There once was a time in the horror movie genre when studios were looking for that elusive fear franchise player. Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees both proved a slasher sensation, but they paled in comparison to that figment of Wes Craven's frightmares, child killer Freddy Krueger. There has perhaps been no better badman forged in the domain of death over the last three decades. While the original Nightmare on Elm Street was an amazing combination of innovation and inspiration, Freddy's subsequent return visits to the silver screen were marred, more and more, by a desire to make his persona both fearful and funny. Soon, Krueger was the Terminator of terror, delivering his gory set piece killings with mandatory bad puns and lame rejoinders. After Craven killed such strategies with the solely self-referential Scream series, it looked like there'd be no return to the days of Freddy's reprobate repartee. Though more than a decade old, 1994's Funny Man wants to follow in Krueger's comic killer footsteps - and it almost succeeds. Almost.
Record producer Max Taylor wins a weird country estate from an eccentric card player during a game of poker. Immediately wanting to move his family in, Taylor discovers all too late that the home is haunted. Indeed, a devious figure called Funny Man uses his cruel clownish persona to wreck havoc on the clan. Within a few hours, the horrible harlequin "removes" the new residents. In the meanwhile, Taylor's bitter brother Johnny is headed to the manor with many of his sibling's belongings. Along the way, he picks up an odd collection of hitchhikers, including a grave Jamaican voodoo priestess, a nerdy birdwatcher, a sex-starved and obsessed bloke and a sensitive if sloppy hippy. When they finally reach the property, Max and his family are nowhere to be found. But Funny Man is still there, ready to rid himself of a few more miserable souls. But our Caribbean queen will have none of that. She makes her way into the demon's domain, hoping to call him out once and for all. But someone like Funny Man is not so easily defeated, and it may take more than some superstitious mumbo jumbo to end his reign of terror.
Funny Man is so late '80s that, after watching its 90 retro-packed minutes, you'd swear the other George Bush was still in the White House. Borrowing heavily from the decade's style of self-effacing horror, it tentatively mixes mischief with the macabre to fashion an attempt at creating a certified horror icon. In that regard, Funny Man is, himself, a memorable character. As the tagline says, "he's cheeky and he's cruel". But he also has more in common with Dream Warrior era Freddy Krueger than other emblems of the eerie. As a killer, Funny Man is all punch line and very little punch. He is not scary, nor very memorable for his murders (save for one or two). His humor is on the decidedly dark side, but it still comes across as a loony respite during what is otherwise a standard slasher yarn. Since we don't know much about how this horror harlequin with the devilish glint in his eye came to terrorize the human race, his presence is just peculiar, not precarious. In addition, the standard storyline doesn't give him much to do except crack wise and slaughter people. That may be enough for most fright flick fans, but when you're trying to create an everlasting visage of violence, a single trip to its Beetlejuice-esque homeland is not enough. We want backstory and context. Only then will we buy your bad guy.
We get none of that here. Still, while writer/director Simon Sprackling gives it the old carnage try, and for a while, Funny Man is wildly entertaining. With tongue planted firmly in cheek and a cartoon cutout collection of characters, this is one filmmaker who is not afraid to flaunt convention for the sake of his schlock. He even kills off the kids in the first 15 minutes. Still, about the midway point of the movie, the narrative sort of stalls. The Jamaican Voodoo queen with the shape-shifting hand gets far too much screen time, playing paranormal detective while her compatriots are being carved up in more and more inventive ways. There are a couple of decent gore sequences here, set-pieces restored by Subversive Cinema after initial versions of the film found the deaths heavily edited. The brain blast and the puppet decapitation are classic - nicely bloody and brutally bizarre. But others in the film die in ways that can best be called mundane. One person gets their head bashed in with an obviously fake club, another takes a high heel to the eye. During these dreary sequences, one can't help but chant "been there, done that". When one character is nearly cocained to death, we hope for something more than a derivative disemboweling. Indeed, many of Funny Man's murders appear governed by financial, not fear, considerations.
The acting is only slightly better. It needs to be noted that Christopher Lee's role in this film is nothing more than an extended cameo. He shows up at the beginning, disappears after five minutes, and then makes three other sporadic appearances before being forgotten for the rest of the film. While it would have been nice to see a return to his regal fright form, at least Lee offers a bit of bravado to what is an otherwise weak level of terror. As the title character, Tim James is terrific, delivering his lines in various British brogues to give the imp a timeless quality. He truly makes Funny Man someone we'd want to revisit over a series of films. As for the rest of the company, only Rhona Cameron (playing a take-off on Mystery Machine member Velma) and Matthew Devitt (as rock and roll wannabe Johnny Taylor) add anything of value to the performance category. They try to make their personas more than just a one-note novelty, and end up making a minor connection with the audience.
The rest of the time we must rely on the inventive set design and occasionally clever comic asides (like the collection of garden gnomes who offer some silly running commentary) to get us through the narrative. Though far from perfect, Funny Man is still mildly entertaining. It delivers enough oddball elements and unusual moments to forgive its many faults. If taken as nothing more than a nostalgic nod to a time when horror and humor had to vie for the attention of the average direct to video VHS viewer, you will definitely find yourself giggling in mischievous glee. Funny Man could also be a refreshing change of pace for those who feel pummeled by the recent influx of snuff horror into the macabre marketplace. Others may scoff at its lack of scares and decidedly satiric tone and dismiss it outright. Whatever the case, this throwback definitely deserves a look. It may not be as past perfect as the adventures of Fred Krueger and his dream dementia, but there is more to Funny Man than a bunch of one liners. Not much more, but just enough to warrant a bit of fright fan attention.
Made in 1994, Funny Man looks like a cheap early 90s production. The no-budget Indie elements are obvious (impressive locale in place of production value, cheesy F/X, overly dark lighting) while the 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen image is clean if rather cloudy. There is a relative softness to the transfer that renders some of the details indistinct. Otherwise, this is a colorful presentation with lots of atmosphere and ambience.
Offered in a solid Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 mix, the sonic situation of Funny Man is just fine. All dialogue is easily discernible (that is, if you're up on all the differing types of British accents) and the music has a nice Charles Band level of legitimacy. All in all, this DVD presents solid aural elements.
Subversive should be celebrated for the amount of bonus material presented on this disc. Since Funny Man started life as a 30 minute short, it is nice to see the original version offered here. Surprisingly, it's a lot more frightening than the feature length revamp. In addition to trailers for both Funny Man films, we get a great Behind the Scene featurette (lots of drunken debauchery and how-to offered in this 25 minute documentary) a nice interview with Christopher Lee, a pop promo for the film and an eight page booklet featuring the very funny Director's Diary of the movie's production. Perhaps the best added content however is the full length audio commentary. Sprackling and James are on hand, and they make quite the comedy team. Constantly harassing each other, taking potshots at the film and other actors, this is an amazingly engaging and funny feature. While the more technical elements of Funny Man's creation are left for another day, this is still a wonderful alternate narrative track - one of the best in recent memory.
This critic has to admit that the retro tendencies of this freaky fright flick warmed the cynical cockles of his horror heart. It was just too fun re-experiencing Funny Man's bow to the days when murder was metered out with accompanying stand up comedy routines. Granted, our current macabre mindsets demand that scary movies be serious, dour and grotesquely gratuitous. While it can't hold a craven candle to splatter rampages like Hostel, Funny Man still deserves a place on every twisted terror aficionado's shelf. Therefore, this latest release from Subversive Cinema easily earns a Recommended rating. Anything higher would deny the movie's many missteps, while something lower would be patently unfair. Funny Man may not go on to forge a cottage industry in the realm of the repulsive, but he does make for a weird, witty reminder of a time when humor helped certify our icons of eeriness. Funny Man, for all its flaws, is a real horror hoot.
Want more Gibron Goodness?
Come to Bill's TINSEL TORN REBORN Blog (Updated Frequently) and Enjoy! Click Here