A shot-on-video effort whose budget was probably about as much as the postage that brought the DVD to my front door, Inexchange manages to wriggle out of its no-budget trappings thanks to assured direction, an uncompromisingly bleak premise, and an admirable amount of restraint. Although the pacing may be frustrating to some, this dormitory nightmare manages to build an inertia of claustrophobic dread that will likely get under your skin whether you like it or not. In fact, with its cinder-block walls, communal bathrooms, and murderous revenge demon, it’s the strongest argument for correspondence school that I’ve ever seen.
The setup is simple and believable enough: Maury (Sean Blodgett) is a nerdish, introverted college freshman who is emotionally smacked around by his infuriating slacker of a roommate, Jay (Todd Richard Lewis, pulling off the role with suspicious ease). While Jay and his friends party and pick up chicks, Maury stays home and studies. When Jay skips class, Maury takes a special set of notes for him and even stays up late to give him a summary of the lecture for an upcoming test. When Jay brings home a girl to the room, Maury sleeps in the hallway at Jay’s request and doesn’t complain.
In short, Maury is Jay’s bitch.
Maury seems resigned to his post at the bottom of the totem pole, and goes on day to day studying and taking light ridicule from Jay and his Cro-Magnon cronies. But things change one fateful frat party when, after being encouraged to attend by Jay and Co., Maury is systematically force-fed liquor and humiliated in front of the entire party (they tie him to a chair, carry him out into the back yard, and pee on him). While this particularly nasty means of attack gets the narrative job done of pushing Maury over the edge, I can’t say I quite understand where such premeditated viciousness would come from, considering the goon squad considered Maury of more of an amusing annoyance than a threat. Regardless, the frat boys (in concept – they actually live in the dorms) get their jollies off by weeing on our little Milquetoast, and a revenge demon is born.
But an avenging angel isn’t the only thing birthed out of this unceremonious urination: apparently, nothing says “campus ugly duckling love affair” like some backyard water sports. It seems that Lara (Tiffanny Wilson), one of Jay’s crew, isn’t actually a morally bankrupt asshole like the rest of the gang, and she takes pity on Maury and unties him. Birdsong swells in the distance, stars sparkle, and rose petals fall from the sky as they lock eyes and fall deeply and irreversibly in love. Well, she actually just unties him, but the point is made.
Shortly thereafter, the most disposable member of the goon squad is killed while walking home in the dark by a figure wearing what appears to be a castoff coat from a Bootsie Collins video. We know that the figure is our revenge demon, but I can’t explain why he’s wearing a man fur, has a handkerchief tied around his head, and sounds like a post-op transsexual. But at this point I let it slide, and the corpulent meanie gets his at the end of the killer Furby’s machete.
Somehow, Jay and Maury continue to cohabitate in a tiny cell of a room, which is for some reason immensely disturbing to me: once someone pisses on you in public, isn’t it kind of hard to live with them in a 10×10 cube? Apparently Maury is just that pathetic, and Jay is just that inhuman, and therein lies our problem. So it comes as a bit of a surprise when Lara, Maury’s savior from the night before, shows up to apologize to him for all the bad treatment he endures. In a fairly implausible turn of events, Maury, who is almost incapable of any sort of interpersonal communication, and Lara, who is obviously throwing a pity-party for the kid, spend the entire day together and embark on a strange relationship that mostly consists of Lara giving her friends the finger by hanging out with their urinal and waiting patiently for said urinal to form complete sentences, which he seems to do with extreme difficulty.
That said, the courtship between the two is so uncomfortable and weird that it’s fairly engaging, and it’s not until the last act that we learn that, like her counterpart Sue Snell in Carrie (the Amy Irving character), Lara’s actions are well-intentioned but not exactly well-thought-out, resulting in a tragic backfire. I won’t give away the ending (the body count works its way up to a satisfying plateau), but it’s consistent, uncompromising, and actually somewhat understated. With the score settled between Maury and the gang and Maury and his demon, the book closes on this particular campus morality play.
Now, while I did like Inexchange, I would be remiss to not mention that the production values are pretty bare-bones. While I did like the hell-in-a-dorm composition aesthetic, the digital video look and feel is pretty coarse and hard to get past, especially since a lot of the movie is shot in wide masters (the grain obscures detail, making it look messy). The filmmakers make the best of what they’re given, but with remedial lighting and camera equipment, there’s only so much you can pull off, and it’s difficult as a viewer to move past the feeling that you’re watching someone’s amateur home movies or a class project (which, considering it takes place entirely on a campus, could easily be the case). The sound design is also sadly lacking given the potential for (and indeed need for) some serious aural atmosphere – I mean, we’re talking about a revenge demon stalking kids on an oddly thinly-populated college campus; that’s great creepy soundscape territory. The sadly cheesy voice modulation done on the killer and some thin dialogue audio also add an unnecessary strain on enjoying the story.
Otherwise my beefs with Inexchange are minor (give me one close-up – just one!) and ones that I’m happy to overlook given the fact that writer/director Zack Parker clearly has a grasp of tone, pacing, and suspense, and places the emphasis of the movie firmly where it should be: on the characters. A good central conflict and attention to story will erase a multitude of sins that flashy cutting and blaring metal soundtracks only seem to emphasize, and here Parker steers clear of such obvious distraction tactics and sticks to the basics. This is a story about the devastating impact of emotional manipulation in any form, be it ill- or well-intentioned – and that’s a topic worth addressing, particularly in the alcohol-fueled, close-quartered world of college life. If Parker sticks to his guns and continues to refine his craft, I think he’ll be one to watch — I’d like to see what he could do with a proper budget. In all, this one’s worth the watch.