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A review of "Office Killer" (1997)

The Short Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews

Office Killer is another marginal recommendation, a movie that straddles the border between "good enough" and "needs work."  It tries to be a quirky dark comedy thriller that uses slasher movie tactics to tell a satirical story about corporate America.  But it's actually a by-the-numbers slasher movie for most of its runtime.  By the time the movie ends, you'll wish the director decided to embrace its horror tropes and ditch the humor.

My Rating: 3 / 5

The Part Where I Summarize the Plot

Dorine (Carol Kane) is an awkward, mousy copy-editor at a formerly successful magazine.  She wants to keep to herself and go about the office with as few surprises as possible.  Unfortunately for her, the magazine has recently hit hard times and there are layoffs forthcoming.

Enter Norah (Jeanne Tripplehorn), a motivated junior executive who's working her way up the ladder.  Their boss, Virginia (Barbara Sukowa), tasks her with notifying the office of the bad news: some of them are being fired, some of them are having their hours reduced, and some are being relocated to home offices to save on money.

That last one confuses me.  I really don't understand how the telecommuting plays into this.  For one thing, how does that save the office any money?  I get that it would save the worker some time and resources, but from an entrepreneurial point of view, where's the benefit?  You'd end up spending more to equip your workers remotely and train them.  And given how this ends up actually playing out, it feels not only foolish, but redundant.

Y'see, Norah gives Dorine a notice about some changes to her work schedule, but I'm not terribly sure I understand what the notice says.  The movie suggests that her hours are being cut back and she'll be working from home from now on.  But for the rest of the movie, we keep seeing scenes of Dorine at the office intercut with scenes of her working from home.  What kind of schedule is that?  In order to save money, you'll only come into the office from noon to five?  How does that work?

And on top of that, the point is supposed to be that Dorine hates her new arrangement.  Except she's the perfect type of person to work from home!  She keeps to herself, hates talking to people, zones out into her own little world.... By halfway through the movie, it looks like the only reason for the movie to give Dorine the notice is so she can access work email at home.

(Speaking of which, since this movie is from 1997, you get some entertaining and nostalgia-inducing scenes of the company's IT guy explaining computers to Dorine.  "We're setting you up with electronic mail!" he gushes.  "It's this new thing that'll allow you to communicate easily with the office!  Just take this 78-pound laptop and we'll get started....")

Anyway.  The point is that Dorine is not terribly happy, but being the introvert she is, she tries to just readjust after getting the bad(?) news.  Meanwhile, Norah goes to hang out at a bar with fellow office worker and best friend Kim (Molly Ringwald), where they take turns complaining about work and giving us some background info on various ongoing office romances / affairs.  One of those affairs happens to be between Kim and Gary (David Thornton), a staff writer and overall sleazebag.

This becomes important shortly when we cut back to the office to see that Dorine and Gary are both working late by themselves.  Dorine is messing with her workstation and can't get an outlet to work.  Gary hits on her, then tries to fix the outlet. And Dorine somehow manages to accidentally electrocute him.

Of all the deaths in this movie, this is really the only one that I have serious complaints about.  The idea is that once Dorine kills Gary, she gets a taste for murder and starts to knock off as many of her coworkers as possible - plus a couple of girl scouts for good measure.  All the other murders are premeditated and can be explained as a product of Dorine's sociopathy.  But this first one?  It's not only contrived - Dorine slips and falls backward on a fuse box that's arbitrarily in grabbing distance in the middle of the room, and this somehow sends a power surge into Gary's body - it's also not really a murder.  It's just an accident that Dorine responds poorly to.

But, whatever,  We need something to happen so Dorine can become the eponymous Office Killer, so why not.

One thing I did like, as disgusting as it was, is what Dorine does with the body.  You see her dragging him to the parking garage and at first you suspect she might be taking him somewhere to dump and bury.  Not so - she's actually just taking him home so she can prop his corpse up in her basement like a decoration.  This ends up becoming her thing.  Gacy was a clown, Dahmer ate people, Dorine likes to put her victims in her basement and pretend like they're hanging out.  It's gross and disturbing and really quite a great turn for a horror movie villain.

The rest of the movie ends up playing out much as a slasher movie would, with Kim serving as our protagonist.  She realizes that Gary isn't answering her calls, so she tries to do some digging and grows more and more suspicious of Dorine.  But like any other slasher, Kim can't actually get anybody to believe her, so Dorine is free to keep picking off the magazine staff at her leisure.

The entire time, Dorine keeps sending email from her home office to try to throw the office of her trail.  This is another thing that I don't really get.  She's somehow able to send email from her victims' accounts, which is troubling in the first place - who set up that system?  But worse, the emails are truncated and obviously bullshit, yet they fool everyone.  I'm not exaggerating here.  At the very end of the movie she's able to escape suspicions because she literally sends an email in somebody else's name that says, "I was the killer all along."

I'm just picturing a cop reading that later.  "Well, nobody actually has any physical evidence that Norah was a murderer, and we traced the email to the home of Dorine Douglas, but... I don't know guys, this seems like an open and shut case to me."  (Speaking of which, does anybody in Hollywood want to buy my new screenplay, Shitty Cop?)

Anyway, things reach a climax when Dorine abducts Norah and takes her home,  Kim asks Norah's boyfriend, Daniel (Michael Imperioli), to go to Dorine's house to investigate, not willing to give up on her hunch that the recent disappearances in the office may be due to a murderer of some sort.  (The tiny black dots all over the cupboard are a clear indication that they are infested with an Office Killer.)

Dorine ends up holding Norah at knife point and reveals a shocking discovery: part of the reason the magazine has been losing so much money is because Norah has been embezzling funds. Dorine knows and holds her personally responsible for the hell she now endures while... ugh... telecommuting.  And that is why she had to kill everybody and prop their bodies up around a TV set in her basement.

Daniel attempts a rescue, fails, and Dorine kills both him and Norah.  She sends a final fake email from Norah's account, sets her house on fire, and skips town.  But not before giving Kim one last spoooooky phone call.  The film ends with a shot of Dorine driving to a new office - possibly yours!  Bwa ha ha ha!

The Part Where I Complain

As much as I want to like Office Killer, it's got some problems.  First, the plot doesn't make sense a lot of the time, as I noted above.  Some of these scenes are unnecessary and could easily be cut or rethought.  Given that the film is only about 80 minutes as it is, that's pretty shocking.

The comedy is also a problem.  It never really hits home; the few scenes that are meant to be directly funny are flat, and the rest of the humor comes from the morbidity of the premise.  But just because a premise could be darkly funny doesn't mean that it is.  It's one of those movies that reaches for the uncomfortable laugh, the nervous titter that escapes when you're not sure how to react to somebody being a weirdo. The thing is, I'd much rather just be uncomfortable, so when a scene is staged like a joke, I don't know what to do with it.

But the biggest (and most disappointing) complaint for me is the acting.  This film has a cast full of talented women with amazing careers, but nobody really manages to knock it out of the park except for maybe Kane.

I'm not sure why that is.  It could be that the director, Cindy Sherman, just didn't know how to motivate her cast.  This was her first and only feature film, so maybe it could be attributed to a lack of experience.  It could be that she didn't ask for enough takes or give her actors enough time to go through the script and find their groove.  It could be that she actually did film some amazing takes, but her editor chose all the worst ones.  Who knows.

Let's not be too harsh; we're not talking Phantom Menace here. The acting isn't terrible.  It's just that it rarely gets better than "serviceable," and many scenes are simply overacted.  This ends up being the movie's worst handicap.  Office Killer doesn't have a groundbreaking plot or innovative story twists, so it really requires that its basic components be stronger.

For example, look at the scene where Kim is assaulted in the stairwell.  The blocking, lighting, set design, and cinematography are all solid enough to make that scene work - it's a creepy, dingy stairwell that feels claustrophobic and menacing.  By this point in the story, you know that Kim is a target for Dorine's wrath, and you expect her to be on the chopping block.  So the suspense is already there and it's being amplified by all the right technical elements.  All you need for this scene to work is for Ringwald to really sell it.  If you feel her terror, then it's a great scene.

But... she doesn't.  No disrespect to Ringwald - we know you're a good actress, but this just didn't work.  It feels less like she was about to be murdered and more like she saw a rat.  When the movie then cuts to her in Norah's office seeking asylum and a sympathetic ear, it doesn't feel like tension is mounting - it just seems like, "Ho-hum, another day at the Murder Office."

The end result is that it's not as strong a recommendation as I normally like to make for the Holy Grail.  The movie isn't scary enough to be effective horror and it's not funny enough to be effective comedy.

So why am I bothering to write a review for the Grail?  Simple.  It's got a cast full of intelligent women, and that counts for a hell of a lot more than people are willing to give it credit for.

The Part Where I Talk About Women in Horror

Critics were unfairly harsh on this movie upon its release.  Rotten Tomatoes still has it pegged at a 12% - well within the "complete disaster" range - with most reviewers complaining that the film is a dull slog.  The part that gets me is... why this one?  At its worst, Office Killer is a rote thriller with some comedy that doesn't work.  Yet it's more poorly rated than, say, I Know What You Did Last Summer, another rote thriller that just has some better production value, but far stupider people.

(Yes, I'm aware that IKWYDLS was also not a terribly well-received movie, but it wasn't universally hated.  My point is that Office Killer is no worse than your average slasher / thriller from the mid-90s.)

There are valid complaints about the film, but there are valid commendations to be made, too.  The biggest one is that it features a refreshing take on women.  As in, they are real characters.

Let's face it: for the most part, horror movies hate women.  The number of actual women characters in horror films can be counted on one hand, and even in the movies where they appear, they tend to be outliers.  Usually, women exist in horror only to be hapless victims, sex toys, motivation for the protagonist, etc.  Even the beloved Last Girl trope is just a reductive characterization for plot purposes - Last Girls are not good characters, they're just the end result of a formula.  (Did anybody really have that much of a connection to Epps from Ghost Ship?)

Even in the best examples of horror, you end up with a lot of reductive or non-characterizations.  Look at the Aliens franchise.  You have Ellen Ripley, an interesting, dynamic protagonist... and that's about it.  Newt?  Just a girl in peril - a plot device.  Vasquez?  Just meat for the grinder, same as the other marines.  Call?  Give me a break.  She's as useless a character as the film she appears in.

So you really need to look at Office Killer in that context to realize what a gift it is.  This is a horror film with a cast of primarily women that actually has characters.  Jeanne Tripplehorn is a motivated, somewhat arrogant status seeker with a chip on her shoulder, possibly a darker side, and a distaste for the dirty work she knows she'll have to do.  Molly Ringwald is a disillusioned, generally unmotivated office drone with suspicions about her coworker and a constant need to be reassured.  Barbara Sukowa is a powerful, take-no-shit archetype who has moments of vulnerability, but really just has to put all that aside in order to get things done.  These are characters (even if not performances) with nuance - and that's something you don't really get most of the time.

Office Killer could have just gone with the broadest possible characters.  It could have been an entirely formulaic, stupid movie full of one-dimensional archetypes.  Ringwald could've been The Slut and Tripplehorn could have been The Nerd and Sukowa could have been The Bitch, but Sherman decided not to do that.  She decided to make her characters actual people.  This one movie by itself has more compelling female characters in it than an entire decade's worth of horror films.

And of course, there's Carol Kane.  A psychopath whose underlying motivation is left ambiguous, but with hints of substance.  She gives the best performance by far and is actually a pretty terrifying horror movie villain. I don't know that I would want to see another movie with this specific character, but by the end of Office Killer, I do want to see Carol Kane take another turn as a knife-wielding maniac.  (If age is a concern, maybe try rebooting The Granny to turn it into a new franchise?)

Sadly, Cindy Sherman has not made another feature film since this one.  I don't know if it was because she was discouraged by the bad reception or if she just never particularly wanted to direct films in the first place.  But whatever the reason, it's a tragedy. Office Killer doesn't always work, but it's an excellent debut effort.  I can only imagine what we'd have today if she tried again with a little more experience and a little more of a budget - but I imagine it would be terrific.

Where You Can Watch

If you go now, you can watch Office Killer on Netflix Streaming.