In 1983, slashers were taking over the horror film genre. The likes of Friday the 13th and Halloween were making their impact felt. Everyone wanted a piece of the pie, realizing that as long as you had a unique hook you could make a popular finished product with a moderate budget. But let’s be honest, it didn’t really matter because people would end up watching them anyway. Nowadays, filmmakers don’t quite have that luxury. So when a movie comes along that truly stands out, fans of the genre stop and take notice.

Vicious Fun is very much set in 1983, with a pulsating synth score (by Steph Copeland) and smoky, neon-infused locales. In true ‘80s fashion, the goofy protagonist, Joel (Evan Marsh), lives in a suburban neighborhood with his attractive roommate Sarah (Alexa Steele), but finds himself in a mysterious part of town as night falls. Joel is a film critic for a horror magazine Vicious Fanatics, a la Fangoria, and is well-versed in the genre—a detail that, even if not necessarily in-play throughout most of the film, adds a fresh context for what transpires. He follows Sarah’s new boyfriend, Bob (Ari Millen), to a bar in hopesthat he turns out to be married or, worse, a serial killer. Well, after Joel gets blackout drunk, he accidentally becomes locked inside the bar afterhours, where several serial killers meet in a sort of support group. And wouldn’t you know it: Bob is one of their flagship members.

The other killers think that Joel is a fellow slasher of course, but Bob sniffs him out and now they’re all trying to murder him. That is, except for one killer in particular: Carrie (Amber Goldfarb), who has a secret of her own. She infiltrates these serial killer groups all over the country in hopes of picking off each member one by one. Carrie quickly protects Joel and “together” they’re able to take down one or two of them. But when the police get involved, Bob and the others make their escape, with Carrie and Joel getting arrested as the cops think them to be the aggressors.

Unlike similarly-spirited contemporaries, Vicious Fun is very much the type of movie that leans into caricatures. Among the group of killers, each one has a certain quirk or attribute that makes him unique. One is a machete-wielder similar to Jason Voorhees, another is a cannibal, another a sociopath clown who takes notes on humans since he can’t relate to them. Bob, on the other hand, is unlike any slasher villain we’ve ever seen, and that alone makes him this movie’s standout. As the main villain, Millen is absolutely menacing, with an unpredictable craziness that puts him up there with some of the best loose cannons in horror history.

Operating on an intelligence quotient much higher than anyone he’s in a room with, you simply don’t know what he’s going to do next, but like the best antagonists, you can’t wait to see more of him. The actor totally becomes the wretched Bob and has so much control over his character’severy idiosyncrasy, dominating each scene. Also contributing to the fun is the trio of idiot cops who give each other excessive high-fives and add something uniquely special to the police station sequences.

Written by Cody Calahan (who also directs) and James Villeneuve, the dialogue dances every step of the way and we’re given just the right amount of background, while leaving some things a fun mystery to be uncovered later on. By the end, there are some details about Carrie that we want to know more about, but there are worse things a movie can do than to build a world that the audience wishes were expanded upon even more. Plus, this leaves room for a potential sequel!

Unless they’re specializing in some sort of torture porn along the lines of Saw, modern horror seems more interested in jump scares or dark imagery than the kind of grotesque schlock that became so ubiquitous throughout the ‘80s. There have been other contemporary slashers, such as Freaky or Happy Death Day—both good movies—which immerse standard genre conventions into high-concepts such as body switching or time loops. But because the premise of Vicious Fun refrains from any sci-fi elements, it becomes much more rooted in the progenitors that birthed it.

There’s no doubt this movie is bloody. Never shying away from the over-the-top Savini-like makeup effects that we witness in classics such as Maniac, Creepshow, or even Friday the 13th, the film really lets itself loose during a current age that seems to be all but over this kind of roadside gore. However, Calahan, along with makeup and effects teams led by Heather Jennings and Shaun Hunter, not only gives us exactly the unhinged schlock that we’ve been waiting for a modern movie to do, but becomes inventive with his ideas in the process. Very few contemporaneous horror films would feature a cannibal getting strangled with intestines in the very “artless” way that it would have occurred in the ‘80s. The same goes for eyeball-gouging. The last time I saw a literal eyeball in a movie was Nicolas Winding Refn’s high-brow allegory The Neon Demon in 2016. (It definitely plays better here.)

Even before the story evolves into an all-out slasher, it keeps us engaged with fun banter and a lean, clever storyboard. Calahan shows that he’s both a very good comedy and horror director, adept at balancing what should be conflicting tones. Yet, he never falters or makes contrasting characters feel like they’re from different movies entirely.

Joel is the kind of bumbling goofball protagonist that it feels like we’re seeing less and less of these days. There’s a comparison made between his creepy roommate tendencies and the sociopathic nature of Bob. And yet, a line is drawn there also. These are both archetypes we’re used to seeing in ‘80s cinema, and still this is one of the only movies to ever point out the similarities and differences.

Marsh does such a great job carrying his side of the film as the audience surrogate. We see his flaws and yet root for him anyway. Joel is both confidently cynical and paralyzingly insecure, depending on what he’s doing. The result is something very relatable, with the actor giving us some highly funny moments (such as pulling the fire alarm when the bad guys are trying to get him—as though it does something helpful). Goldfarb’s Carrie takes the idea of a final girl to a whole new level.

More the Bride or Sarah Conner than she is Laurie Strode, the serial killer hunter is the perfect counterpoint for Joel—in fact, they’re almostentirely incompatible, and yet somehow the two actors have the perfect chemistry needed for such discordance. These are two personality types who have probably never interacted before in movie history, much less teamed up together to fight baddies.

Vicious Fun is one of the best ‘80s throwbacks in recent memory, simply because it perfectly captures the ethos of the decade while also crafting a unique premise using traditional genre tropes from that era. I’d much rather sit through this than something like Stranger Things where the pastiche feels more like a gimmick used merely as a selling point rather than a genuine homage coming from a place of love and admiration.

Balancing wicked schlock horror with a delicious ‘80s milieu, Vicious Fun is an incredibly entertaining time travel to an era when movies could just be movies. It lets the subtext speak for itself while succeeding as the straightforward slasher that it very much aspires to be without any fancy tricks or aggressive modern commentary getting in the way.

About the Author: Ethan Brehm

Ethan Brehm

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