Mystery at Mansfield Manor, an "online, live-action interactive murder mystery movie," is set on a dark and stormy night. Billionaire Colin Mansfield, lord of the titular Manor, has been murdered on the very night that he has gathered his closest family, friends, and business associates to inform them of changes to his will.
Our proxy in this world is Frank Mitchell (Ben Trister), a brilliant detective who arrives at the Manor two hours shy of a forced retirement presumably hoping to go out on a high note. Instructing his partner not to let anyone leave the sitting room in which the entire ensemble is gathered, he retires to an adjacent room to interrogate the suspects (everyone is a suspect) one at a time.
We don't precisely control Mitchell, though we do decide in what order the suspects are interviewed. We don't exactly help him solve the crime either, though we do eventually tell him which suspect to arrest and then sit back to watch the consequences of this action. Instead, our primary function in Mystery at Mansfield Manor seems to be keeping Mitchell from losing interest in the case entirely.
In a "Making Of" documentary included in the bonus features section, Trister describes his character by saying, "He basically doesn't give a damn anymore. He's moderately amused by the people he sees in the mansion and hopefully will solve the crime, but he doesn't care too much about it."
Mitchell's apathy is the film's (game's?) defining characteristic. In my favorite "alternate ending" (resulting from our inability to make it past the first problem-solving stage, in which we identify which suspects are lying) he simply hands his notebook to the next shift and walks away unconcerned into the night, the case unsolved.
This isn't much different from the other endings in which Mitchell is wrong: they all end with him packing up his belongings and heading for home with naught more than a handshake and a card ("some of the guys chipped in and bought you this") to show for his efforts. Which is, for that matter, more or less what happens in the ending in which he's right.
So it's no wonder that he doesn't care. The question, then, is why should we? Well, for starters this is probably a more accurate depiction of the work of a police detective than most- Mystery at Mansfield Manor is the film that dares to be boring.
Like Sergeant Joe Friday, Mitchell is "only interested in the facts." But here that means he remains aloof from any romance, any drama. His investigation is characterized by repetition, by catching his targets in the most trivial lies. It's an interesting (if not very exciting) corrective to the romantic Hollywood image of the detective, operating on instinct, who gradually becomes embroiled in the intrigues of the characters he's investigating.
Mystery of Mansfield Manor also points towards possible future uses of the "online, live-action interactive" movie form. Here we have the concept at its most stripped down, its most basic-chassis, wheels, engine. It's not actually very interactive (what we do amounts to little more than what we do when we navigate the menu of a DVD) and it's not very filmic (the cinematography, editing, and mise-en-scène aren't used: all of the clues are in the dialogue, or in dramatizations of the dialogue), but it has now been done. A foundation has been laid, and that's something.
Finally, Mystery at Mansfield Manor is a fairly well-made film for its low budget. Producer- screenwriter Rory Scherer and director Boris Mojsovski are a B-Movie mogul's dream, coaxing fine performances from his cast in only one or two takes, saving money by shooting only interior scenes at one setting but avoiding a feeling of claustrophobia by never lingering too long in one room, and in his biggest coup effectively finding a way to use his outtakes in the finished product (the vast majority of the interrogation scenes would be cut from a more traditional film).
But if there's a lot to admire about this film (not least the fact that it exists at all), it's still not very entertaining- there's a reason why we don't see many films about the workday drudgery of the life of a detective, why murder mysteries typically dispense with the more mundane parts of an investigation.
Mystery at Mansfield Manor is a step in the right direction towards a more creative, a more diverse cinema that utilizes the potential of the internet, and it's hopefully an inspiration to DIY filmmakers everywhere (you don't need a distributor!). It is itself only an appetizer, though, and I'm left wanting more.
Mystery at Mansfield Manor is available online at http://www.mysteryatmansfieldmanor.com. It costs $7.99 Canadian for 96 hours access to the film.