Panic Fest Review: Vicious Fun

Serial killer comedy gets to the bloody point

"Cellar door" may be the most beautiful compound noun in the English language, but is there any more soul-crushing modifier than "group." Group think, group project, and (as in acidly funny serial killer comedy Vicious Fun) group therapy.

At least that's when lovestruck horror nerd Joel (Evan Marsh) believes when he wakes up from a depressed bender in a locked restaurant-bar, and stumbles into the back room to find what looks like the world's most unlikely AA meeting. He was only there because he was, well, sort of stalking his roommate's date, a cool cheating sleazebag called Bob (Ari Millen) who gloats about his conquests. Each moment describing his seduction techniques makes the already bilious Joel a little more nauseous, but that's nothing compared to when he staggers in to that little meet-up.

Everyone is staring at this newcomer. There's fastidious Fritz (the wonderfully arch Julian Richings), suspicious and precise Hideo (Sean Baek), lumbering Mike (Robert Mallet), bragging middle-manager Zachary (David Koechner), and terse Carrie (Amber Goldfarb), who the audience has already seen stab a taxi driver to death, so the viewer has a head start on Joel in figuring out: this is a support group for serial killers. And, naturally, if Joel is there, he must be a serial killer, and he better be prepared to share with the group.

The latest from Canadian horror experts Black Fawn, and a freshly-announced addition to Austin's upcoming Other Worlds Return to the Galaxy all-day event, Vicious Fun sees the gore experts extending their range once again. Just as director Cody Callahan pulled their morbid sensibilities into the realm of Blood Simple-esque crime with the multilayered The Oak Room, so here he pushes in a completely new direction: laugh-out-loud comedy

Vicious Fun is a hoot, packed with references without ever feeling like studied post-Scream meta chin-stroking. Each of the killers in the group has immediate forebears, but Callahan and scriptwriter James Villeneuve go for deeper cuts and weird fusions. Anyone could do a standard summer camp slasher rip-off, but Callahan throws in oblique references to Drive alongside American Psycho, even Jaws, and somehow makes it work. There's even a visual cue that screams Doom-Head from Rob Zombie's 31, and that's the kind of deep cut that will bring an automatic smile to fans of serial killer flicks in all their forms.

But it's not just the homages and winks that make Vicious Fun such, well, vicious fun. There's a giddy, cartoonish edge to the inevitable bloodshed, as the nebbish Joel ineptly stumbles his way into more carnage. Gloopy practical gags mix with a rare visual panache, while the script lampoons conventions of the slasher/serial killer Venn diagram without ever feeling forced. Moreover, Callahan makes great use of his rogues' gallery of monstrous murderers, most especially Koechner. He's already proven his flair for gruesome comedy with Cheap Thrills, but the SNL alum is a treat here as a killer who puts an unlikely and bureaucratic twist on the whole "mass murder" deal.

But this is really Millen's time to shine. Even in the middle of such a stellar pantheon of genius character actors, his OTT take on Bob's slimy pomposity gives Vicious Fun an extra edge of barbs that will definitely stick into your funny bone.

An Ideal Host streamed as part of the virtual Panic Fest, and will screen in Austin on May 22 as part of Other Worlds' Return to the Galaxy special event. Tickets and passes at

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