REVIEW: Vicious Fun (2020)

dir. Cody Calahan.

Things are not going well for Joel (Evan Marsh): as a horror mag writer who’s tired of the same old tropes, an early scene sees him berating a hack producer for slow moving killers and jump-scares that diffuse suspense. Things aren’t much better at home, where he pines over his glamourous housemate after she returns from another date: but when he suspects her new boyfriend might be married Joel jumps in a cab to follow him, accidentally uncovering a self-help group for serial killers.

In the years since Scream (1996) popularised meta-horror films the teen slasher reinvented – before imploding in on – itself, and ever since the ghosts of knowing protagonists have haunted the edges of the genre landscape. Add to this that the last 10 years have seen a steady proliferation of ’80s-homages, with everything from Stranger Things to The Guest (2014) and Summer of 84 (2018) trying to recapture that old Carpenter-magic, and you’ll have a sense of the sandbox director Calahan is playing in.

In this there’s nothing new here: from the moment Steph Copeland’s luscious synthwave washes over the opening images of rain-streaked neon, we’re in familiar, comfortable territory. This extends to Joel himself – his denim jacket and red life-preserver making him look like Marty McFly, whilst his geek horror smarts recall Fright Night’s (1985) Charley Brewster (something that might just save him when he has to pretend to be a killer in order to blend in and avoid becoming the group’s next victim). But the crucial thing that distinguishes Calahan’s film – what sets it apart from less knowing retro-callbacks – is, as the title suggests, a sense of blood-soaked fun.

It’s easy to forget that, for all the darkness in ’80s horror films, they had a lightness of touch and it’s this which is replicated beautifully. There are some nicely drawn caricatures – a machete-wielding slasher; a sadistic clown; a chef / cannibal – and although the violence occasionally tips from hilarious into nasty the script and performances have enough buoyancy to keep things bouncing along, whilst the closing moments make no bones about it: this is playing to the crowd, and the crowd are going to love it.

Frothy and made with deep affection, it also forms an interesting companion to Calahan’s other film of 2020 The Oak Room, a far more brooding and straight-laced affair. As a two-handed calling card this pairing establish him as a director to watch, someone equally at home with claustrophobic chills as gory, goofy curveballs like this.

Tim Coleman

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