A while back my then-boyfriend and I were invited out to a lovely dinner with a new group of friends. I was excited to try the restaurant and get to know some new people in our neighborhood. However, during a lull in the conversation, I jumped in to introduce a topic that I thought would be fun and exciting. It was not, and I learned a valuable lesson about sharing too many of your interests when you’re first getting to know people.
The topic I introduced with glee was the terrible movie Murder on the Cape, which I had just watched on Netflix that snowy day and which I have since watched perhaps four additional times. I suspect that this is more than anyone else has ever watched Murder on the Cape, because it is a very bad movie but maybe not bad enough to qualify as “so bad it’s good.” To some people! I obviously think it’s very enjoyable, because I’ve wasted about seven and a half hours of my life watching and rewatching it. Not alone, for the record — after my delightful first experience with it, I have insisted that several people close to me watch it with me in the hopes of spreading my joy. This has met with mixed results, ranging from “yeah, I guess this is pretty funny” to “please let me leave the room, I don’t know why we’re doing this.”
I have had to resign myself to the fact that the magic of Murder on the Cape just doesn’t work on everyone. And yet here I am, sharing it with you.
If you really love bad movies — like you have a serious passion for them, like you’ve never seen Goodfellas or The Shawshank Redemption but have watched The Room many times, not that that’s a real example from my own life or anything — then I would encourage you to seek this one out, if only because I’m planning on spoiling some of the filmmakers’ most bizarre choices. (It’s on Amazon Prime now, having sadly been removed from Netflix, probably because only one person was streaming it and that person was me.)
Now, I personally was on board with the film immediately, because it begins with a truly morose song called “Oh, Death.” The opening sequence goes on way too long, so we get more time to appreciate the singer wailing “O death! O death! Oh, have you lost your sting?” It’s a hell of a way to open your film.
Half the cast and crew named in the opening credits have the same last name, which is always a good sign. The most professional movie making is conducted by rounding up your entire extended family and giving them all jobs on set.
Our story concerns the torrid romance of Mike Luna and Elizabeth Baldwin. Mike is a rugged flannel shirt with a beard who delivers firewood to Elizabeth’s house with the help of an overacting buffoon named Sammy. Elizabeth asks if Mike can help her get the fire started inside, but the only sparks that fly are the ones in the fireplace as the two swap lines as wooden as the logs Mike hauls in. The actress playing Elizabeth has a way of making all of her dialogue sound sarcastic, which is not appealing, and the actor playing Mike is also there. They exchange polite exposition in Elizabeth’s unlit living room, a colorless and dim meeting of two colorless, dim people.
The framing in this movie is consistently stunning.
Elizabeth is a fashion writer from New York staying at her family home on the Cape, and Mike is a third-generation fisherman who gives a monologue about the sea. They bat lines back and forth, never responding with the right emotion to their cues. Sammy intervenes to pull Mike away from this steamy flirtation, and in the car both men throw banter out into the world in a way that seems as if they each can’t hear the other one. On paper, these scenes are clearly meant to establish that Elizabeth and Mike have an instant attraction and Mike and Sammy are goofy pals, but all three actors seem to be actively fighting against conveying those messages. I’ve never seen less connection among scene partners. I want to teach a six-week acting seminar on these three and a half minutes alone.
Mike and Sammy meet up with Mike’s wife and kids down on the fishing docks, where another fisherman named Carlos is shrieking “YEAH! LOOKATDAT! YEAH! THAT’S GREAT! YOU EVER SEE A TUNA THAT BIG?!” while the Luna children leap up and down, clearly having been told to look excited but not given any more specific instructions. Carlos bounds around the docks, continuing to scream, and it’s one of the most unsettling performances I have seen in recent memory.
Each Luna kid gets one line and they deliver them as if someone is holding a gun to their head. Nancy Luna has terrible enunciation and rattles off her lines as if reciting the names of the 50 states that she’s memorized for a social studies quiz. Everyone except the Luna patriarch looks exactly alike. These actors are writer/director Arthur Egeli’s actual family.
A guy named Jimmy pops out of nowhere to tell Mike he wants him to start working for him, an offer Mike haughtily refuses before receiving just a few more screams from Carlos. Back at their yellow house out of earshot from their yellow-haired kids, Mike confronts his yellow-haired wife to ask if she set that meeting with Jimmy up. I guess we were supposed to think it was contrived, but I’d assumed it was just incompetently handled like the rest of the film. You can tell that the married couple lacks the chemistry that Mike has with Elizabeth, because they yell exposition at each other instead of muttering it. We learn that Mike isn’t a fisherman anymore because Nancy’s sister sold his boat (not Nancy! her sister, for some reason) and Nancy is embarrassed because they’re poor now and need money. I imagine there are high school acting classes that see scene work this bad, but I really can’t picture it.
Mike considers asking Carlos for a job, resulting in another scene of Carlos going absolutely buckwild on the scenery and shouting lines as if he’d been told the boom operator was on the moon, and then we get my personal favorite moment of the entire Murder on the Cape experience. Mike sulks by his car, dejected because though he wants so badly to be a fisherman, as was explicitly established, but he can’t be a fisherman without a boat. NO ONE can be a fisherman without a BOAT. And then a parking cop comes up and says “Hey, you can’t park here — this parking’s for fisherman only” and he says “I am a fisherman” and she says “Where’s your boat?!” Do you get it??! Do you see his conundrum?!
Jimmy appears again to insist that Mike take a job with him, working in *checks notes* shellfish law enforcement? Mike is all “fuck you I’m a bad boy” and Jimmy is all “let’s be real, Mike, you need a job and I got these buckets of clams in my trunk” and Mike is like “Ugh! I hate this! I’m actively accepting this job but know that I hate it! You’re forcing me to it! Gimme the clams!” and Jimmy’s like “Congratulations, you’re the new Shellfish Warden.” I don’t understand the ins and outs of this position at all.
So Mike sets about his new job, *checks notes* flinging clams… at birds.
I don’t know, y’all. Here’s where I really could have used some of that exposition they’ve been so generous with until now. I guess it’s degrading work, because he keeps muttering “Christ!” as he runs around. But it’s also necessary work, which we learn from a helpful cut to Nancy perusing financialworries.gov.
I hope she clicked on “Federal Making Home Affordable Programs!” That seems like a useful tool.
Mike stumbles upon his first shellfish vigilante, a chap in a cap who introduces himself as Peter Benedict and admits he does not have a clam-digging license. With each new detail that’s introduced, the laws enforced by the shellfish warden feel more like bizarre folklore than real town ordinances.
Peter Benedict is so wildly off-putting that I initially assumed that the movie was trying to foreshadow that he would be the murderer on the Cape, but I think the actor was just trying to add some pizazz to his role. The writing doesn’t help. He immediately begins freezing to death here? Literally? And so Mike has to take him inside right away, and the closest house is Elizabeth Baldwin’s. Okay!
One of the best (“best”) things about this film (“film”) is that every actor is operating at a completely different level, not one of which is good. Nancy is played by the wife of the director, and it shows. The actress playing Elizabeth was on about seven thousand seasons of a lower-tier soap opera, and it shows. Sammy brings the broad, hammy character work of an overenthusiastic kid in a high school play who’s been emboldened by his ability to sort of put on an accent and is chasing a laugh by any means necessary. Peter Benedict, in contrast, is giving us regional theatre realness, with a ton of specificity to his voice and movement work that probably draws on some technique from his MFA program but is completely untethered from the world of the film or the work of any other actor trying to connect with him in a scene. Carlos, I assume, was a maniac who wandered onto the set and the crew hastily wrote a part for him out of fear. And our leading man, the actor playing Mike Luna, was a professional welder who a producer thought was handsome. That’s a true story. “I can assure you, I’ve never done any acting,” he said to her when she approached him with an audition offer. Having seen this film, I can also assure you that he had never done any acting. The weird thing is I think I would honestly have to say that he’s the best actor in the whole thing.
Anyway, Mike is reunited with Elizabeth, where sparks continue to not fly and the crew continues to not know how to light a room that has lots of windows. Peter Benedict continues to be confusing and weird, singing sea shanties mid-conversation, and I continue to wonder why anyone made that decision.
Peter Benedict flirts with Elizabeth, who seems actively repulsed by him, and she flirts with Mike, who is also present, and that’s the dynamic we get for the rest of the movie. Despite bracing myself for someone to get murdered on the Cape, we mostly just get exactly what you’d expect from this storyline — Mike hooking up with Elizabeth, Peter Benedict getting jealous, Nancy getting suspicious, and a ton of drama over whether Mike can bring in enough clam digging licenses for Jimmy’s liking.
It’s still insane, of course. The first time Mike and Elizabeth have sex she asks him afterward “What are you thinking?” and he says “The sound of the water… it makes me miss my boat” and then he goes on and on about how bad he wants his boat back so he can be a fisherman (you can’t be a fisherman without a boat). Elizabeth says that what she wants as much as Mike wants a boat is a family. She now has one (1) character motivation, so keep that in mind. It was subtle, so I want to make sure you didn’t miss it. Mike is like “oh, word? Families are the bomb, I fricken love mine,” which seems like a weird thing to bring up at this junction.
The problem is that Elizabeth quickly becomes a clingy bitch, spying on him when he’s with his wife, running up to him in public to kiss him, and calling him when he’s home with his family. She’s threatening the stability of his yellow home life. Mike says he’s just working long hours as the new Shellfish Warden, leading Nancy and the kids to complain that Dad is always working now with his dumb new job. That seems inexcusable coming from Nancy since she arranged for him to get this job so she could spend less time Googling “am I gonna lose my house?,” but females just tend to be clingy bitches, I guess.
Elizabeth gets crazier and crazier, as is a woman’s wont, and repeatedly seems shocked that Mike sometimes spends time with his wife even though she definitely knew from the start that he was real gung-ho on his family. At one point she snaps “What does that make me? Am I the mistress?” when she quite literally is and should know that, but I guess our screenwriter/director wasn’t sure how to ratchet up tension otherwise. Also sometimes Peter Benedict will Urkle into the scene like “Heyyyyy neighbor, mind if I seduce ya?” and that also doesn’t succeed at increasing any stakes.
And then it’s just scenes and scenes of the same thing. Love triangle! Marital strife! No murder, for some reason! Word begins to spread about the affair, because ol’ Hammy Sammy saw the two of them together and is now blabbing around town with his alternating Boston and Brooklyn accents.
And then Elizabeth starts getting very nauseous. What could that mean?? Oh boy, she’s pregnant! And she wants to keep the baby because she wants a family so bad! Seems like a good excuse for her to getting murdered on this here Cape. Peter Benedict finds out about the affair, so perhaps he could want to murder Mike on the Cape. Nancy finds out about the affair, so perhaps ANYONE could get MURDERED on the CAPE so we can GET ON WITH THE PLOT.
A lot of movies have bad actors or bad scripts or bad soundtracks, or all of the above. Murder on the Cape, I would say, is exceptional in one area: its pacing, which is the worst of any film I have ever seen with these ol’ eyes. One might assume from the title and genre that this film is about a murder (on the Cape), which is to say that the circumstance of a Cape-set murder is the central mystery or drama of the film. Not so! I spent the first act, then the second, waiting for anyone to be murdered on the Cape. Drama would flare up from time to time and I’d ask myself, “Will this lead to the titular murder on the Cape?” New characters would be introduced and I’d think “Well, clearly, this person is a murderer, on the Cape.” I was never correct. This movie is 95 minutes long, and no one gets murdered on the Cape until THE 81 MINUTE MARK!
And that murder has basically nothing to do with the rest of the movie! We’ve just spent 81 torturous minutes watching Peter Benedict’s bizarre campy jealousy and Mike Luna’s resentment and none of it mattered. It was just a totally random slaying. Dumbass Sammy hitched a ride from Elizabeth and accidentally left a stash of drugs in her car and then he and Batshit Carlos broke into her house to get them back and stabbed her in the process. We rapidly get about a half-hour’s worth of action in the span of 10 minutes, with a police investigation and a spat between Peter Benedict and Mike where Peter Benedict yells “He’s the murderer!” that seems like it would make for a very juicy drama, but the movie’s almost over because we wasted all that time on clam licenses.
Unfortunately for absolutely everybody, this film is ostensibly based on a true story. Clingy psycho Elizabeth Baldwin is based on an actual murdered writer who does not need her name besmirched in this way, and her killing was even more random and awful than depicted here (she was killed by a garbage collector one morning out of the blue). Why did the filmmakers feel the need to make this story? And use the real murder victim’s name on their posters?? She really did have a child with a married man, which seems to be the dramatic hook that this director was drawn to. But this movie totally glosses over the investigation of the murder, so there’s no point in the affair storyline, other than to slut-shame a dead person! Arthur Egeli could have just made a movie about two people having an affair in a small town and accomplished the same goal in a way that would be way less gross. And then we wouldn’t have to get quite so lost in the weeds about the specifics of a shellfish warden’s job!
Murder on the Cape is a masterwork of obvious intentions. The script blatantly displays the seams and threads of the filmmaker’s vision, with direction that doubles down to compensate for its contrivances. And expensive cameras were clearly rented to shoot this film to make it look as professional as possible, but no one behind the scenes knows how to use them. There’s no attention paid to depth of field at all, so everything is in focus at all times. We get multiple sweeping shots of locations that are meant to be stunning but give the eye no place to rest, like tourist pictures shot with a great iPhone camera but no sense of composition or framing.
It’s so bad and I watched it a sixth time to write this review and I still love it. I’m sorry! I know that not everyone feels the same way, but I must embrace my truth. There are dozens of small weird details that I couldn’t even fit here, because that’s how bad this movie is, and those details give me energy like I am some sort of incompetently-made-art vampire.
Will you like this movie? Statistically, probably not. Here’s what comes up when you look at reviews on Amazon:
But at the very least, I’d say check it out if you’re a shellfish warden. I think you will appreciate the representation here! Otherwise, thank you for reading this, and I apologize for sharing it with you. I simply refuse to learn my lesson about this film.