The twin goals of live comedy are to slay the audience, and not to die on stage yourself – which is to say that there is considerable overlap between the worlds of stand-up and horror. Perhaps most famously explored in Martin Scorsese’s The King Of Comedy (1982) and Todd Phillips’ Joker (2019), this slippery space between genres is also the subject of Martyn Pick’s Heckle, which opens on 24th December, 1992 with the death of celebrated American stand-up Ray Kelly (Steve Guttenberg). Clearly modelled on Jerry Langford, Jerry Lewis’ character in The King of Comedy, and even (in subsequent flashbacks) self-described as “the King of fuckin’ Lessons”, Ray is a rude, aggressive monster of a man who makes enemies everywhere – but the identity of the person who came a-knocking on Christmas Eve and shot dead Ray and his younger wife in their London home remains a mystery.
Cut to 20 years later, and Joe Johnson (Guy Combes) is the new king of comedy, wowing audiences on the stage (in performances that we see but do not hear), and about to play his hero Ray in a biopic. At the end of his last stage performance, someone with an American accent yells out “Knock knock!” from the audience. Joe puts down the heckler, but is clearly rattled – and soon finds himself being stalked by this obsessive, menacing figure (the word ‘corbeau’, visible on the headrest of Joe’s car seat, alludes obliquely to the kind of paranoia that such anonymous, toxic harassment can inspire) .
Before you know it, Joe is attending an Eighties-themed Halloween party in a Sussex country house with his actress girlfriend Evelyn (Madison Clare), his agent Catherine (Stephanie Leigh Rose) and her partner David (Louis Selwyn), their friends Lucy (Dani Dyer) and Luke (James De’val), and Joe’s gate-crashing ex-wife Laura (Helena Antonio) – and someone in a clown mask starts killing the partygoers off one by one.
Heckle wears its influences on its sleeve: for this calendar-coded massacre unfolds as characters half-watch old slashers playing on a VCR, with the house lit up in giallo-esque neon colours, and Night Club’s Schizophrenic playing in the background – while Joe’s long hair, beard and manic jitteriness obviously align him to Charles Manson. Along the way, there are plenty of red herrings and garden paths (both literal and metaphorical), although everything here – from the two-dimensional characters to the bland kills – feels perfunctory, while the killer’s identity is all at once completely unguessable, requires an overblown excess of exposition in the film’s final act, and still makes very little sense. Also, as celebrity comedians, neither Ray nor Joe appears to be remotely funny off-stage – although that may actually be a realistic touch.
strap: Though not quite a comedy horror, Martyn Pick’s HECKLE sends a neurotic stand-up into a Halloween slasher scenario
© Anton Bitel