Cannibalism and comedy are strange but remarkably compatible bedfellows. Paul Bartel's cult classic Eating Raoul (1982) set the standard, lampooning prudish post-sexual-revolution values with a chaste couple whose repression leads them to murder — and eventually to serving human flesh. Bob Balaban's considerably darker 1989 Parents used it to examine the underbelly of 1950s wholesome prosperity, with wickedly funny results.
First-time director Henry Olek — best known as a bit player on '70s television, with an occasional writing credit — mines similar territory with Serving Up Richard, but forgets a vital piece of the equation: Jokes work better when they're funny.
To be fair, Serving Up Richard isn't trying to be quite as overtly comedic as those other films; Olek strives for claustrophobic psychological thrills with moments of levity. But those thrills are as difficult to locate as laughs, with both shortcomings the result of awkward, tone-deaf direction, which treads dangerously close to the hastily constructed amateurish melodrama of a soap opera.
The film opens with the titular Richard (Ross McCall, affecting a cartoonishly stereotyped New York wiseguy accent) narrating a scenario that's useless to the story that follows. He's departed his vaguely described job in New York under bad circumstances, and has landed in L.A., where we find him and his girlfriend (Darby Stanchfield) settling in after their move. Inexplicably, she spends the entire opening scene wearing only her underwear, which is either the clumsiest attempt in cinema history to satirize slasher-movie sex obsession or, worse, an attempt to inject a cheap thrill into the lackluster proceedings that follow. Either way, it's a relief when she barely turns up in the rest of the film, if only to avoid seeing her forced to pointlessly expose herself again.
Richard, instructed by Stanchfield to go find them a practical car, ends up drawn to an ad for a vintage Mustang. Lust — for a car here rather than for flesh — is rewarded in typical horror movie fashion: The car's owner, Everett (Jude Ciccolella), takes him down with a blow dart and Richard wakes up imprisoned in a "guest room" fitted with bars and a sliding steel door. Richard spends the rest of the film trying to talk Everett's wife Glory (Susan Priver) into letting him go, so as to avoid the fate of another potential car-buyer: Everett chows down on that unlucky customer's heart after cutting it out of its still-living owner's chest right in front of Richard.
There's a kernel of a great idea for a no-budget chamber piece here. Everett is an anthropologist — his taste for the most dangerous game came from living among cannibal tribes — and heads out of town for a lengthy expedition. This leaves the desperate Richard alone with the agoraphobic, brainwashed Glory, with six weeks to convince her that it's in both of their best interests to let him out. With the action rarely leaving Richard's cell and the adjoining living room, the potential exists for the sort of closed-in talking terror of William Friedkin's 2006 Tracy Letts adaptation, Bug.
But neither Olek's script nor his execution possesses that kind of nuance. Despite allowing his actors to engage in scenery-chewing melodrama, the tone is never campy enough to allow for humor, intended or otherwise. Watching Everett stick his head around a door to deliver a maniacal "Heeeeere's Johnny" homage to The Shining, it's difficult to know whether to feel more embarrassed for the character or for the screenwriter who thought it was a good idea.
Olek never decides what his film should be, and the result takes wild stabs at slasher gore, supernatural horror, black comedy and even social commentary, thanks to a zero-hour attempt to tie things up with a morality tale about the damaging effects of organized religion. But that message is as muddled as the rest of the film, which plays like the filmed version of the scribbled notes from a preliminary brainstorming session for a better film.