At a Minnesota motel in 1983, a creepy man fetishistically whets his set of butcher’s knives, gets into his car outside and offers a stranded young woman a ride. Carrie (Amber Goldfarb) gets in, he locks her door with a menacing smile – and she then turns and stabs him multiple times with a butterfly knife, all to the accompaniment of composer Steph Copeland’s synth track. This opening scene to Cody Calahan’s Vicious Fun is programmatic in several ways, introducing the key theme of serial killers, a self-consciously Eighties retro vibe and a graphic illustration of the film’s subversion of the very tropes that it is also celebrating.
The film’s main character, at least in his own head, is hopeless ‘loser’ Joel (Evan Marsh), who will later insist: “I’m not nobody, I’m the deputy assistant editor for the review section of a horror magazine.” Joel writes for Vicious Fanatics, and in his first scene, as he interviews schlocky slasher director Jack Portwood (Gord Rand) in an editing booth, we learn everything we need to know about our Joel: he watches a lot of horror, considers himself superior to the films that he reviews, and fancies himself a genius scriptwriter. A running joke here is that an idea for a screenplay that Joel first pitches to Jack will later come in for repeated criticism and deconstruction from the most unlikely of quarters, even as Joel becomes trapped in a horror scenario far crazier than anything he could ever dream up, where his film pitch will quickly need to be recycled as his own personal cover story. Here we are in the arena of metacinema: for Vicious Fun is not just a serial killer movie, but its events are set against reflexive conversations about serial killer movies, even as its characters become living embodiments of various clichés, tropes and stereotypes of the subgenre (including an angry masked machete wielder ‘sloppy’ enough in his sprees that “it is not uncommon for at least one woman to escape from one of his rampages”).
Through a series of events that reveal Joel’s own stalkerish tendencies, lovesick Joel will accidentally find himself hung over at a self-help group for serial murderers, attended by the smart, sociopathic ‘chameleon’ Bob (Ari Millen, also in Calahan’s The Oak Room, 2020), inhuman clown-faced accountant/assassin Fritz (Canucksploitation king Julian Richings), hulking co-ed killer Mike (Robert Maillet, Becky, 2020), cannibal chef Hideo (Sean Baek), rogue soldier Zachary (David Koechner, Cheap Thrills, 2013) and Carrie (from the opening scene). Joel will at first have to pretend – improbably – to fit in with this company of carnage mongers, and then, when they realise there is an interloper in their midst, he will have to try, even more improbably, to get away from them in one piece.
As Joel is sent down a dark, gory path from zero to hero (or at least hero’s sidekick), this hilarious high-concept horror takes us through a gamut of hackneyed Eighties slasher scenarios and settings (Chinese restaurant, police station, hospital), all beautifully lit (by DP Jeff Maher) in Reagan-era neon, and all festooned anachronistically with posters or ads for films by Calahan (Antisocial, 2013; Let Her Out, 2016) and his producer Chad Archibald (Bite, 2015). After all, Vicious Fun is both hall of mirrors and charnel house, where the corpus of Eighties exploitation cinema is chopped up, deconstructed and then reconstructed into something new that Calahan and co. can rightly call their own – and it ends, naturally enough, where all its ideas were born: in a movie theatre where horror is screening.
The result is a self-aware skewering of decades-old fashions and sensibilities that have still left their bloody mark on our own era of genre filmmaking – and while certainly vicious in its stabbings, strangulations and general slaughter, it is also affectionate in its double-edged nostalgia, and never, ever forgets to be fun.
strap: Cody Calahan’s Vicious Fun skewers the very Eighties serial killer movie tropes that it also affectionately conjures.
© Anton Bitel