Punch (2023)

Punch had its world première on Thurs 24th Aug at FrightFest

Set in an unnamed English seaside town, and filmed in Hastings, East Sussex, Punch may come with all the trappings of English nostalgia – the cliffs, the beach, the fair, the pier, the fish and chips – but there is something rotten in this community. Many of the shops are closed and shuttered, there are vagrant addicts living under the boardwalk, the sea is full of human sewage, and the opening scene, though boasting an impressive oceanic view, is focussed on an 18-year-old school girl, who should have her whole life ahead of her, as she is about to take a suicidal leap. Neglected and miserable, this is a place that many just want to leave – although there are far more disappearances than departures.

One person who has managed to get away is Frankie (Alina Allison). “This place, it gets a hold on you, drags you down,” she tells her best friend Holly (Faye Campbell), “I needed to go and not look back.” And so she fled to Loughborough to pursue a University arts degree, without telling anyone – including her then boyfriend Daryl (Macaulay Cooper) and Holly. Now Frankie has returned, drawn back by the mental illness of her single mother Julia (Kierston Wareing) – although she is already planning to head back to college after one last night on the town with her friends. Yet someone wearing a Punch mask and wielding a baseball bat is gleefully bludgeoning his way through the community’s young revellers, drinkers, drug users, fornicators, homosexuals and gentrifying hipsters – and this figure of local legend, a bogeyman long used by parents to frighten their children into conformity, knows exactly who Frankie is and has her in his sights.

“Legend says that he stalks the town at night, looking for teenagers, girls misbehaving in particular,” Holly tells newcomer Tamaryn (Sarah Alexander Marks). “He hits their head with a big fat club.” Punch is unmistakably a slasher, with its masked killer brutally slaying young co-eds one by one, turning his atrocities into a grotesque pantomime performance like Art the Clown in Damien Leone’s Terrifier films, and taunting his victims via a swazzled voice that makes him sound almost as annoying (and occasionally incomprehensible) as the Donald Duck-mimicking murderer from Lucio Fulci’s The New York Ripper (1982). 

Yet in drawing on the centuries-old puppeteering tradition of Punch and Judy that is associated with domestic abuse, sadistic cruelty, violent misogyny and the worst excesses of patriarchy – “toxic masculinity in the flesh”, as Holly puts it – writer/director Andy Edwards is tying his cinematic murder set-pieces to an art form embedded deep in the English psyche, and revealing something very wrong with the state of the nation.

This seaside town is a microcosm of modern (Brexit) Britain, where the older generation steadily dismantles the opportunities and freedoms, hopes and dreams of the young, holding them back and insisting that they fall into line, even when the model of community on offer is out-moded, insular, backwards, xenophobic and (self-)destructive. “The only way to keep Mr Punch away is to be a good girl and do as you’re told,” one aggressive local (Richard Peter O’Sullivan) who is not himself Punch – but also not so very different from him – will tell Frankie. As the young woman uncovers smalltown conspiracy, Edwards’ film proves to have as much in common with the folk horror of Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973) as with your average slash and dash, in a saucy seaside postcard of a Little Britain that is thuggish, vicious and hateful beneath the smiling mask. 

strap: Clubbing culture: Andy Edwards’ seaside slasher places a modern young woman in violent conflict with a much older English tradition 

© Anton Bitel