Hanky Panky has its world première at the LA Comedy Film Festival, 2023
The first words heard in Hanky Panky set the tone. “Aw fuck!” says the man racing in panic across a field of snow, as he struggles both to escape and to get a phone signal. Finally connecting with emergency services, he manages to blurt out something about witnessing a murder and ‘evil’ in a cabin, before he is himself bloodily murdered by someone – or something. In this icy, isolated setting, as the Dies irae plays over the soundtrack and as the cast credits appear in a blue all-caps sans serif, it is impossible to miss multiple allusions to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) – and yet the actor’s names have been goofily spookified (so that Jacob Demonte-Finn has become Jacob Demon-Fin, Seth Green is Seethe Green, etc.), while the film’s actual title is rendered in the familiar yet incongruous font of boozy television sit-com Cheers (later, in another Cheers reference, there will be a character named Lilith Crane).
All of this is to suggest that Lindsey Haun and Nick Roth’s low-budget oddity simultaneously advertises its allegiance to both horror and a madcap brand of ensemble comedy – and while later it will continue to reference The Shining and Mike Flanagan’s belated sequel Doctor Sleep (2019) with which it shares an antagonist sporting (and in this case literalising) the epithet ‘the Hat’, as well as John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) and even, bizarrely, James Wan’s Malignant (2021), for the most part it tracks the snowbound adventures of several wildly eccentric, wilfully over-acted friends and neighbours as they find themselves caught in a generically messy murder mystery set in the hilariously shrill key of Jonathan Lynn’s Clue (1985). If the film’s tone is as riotously uneven as its form is unstable, it is nonetheless consistently funny.
The main character here is Sam (DeMonte-Finn), a socially anxious oddball obsessed with cleaning up his own and other people’s messes using a handkerchief that he carries everywhere in his breast pocket. This hanky is also Sam’s not-so-invisible friend Woody (voiced by Toby Bryan), whose language is no less crude than the hand puppetry which animates him. In keeping with his name, Woody is endlessly priapic and literally turned on by wiping up spillages, and serves all at once as confidante, father figure and perverse sexual partner to Sam. Yet if Woody plays the foul-mouthed, unrestrained id to Sam’s buttoned-up ego, it will turn out that there are others who can hear Woody, and that he is not the only apparel-based entity boasting sentience – and salacity – in the film.
Sam has been accidentally invited to a get-together of freaky twins Rebecca (co-director Haun) and Norm (also Bryan) who live in the cabin, of constantly-at-each-others’ throats couple Carla (Christina Laskay) and Cliff (Anthony Rutowicz), of Carla’s sweetly flakey best friend Diane (Ashley Holliday Tavares), of Cliff’s artist brother Dr Crane (writer/co-director Roth) and his ailing, melodramatic wife Lilith (Azure Parsons), and of weirdly omnipresent neighbour Kelly (Clare Grant). Throw in cults, maybe-magic ‘moose mushrooms’, murder, aliens, characters’ bizarrely unmotivated lapses into French, eroticised group slaps, a TARDIS-like ice shack, Carla’s adamant scepticism that hagiography is a legitimate object for academic study, and perhaps the most ridiculous wire-fu duel ever shot, and you have a film that is fully committed to its own zany pandemonium.
In the end, the messiness – the ‘delicious chaos’, as one character puts it – is the point, as these schlubbily unhinged characters deadpan their way through the irrational and the incomprehensible, grounding everything in the mundanity of their own weirdness, and even finding, amid all the demonic destruction, room for a bit of romance and Yuletide cheer. Hanky Panky all at once makes its mess, cleans it up, and yet somehow still leaves you feeling dirty in the end – which is, of course, the human condition writ absurdly large. In short, this Christmas clusterfuck will wipe the smile onto your face. Chapeau!
strap: Lindsey Haun & Nick Roth’s murder mystery/cabin horror/alien invasion/Christmas romance UFO hilariously celebrates life’s (and its own) messiness
© Anton Bitel