running for his life, seems to be recalling happier times strolling through holiday displays with his wife. The filmmaker also doesn’t successfully exploit such potentially darkly comic moments as when Andrew, having made a miraculous escape, walks into a café covered in duct tape and the patrons seem to barely give him a second glance.
The performances are another problem. While Schwartzman, who admittedly has the most to work with as the sort of villain who matter-of-factly points out, “Andy, you’re gonna die today,” is quietly effective, the other leads struggle in their roles.
Trafficking in mystery for most of its running time, the film tries to tie up all its narrative loose ends in the final 10 minutes. Like most of what’s preceded it, the climax turns out to be unconvincing.
Production: Purpose Pictures
Distributor: Brotherhood Pictures
Cast: Ace Marrero, Vanessa Reynolds, Ryan Schwartzman, Erik Bogh
Director: Marc Hampson
Screenwriters: Marc Hampson, Aaron Fairley
Producers: Marc Hampson, Aaron Fairley, Jennica Schwartzman, Ryan Schwartzman, Shame Muetzel, Mark Landon Smith
Executive producers: Paul Olson, Ronnie Ursenbach
Director of photography: Paul Olson
Editors: Marc Hampson, Ronnie Ursenbach
Composers: Marc Hampson, Tom Stillwagon