The gritty, glowing neon textures of the ‘80s cover practically every frame of director Cody Calahan’s Vicious Fun, a horror-comedy caper that lovingly sends up the era’s genre tropes while never breaching egregious self-indulgence. The set and character design imbues a palpable adoration for the decade of acid wash jeans, glossy underground magazines and VHS tape fuzz, which conveys a genuine appreciation for the cult classics churned out during the ‘80s—even if it sometimes trips into the very tropes it wishes to unpack.
In 1983 middle America, schlubby Joel (Evan Marsh) is the “deputy assistant editor” and film reviewer for horror magazine Vicious Fanatics who realizes that his long-time crush/roommate Sarah (Alexa Rose Steele) is dating an apparent scumbag. Joel tails Sarah’s suitor to a Chinese restaurant on the edge of town, intending to tape his inevitably douchey comments and present it to her as grounds for dumping. He strikes up an awkward conversation with the man over strong cocktails, who eventually introduces himself as Bob (Ari Millen), a local realtor who indeed has some scummy things to say about Sarah.
Joel drunkenly stumbles into a broom closet and passes out until closing time. Upon waking, the only other people left in the joint compose an intimate gathering of self-professed serial killers—all of whom assume that he’s Phillip, their last anticipated attendee. The circle of sociopaths consists of emotionless clown killer Fritz (Julian Richings), cannibal sous chef Hideo (Sean Baek), mass-murderer Zachary (David Koechner) and a slasher who specializes in killing teens mid-coitus, aptly named Michael (Robert Maillet). Bob also joins the crowd, revealing himself to be an all-American psycho with a familiar obsession with business cards and vinyl raincoats.
If the macabre members of that motley crew all seem like obvious allusions to some of the horror subculture’s most notorious killers, don’t fret: James Villeneuve’s script saves Vicious Fun from feeling lazy in execution. The solid pacing of the screenplay serves up equal doses of gory kills alongside quick comedy. When Joel’s cover is inevitably blown, the leather-clad sicko-hunter Carrie (Amber Goldfarb) comes to his rescue, immediately demonstrating just how out of his element the wannabe knight-in-shining-armor has found himself. As Carrie plays a chilling game of cat and mouse with the collective of killers, the methodology of these calculated murderers is laid out for the audience. Syringes, Japanese steel and machetes are all in the mix, steadily racking up the body count as Joel and Carrie set out to protect Sarah from her boogeyman boyfriend. Rather than simply reenacting the greatest hits of specific fictional villains and substituting in quips and one-liners for hoarse screams, the film is dedicated to offering up what any horror lover would want during their viewing experience: Suspense, squeamishness and the occasional smirk.
Marsh and Goldfarb’s chemistry carries the film through the action, their contrasting roles of inept funny man and capable foil, respectively, play as endearing but never regressive—at least not without satirical purpose. Notions of gender and masculinity are lightly unpacked without feeling sanctimonious or as if the film is patting itself on the back for being “woke.” Instead, Vicious Fun understands that part of the genre’s past is an overreliance on sexist depictions of female characters in order to sell tickets and cater to a fanbase thought to be overwhelmingly male (even within the film, the only horror buff characters—Joel, B-movie director Jack Portwood (Gord Rand) and a random police deputy—are men). In shying away from simplistic depictions of women as love interests and seductresses—including a sobering conversation between Joel and Carrie as to why he feels entitled to Sarah’s romantic attention—Vicious Fun offers a grisly good time with a functioning moral compass to boot.
The tandem nostalgia for and gentle critique of ‘80s culture makes Calahan and Villeneuve’s effort a distinctly refreshing one—ironic, considering the many horror-comedies of the same vein weighed down by slews of nods and references—though some jokes admittedly fall flat. Yet, Vicious Fun will delight any horror fan with a cursory knowledge of the genre, even if all of the killers don’t necessarily coincide with the established ‘80s motif. Though the film will undoubtedly never achieve the culture-shifting magnitude of the franchises it draws from, it comes equipped with authentic heart and charm: Two assets that will take a flick far even when the competition is killer.
Director: Cody Calahan
Writer: James Villeneuve
Stars: Evan Marsh, Amber Goldfarb, Ari Millen, Alexa Rose Steele, Julian Richings, Robert Maillet, Sean Baek, David Koechner
Release Date: June 29, 2021 (Shudder)
Natalia Keogan is a Queens-based writer who covers film, music and culture, with particular interest in the horror genre and depictions of sexuality and gender. You can read her work in Narratively, Filmmaker Magazine and Paste, and find her on Twitter.