'Murder in Fashion' -- It Damn Near Killed Me, Sitting Through This

by Brent McKnight

24 June 2010

Jonathon Trent as Cunanan is a caricature of a gay hustler. The expression on his face throughout most of the movie makes him look like an Oingo Boingo era Danny Elfman.
cover art

Murder in Fashion

Director: Ben Wallar
Cast: Jonathon Trent, James C. Burns, Stacey Dash, Robert Miano, Cerina Vincent

US DVD: 18 May 2010

When I first saw the DVD box for Murder in Fashion, I thought, hmm, this looks crappy. Then I watched it, and it turned out to be… crappy. The first clue to the overall quality of this movie should be the name, Murder in Fashion, which is only slightly better than the other name it is known by, Fashion Victim. Since the film is ostensibly about the murder of fashion designer Gianni Versace, both titles are in rather poor taste. Granted, the entire movie is in generally poor taste. 

Murder in Fashion purports to tell the story of Andrew Cunanan (Jonathon Trent), the real life murderer of Versace. Cunanan is an aging boy-toy with delusions of grandeur. He thinks he’s dangerous, he thinks he’s the best looking boy out there, he thinks he’s a model, he thinks he’s god’s gift to the world, but he’s really nothing more than a low-rent hustler. 

Everyone has tolerated him up to this point because he’s hot. His entire life everyone has told him that he’s sooo good looking (and the movie will tell you the same thing, repeatedly), but now that his looks are fading (he’s an old man of 27), his world is unraveling. As it turns out, he’s neither as charming nor sexually competent as he thought he was.

His world collapsing on top of him, Cunanan embarks on a cross-country murder spree. From his hometown of San Diego he goes to Minneapolis, murders two friends, then goes to Chicago, New York, New Jersey, and finally Miami, leaving a string of bodies in his wake. 

Under other circumstances, you might feel a twinge of sympathy for him, you might even feel bad him because the world as he knows it is gone. After all, his entire life, since he was a child, has been built on the fact that he is good looking. His looks are a rotting foundation that gradually crumbles from underneath him, and he has nothing to fall back on. That might be shallow, but you could at least understand the stress of an impending massive lifestyle shift.

However, you don’t feel bad for him because he’s a complete prick with no redeeming qualities. No one wants to be his friend any more not only because he’s not as pretty as he used to be, but mostly because he’s not particularly pleasant to be around.

Since Cunanan’s story isn’t all that interesting alone, the filmmakers throw in the story of the FBI agents trying catch him. Harry Spaulding (James C. Burns) heads up the taskforce. Supposedly, Spaulding is this obsessed, serial killer catching machine. The problem is that the FBI doesn’t do anything. They don’t really pursue Cunanan; they primarily stay in Minneapolis while he road trips around. They never come close to catching him, and he finally offs himself when a gardener, not the FBI, knocks on his window.

All this time Cunanan barely knows that the FBI was after him, so the Spaulding storyline provides no tension whatsoever. I’s a complete waste of time.

What director Ben Waller and screenwriter Linda Boroff try to do with the FBI is draw a parallel between Cunanan and Spaulding. They even give them the same gun. Both are supposed to be obsessed and driven. 

In Cunanan’s case we get to see a little of this, he’s fixated on his appearance, an element that isn’t portrayed very well, but at least they tried. With Spaulding we’re repeatedly told how obsessive he is, but that is never rendered on screen. Telling us something so apparently important instead of letting it play out so viewers can figure it out for themselves is not only lazy storytelling, it’s insulting.  The obsession angle fails because neither Cunanan, nor Spaulding are really obsessed with anything.

The acting is generally bad, but at least there are variations within that larger theme. Burns is passable as Spaulding (even though the character and subplot are wholly superfluous), he’s just not what you’re told he is, but most of the background characters are flat, their acting wooden. One Minneapolis resident has the speech patterns generally associated with the region, the “you betcha’s” and such, but completely lacks the accompanying accent to pull it off. 

Trent as Cunanan is a caricature of a gay hustler. The expression on his face throughout most of the movie makes him look like Oingo Boingo era Danny Elfman (for those of you who haven’t seen Back to School, think evil clown without the makeup). At other times he is remarkably similar to Tom Cruise’s Maverick character in Top Gun.

Motivation is also a problem.  The feds can’t figure out what drives Cunanan, and neither can the audience.  Theoretically he’s fixated on Versace because he signifies everything that people have built him up to be over the years, style, sex, money, form over substance, and all that, but it’s too simplistic, too tidy, to buy into.  The film and character never go any deeper.  Spaulding is a similar story.  He’s driven, but driven by what is never clear.

Murder in Fashion tries to have an intricate, sophisticated color scheme.  My guess is that Waller thought it would link the film to the fashion world.  Instead it makes every frame look jumbled and messy.  They were overly ambitious and failed to pull it off. 

On a related note, am I supposed to know who Ben Waller is?  He’s the director, and his name is all over this in big letters, but as far as I can tell, all he’s ever done is produce a few segments of Chris Angel Mindfreak, which in my world, isn’t something to brag about.

The pacing is awful. You get through all the set up with Cunanan, and just as you think you’re going to get into the heart of the story, here comes the FBI in a forced, parallel story. Murder in Fashion doesn’t build towards anything. It should, but it doesn’t.  All the pieces are in place for Cunanan to start spiraling even further out of control at the end. A drug dealer stabs him. He takes a ton of prescription pills. He stalks Versace. 

The building blocks are there, but somehow the movie maintains a completely even keel throughout all of this. It feels exactly like first hour in tone. I don’t know how, but the last 30 minutes of the movie, when all of this is going on, slows down and drags right when the pace should be picking up. Cunanan’s descent is all very blasé. He casually treats a wound, carelessly swallows a bottle of painkillers, and nonchalantly hunts Versace through the streets of Miami.

For all of this, Murder in Fashion simply sounds like a bad movie, which it certainly is. However, the thing that makes it really despicable is the rampant homophobia. The cops and FBI agents are all overtly prejudiced. Spaulding is the lone exception. For a second it almost feels like the film is going to try to make a point that the FBI didn’t really try to catch Cunanan because the only people at risk were homosexual, but that hope dissipates quickly as that thread gets lost and wanders off. 

Every negative gay stereotype you can think of is here, from chicken hawks to drug dealers to morally corrupt models. Come to think of it, there are only negative gay stereotypes. Even Cunanan, himself a gay man, largely hates gays. As he murders his first victim with a hammer, the most brutal scene in the movie, he spews every derogatory name in the book. 

The most confusing part is the very last clip of the movie. The shot is an interview with Cunanan’s estranged father, a member of an apocalyptic church, who denies the fact that his son was ever gay, and blames the FBI for all of the deaths, citing a conspiracy. It’s a bizarre moment that comes out of nowhere, and when it ends and the credits roll, it leaves you gawking at the screen wondering what the hell just happened.

I’m sure the filmmakers intended to make some point about institutionalized bigotry, or Cunanan’s conflicted upbringing—but they don’t. Instead, everything is such a cluttered mess that Murder in Fashion comes across as hateful and mean spirited.

Walking away from Murder in Fashion there are a lot of questions and issues that need clarification. I was hoping for some bonus features to illuminate the shadows. Maybe a commentary track, some behind the scenes footage, perhaps an interview with the filmmakers. Instead there is nothing on the DVD. You could watch the movie with English subtitles if you want, but as for making sense out of this mess, you’re on your own.

Murder in Fashion


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