Vicious Fun fails as both horror cinema and horror deconstruction.
Wes Craven’s Scream has been justly lauded as an epochal moment in horror cinema, a self-reflexive bit of genre deconstruction that has fun tweaking the “rules” of slasher cinema all while still delivering a sterling example of one. Fast forward a quarter-century, and we’re still living in its shadow, if Vicious Fun is any indication. Like some forgotten, turn-of-the-millennium relic, director Cody Calahan’s sweaty, desperate attempt at aping Craven feels about 20 years late to the party.
Vicious Fun opens in 1983 (a lame excuse for a Carpenter-esque synth score and Day-Glo cinematography, both well past their expiration dates) with horror journalist Joel (Evan Marsh) interviewing a filmmaker, an encounter during which Joel accuses the director of wallowing in clichés and overly familiar tropes. It’s an excruciatingly painful scene, as Joel trots out a parade of moldy takes such as, hey, how come in slasher flicks the victims are always running full speed but the slow moving killer catches them anyway? Like an unholy mix of Comic Book Guy and a shrunken Josh Gad, Marsh grates from his first moment on screen, as does the banter. After the (rightfully) irritated director dismisses Joel, he returns home just in time to find his roommate getting dropped off from a date. Of course, Joel has a crush on the attractive roommate, and in a fit of jealousy-induced pique, Joel decides to follow her just departed date to a secluded bar. He proceeds to get falling-down drunk with mystery man Bob (Ari Millen), who’s pitched like a preppy villain from one of those ’80s ski resort comedies. After puking his guts out, Joel passes out in a back room of the bar. He eventually comes to, and while stumbling around the now empty bar, he comes upon what appears to be a small AA meeting. Joel inexplicably takes a seat and begins interacting with the group, which is revealed in short order to actually be a gathering of serial killers.
Here, Calahan and screenwriter James Villeneuve fall down a rabbit hole of putting hats on hats on lampshades, with every character becoming a reference point without actually commenting upon or subverting that point. It’s an ouroboros of self-reflexivity, an obnoxious compiling of banal, empty signifiers. Their roster includes: hardened badass Carrie (Amber Goldfarb), someone’s idea of a strong female character cribbed entirely from Buffy the Vampire Slayer reruns and who is revealed to be a serial killer hunter; Bob (the guy we’ve already met, and who it turns out has designs to murder Joel’s roommate), who here essentially begins channeling Patrick Bateman; Mike (Robert Maillet), a hulking Jason Vorhees type, who just wants to kill nubile co-eds; Hideo (Sean Baek), who’s just a riff on Hannibal (the character and the TV show); and Fritz (Julian Richings), who is, of course, a creepy clown. It’s not long before the group discovers that Joel is an interloper and they decide to kill him, at which point the film switches gears and becomes a fairly straightforward survival flick. But the dumb sense of humor never ends, and any attempts at genuine suspense are undercut by lame gags and endless banter. Richings manages to make an impression with his gaunt, skeletal physicality, while Millen’s Bob steals the show with his lunatic antics. Truly, he’s the only performer with the chops to navigate the kind of absurdist material that the filmmakers are striving for. Calahan and Villeneuve occasionally seem to be channeling the kind of bizarre anti-comedy that thrives on Adult Swim, but just as frequently the duo resort to Family Guy-style “point to the reference” gags, where simple recognition constitutes the entirety of the joke. To give the filmmakers some credit, they seem to recognize that Joel is an awful, obnoxious shitsack, but even here they hedge their bets, asking us to laugh at him while still letting him have his hero’s journey and get the girl. There’s probably a way to craft a modern, 21st-century version of Scream built on heady (and updated) genre deconstruction and a true sense of play, but this ain’t it.
You can stream Cody Calahan’s Vicious Fun on Shudder beginning on June 29.