Four friends go all in on murder in the modest direct-to-video suspenser ‘The Poker Club’

March 30, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
March 30, 2017

The Poker Club is a modestly effective direct-to-video suspense film about four friends who struggle to hold their lives together after one of them accidentally kills a burglar.

The 2008 movie, based on a novel by prolific author Ed Gorman, begins as Bill, Neil, Curtis and Aaron are playing cards at Aaron’s isolated farmhouse in a small New Jersey community. The quartet have been playing on Monday nights since they were college students, but this get-together takes an unexpected turn when they discover a jittery knife-wielding intruder (Lenny Levi) in the kitchen.

The men tie up the burglar after a chaotic scuffle, but when he breaks loose, a wounded and frightened Curtis (Loren Dean) kills him with a single blow from a baseball bat. To avoid an ugly legal mess, the friends agree to bundle the corpse into a tarp and deposit it in a nearby river.

Naturally, this does not resolve their problems, in part because it turns out that the intruder was not just a random burglar.

Curtis, who has a baby on the way, becomes paranoid of getting caught and starts to panic. Neil (Michael Risley), a cocaine addict, starts fretting because he thinks he’s being followed. Bill (Johnny Messner), a macho-man ex-jock and strip-club owner, ropes the mild-mannered Aaron (Johnathon Schaech) into participating in increasingly dangerous missions to track down the people who seem to be menacing the quartet. But the bodies begin stacking up, which heightens the suspicions of a no-nonsense local policewoman named Detective Patterson (Judy Reyes, whose character didn’t seem to have a first name).

All that would be inconvenient enough for Aaron even if his marriage to Jan (Lori Heuring) weren’t on the rocks — but, of course, it is on the rocks. To complicate matters further, Aaron’s former mistress Trudy (Jana Kramer, a singer/actress who later had a brief marriage to Schaech) keeps coming to him for comfort because her new boss and boyfriend has been stepping up his abuse from emotional to physical.

The Poker Club (which has just one poker scene, despite the title and disc cover) tells a moderately entertaining story with a fair number of twists. Schaech and horror fiction publisher Richard Chizmar have produced a solid script, which B-movie director Tim McCann stages in workmanlike fashion.

The cast ranges from adequate to good; I especially liked Messner’s and Heuring’s performances. Unfortunately, the production’s budget shows in a couple of spots — while the movie was filmed in some picturesque locations, the wardrobe department procured just a single outfit for Heuring’s character to wear over the narrative’s three-day span.

In the final equation, The Poker Club is like a meal prepared by an adequate cook: It tastes fine, and it’s nourishing, but it’s not worth going out of your way to get.

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