The 1980s are widely regarded as an instrumental decade in horror history. As they get further away, it’s becoming more common for filmmakers to look to them for inspiration. Vicious Fun is the latest project attempting to cash in on our shared nostalgia. Facing stiff competition from a plethora of projects playing on our affection for VHS and gnarly splatter kills, as well as the challenge of balancing comedy and horror, is it any fun?
You’ll immediately be pulled in by Vicious Fun’s unique concept. It’s 1983 and Evan Marsh’s (Shazam!) Joel is a sour, acid-tongued horror writer for the magazine ‘Vicious Fanatics’. He’s riddled with anxiety and embodies every stereotype of the hyper-critical fanboy. In a remarkably fast-paced turn of events, Joel unwittingly finds himself in a self-help group for killers. The group is led by Ari Millen’s (Orphan Black) Bob, who has the same energy you’d imagine from Rik Mayall playing Patrick Bateman. Joel must either blend in or fight for survival. It’s a great comedy concept and is approached with a lot of care, but Vicious Fun’s horror elements are handled with an equal level of love. As a result, it confidently finds its footing walking the treacherous line between humour and horror.
Director Cody Calahan (The Oak Room) punctuates his horror moments with brilliant comic gags in a way that heightens both elements, including some creative uses of a large intestine. He is also not afraid to snap from comedy to horror without a moment’s notice, leaving you almost constantly on the edge of your seat because that next scare could come at any time, even mid-joke.
One of the most impressive things about Vicious Fun is how much it looks and feels like an ’80s film. This is achieved not by carbon-copying every convention, but by capturing the nostalgia and memory of that time in cinema. Jeff Maher’s cinematography shines through in this respect. Every shot is drenched in neon and a fine layer of grain as if we were watching it on an aged VHS tape.
As well as its aesthetics, Vicious Fun also has the spirit of a 1980s slasher. It boats an incredibly satisfying string of creative kills, an entire cop-killing montage, and splatter-fuelled practical effects that will shock even the most hardened gore aficionado. It’s over the top and very silly, but if a film is taking inspiration from famous masked serial killers, you’re not going into that film expecting nuance.
Not content to simply recreate the atmosphere of its inspirations, Vicious Fun also makes it a mission to slip in as many references and tropes from that era as possible. However, it still flips them enough to keep seasoned audiences on their toes. Each serial killer hunting Joel is lifted almost directly from a classic slasher movie, with enough subtle changes to keep New Line’s lawyers off their back. This isn’t the lazy parody of Vampires Suck or your standard straight-to-DVD mockbuster. It’s a loving pastiche that recognises and respects its source material, while keeping its tongue firmly in its cheek. The murderers also happen to be the source of multiple creative and visceral kills, at times just as scary as those committed by their predecessors.
Although it so lovingly and effectively pays homage to the tropes and traditions of the genre, Vicious Fun is, unfortunately, a little bit less creative with its character choices. The gang of trope-laden serial killers works because seeing a rabble of Jason, Hannibal Lecter and Joker parodies talk openly and calmly about their emotions is always going to be funny. It’s unexpected, even when you read the film’s brief. Having a stern, unsmiling, take-no-prisoners female assassin sidekick, which once could be seen as very progressive, now just feels stale and lazy. It doesn’t help that Carrie (Amber Goldfarb) doesn’t really have much to do other than throw hands, scowl, and have an interesting haircut. That said, Goldfarb does a great job working with what little the script gave her. This is a bit of a recurring theme. Joel himself is a very stereotypical lonely horror nerd, hung up on his flatmate who may be dating a serial killer, which is also not a fresh idea. However, because Evan Marsh was given a lot of the heavy lifting in the comedy department, his performance does a lot to distract from this flaw. The problem is ultimately that Vicious Fun isn’t as clever as it thinks it is. It’s a brilliant example of pastiche comedy, but it’s still a goofy slasher.
Despite these issues, Vicious Fun has superb pacing. You move through the story at such velocity that the 100-minute runtime has passed before you know it. Occasionally the brakes are slammed down so that there can be an exposition dump, and this does seem a bit disconnected from the rest of the film, but it’s not long before it gets back on track. However, it’s not the tonal shifts that make this so jarring, as Calahan handles tone changes throughout the film phenomenally. What is jarring is that a lot of the exposition is Carrie explaining the mysterious “organisation” that hires her, or her hit list of bad lads who may have killed someone close to her. Unfortunately, these scenes are mind-numbingly dull when put up against the rollercoaster ride of intestines, subverted tropes and tight comedy on either side of them.
Every wild ride needs a competent leading cast to guide the chaos, and Vicious Fun certainly has that in Evan Marsh and Ari Miller. Both can handle carrying both the horror and comedy elements of their performances. Miller is especially capable in the role of Bob, switching from intense, skin-crawling kills to hilarious Ian Curtis dance moves with admirable ease. He approaches the role with the determination of a vaudeville villain, and at times reaches Nicolas Cage levels of unhinged. Playing this against the pure comedy of Marsh’s hapless Joel, who could have been fresh off the Freaks and Geeks set, gives us a refreshingly fun cat-and-mouse dynamic. Evan Marsh reacts to his surroundings brilliantly, and with an overall entertaining supporting cast of emotionally literate killers and useless cops, he’s given plenty to work with.
Vicious Fun suffers slightly from underdeveloped characters with predictable motivations, and certainly isn’t a film laden with subtext. However, it is a wild ride, and that’s all that really matters with a film like this. With a strong cast, a fun premise, breakneck pacing, and a good balance of nostalgia without feeling like an Easter egg hunt, Vicious Fun is a fresh take on comedy horror. It is likely to please anyone who wants to sit down and remember the days of VHS, neon, smoking indoors, and brutal practical effects.