Director: Cody Calahan (Canada). Year of Release: 2021
Minnesota, 1983. Joel is an Incel long before Incels were invented. Not a rapey, creepy way – though he is a little creepy in the way that he is permanently single and follows the romantic activities of his (female) flatmate a little too closely. Which is why he gets a little agitated when she returns from her latest date and spends a little too much time “saying good-bye” in her date’s car.
Joel finds himself jumping into a taxi and shouting “follow that car” as the date drives into the distance. And finds himself in the bar of a Chinese restaurant with a tape recorder running so he can record just how creepy the other bloke is. As someone points out to him later in the film, he hasn’t really thought this through as he’s by far the creepiest person in this scene.
One thing leads to another and he finds himself passed out in a storeroom. The restaurant has long since shut up shop, but there appears to be a meeting going on in the next room. As Joel stumbles in, he is invited to sit down. It soon becomes clear that this is some sort of Twelve Step programme for serial killers who are trying to deal with their addiction.
One by one, Joel is introduced to a series of stereotypes. There’s the Asian chef who moonlights as a cannibal. The sociopath without empathy who prefers to dress up as a clown when he’s making a kill. The big one who looks like every serial killer you’ve seen in a film ever. The loud one who assumes leadership of the group who has found that the easiest way to kill lots of people in a short period of time is to join the US military. And then there’s the woman who doesn’t say much.
One person is missing though. And just as Joel is trying to make a getaway, in steps Bob. AKA Joel’s room mate’s date with whom he’s spent the evening getting drunk (and who left Joel to pay his tab). Bob is an Alpha Male pickup artist, who kills young women after the second or third date. In other words, he’s pretty much the opposite of Joel in every respect.
Vicious Fun really shouldn’t have worked. It lightly satirises films from over thirty years ago, and because it adopts their tropes, it’s bound by all their limitations. So, it might just scrape through the Bechdel test, but only just. Having said that, with one, female exception, pretty much all the characters are scary, useless or a bit of both. So on one level this is a film with too many men in it with the message that men are a bit pathetic really.
And yet, it is a whole lot of fun. It somehow achieves just the right balance of taking itself seriously. It is not so silly that we stop caring for any of the characters, but at the same time it is not too pious. The actors appear to be having a lot of fun, and each one hams it up in a different way. There is a LOT of cartoon blood which is the right level of unbelievable to be funny but not ridiculous.
And, like all good spoofs (its not quite right to call Vicious Fun a spoof, but satire sounds too self-righteous), it shows great respect for the genre it is working in. There are moments of genuine tension, and although some of the set ups sound clichéd when you describe them – people are trapped in a storeroom/police cells/a hospital bed while a killer is loose – it is still able to ratchet up the tension to make us actually feel fear.
Perhaps the smartest move is to show everything through the POV of Joel. Joel is a loser – he writes for a horror magazine, for fuck’s sake. But he also has a certain puppy-eyed charm. We know that he is never going to get the girl, but we feel a bit sorry for him when he doesn’t. He’s a bit sad, but he’s a genuinely nice and well-meaning person (and not in a way that will make you puke).
Speaking of puking, this is one more way in which the film makes a distinction between fantasy and reality. In the film, Joel knows everything there is to know about horror – in the opening scene, he points out to an established horror film director why his films are clichéd and uninteresting. And yet as soon as Joel sees some real blood and core, most of his insides land on the floor.
But the main thing that Vicious Fun has going for it is that it is genuinely funny. Not rolling in the aisles funny, not devastating wit. But it has enough good jokes at regular intervals to keep you in a good mood from beginning to end. Of course its not Casablanca – few films are (to be precise, only one film is). But it does what it can in a limited genre, and does it with humour and aplomb.
What more do you want?