Within the first few minutes of The Poker Club, narrator Johnathan Schaech (The Doom Generation, Road House 2) is conveniently laying down the character pavement by describing the friends who make-up his long-standing Monday night poker group:
Loren Dean (when was the last time YOU saw him outside of a crime show guest appearance?) plays a jumpy co-worker who is employed by Schaech’s firm; some dude named Michael Risley plays a coked-up biology professor; and the always underrated Johnny Messner (Running Scared) is Bill, an ex-baseball player friend who likes to growl his lines like a pot-bellied tiger.
During one of their Monday night games, a burglar breaks into Schaech’s house, forcing the other men to take action that results in the burglar’s demise. Problem is, they’ve all been drinking pretty heavily, the professor is completely ripped on blow, and resident pussy Loren Dean starts bitching about how he has a wife and kids to worry about. Before you can say “Very Bad Things”, the poker buddies have peer-pressured Schaech (“Do you really want to send your best friends to prison?”) into wrapping the burglar’s corpse in a bright blue camping tarp and tossing it into the river.
And that’s when things start to get interesting. It’s revealed that Schaech has been up to the devil’s business with Trudy (Jana Kramer; Laid to Rest), a piece of secretarial ass from work, and when Trudy turns up with her throat slit, Schaech is plagued with questions. Was her murder random? Did it have anything to do with their affair? Or the burglar? And what’s with the random hang-up phone calls?
Trying to dodge police queries about both his sordid affair with Trudy AND the prior week’s burglar thrill kill, Schaech is excellent as the squirming, Hitchcockian everyman. With his futile attempts to dig himself out of a self-made mess, he’s the kind of strong, sympathetic protagonist who can single-handedly make a film work, as he does here. Supported by an intense Messner, the acting in The Poker Club is uniformly strong.
The screenplay, loosely adapted from an Ed Gorman novel, was penned by Schaech and Richard Chizmar—the publisher of one of my favorite magazines, Cemetery Dance—and despite some awkward banter in the opening moments, the duo has scripted a twisty, well-crafted chiller.
Amusingly, the women in The Poker Club fill a decidedly limited character niche: they’re either strippers, sluts, nags, or manipulative bitches. Having never read Gorman’s source novel, I’m not sure if this was the screenwriters intent, or something that occurred during the adaptation process. In any case, The Poker Clubis a boys’ party, sort of a No Girls Allowed situation, much like other cinematic staples of masculinity like The Last Boy Scout, In the Company of Men, or Suicide Kings.
Directed on the cheap by Tim McCann, The Poker Club still manages to eclipse other low-budget mysteries that share a similar aesthetic. It’s a tight, compelling little flick.