They say that laughter is the best medicine...
...Too bad for stand-up comedian Joe Johnson some people can’t take a joke. To quote everyone’s favorite clown prince of crime, “All it takes is one bad day” and that bad day turns into a hellscape of blood and terror in Heckle, which just had its World Premiere at FrightFest.
Directed by Martyn Pick (Ultramarines: A Warhammer 40,000 Movie) and written by Airell Anthony Hayles, Heckle is a story of how far one person is willing to go to exact revenge in the name of humiliation. The story centers on comedian Joe Johnson (Guy Combes) who has landed a life changing role in a film about the life of Ray Kelly, a comedian who was brutally murdered (Steve Guttenberg of Police Academy fame), but there is more to the story than meets the eye.
From there, Heckle falls into the same familiar tropes we’ve often seen in slasher films. At first it pokes fun at these tropes when Joe and his friends head out to a place in the woods for a 1980s-themed party where they are each designated a character trope: Joe is singled out as the “handsome jock” and Evelyn (Madison Clare) our designated “final girl”. Like all ‘80s slashers, the party is stalked by “the heckler” (Clark Gable III), an unknown killer in a red hoodie and clown mask which both invoke images of Don’t Look Now and Halloween.
Filling out the 1980s theme is the score composed by Patrick Savage and Holeg Spies also known as Savage & Spies. You’ve no doubt heard their work in films such as The Human Centipede (First Sequence). The moments where the synth fades away and the strings take over are instrumental in creating the film’s suspense.
Joe’s paranoia over the heckler’s harassing messages, which we first see when he steps onstage to perform and face the blinding lights and shadows in the crowd, becomes palpable thanks to Pick’s directing together with cinematography work by Mark Barrs and Vince Knight. We watch as the anxieties build and begin to take their toll on him. There’s a claustrophobic feeling and heightened sense of panic when the camera takes on a new depth of field and shakiness in the moments when he’s performing that gets mirrored in flashback scenes with Guttenberg’s Ray Kelly character. Anyone who’s been onstage for any sort of performance is surely familiar with that feeling.
Heckle has an odd blend of Halloween and Christmas which creates this sort of weird dynamic when we are flashing back between past and present. One minute we hear the sound of holiday music, the next we’re faced with the image of someone with a pumpkin on their head. One of the heckler/murderer’s trademarks is placing strangely crude masks over some of the victims. The makeup work by Megan Biffin, Aybuke Kavas, and Dave Darko is impressive in the brief instances where we see the kills onscreen; two kills in particular stood out for their execution and effects.
But perhaps where Heckle stands the strongest is in its twist ending. After all, what’s a good slasher without a twist amiright? I found myself suddenly moving towards the edge of my seat, riveted by what I was hearing and seeing. It's a twist we don't often see utilized in horror, and it made me question everything in the film leading up to that moment. The performances from Gable, Combes, and Clare really make the scenes work even if the villain is monologuing. Combes and Clare effectively use their body language to evoke what their characters are feeling. Combes delivers an interesting performance as the lead, with little moments sprinkled throughout—mostly with his daughter—to show Joe’s softer side. Despite these vulnerable spots, Combes plays his character more as a “love to hate them” type, so I found myself rooting for the heckler for most of the film.
While there are strengths to Heckle, it is not without its weaknesses. One scene has a character on the phone, but you can clearly hear the person on the other line off-camera. Steve Guttenberg’s performance felt very much like a rough parody of Andrew Dice Clay in a silly wig with these weird tonal shifts in the character where he went from normal and loving to demanding and rude.
These hiccups do not take away from the experience of the film, however. It's a simple slasher with a great setup and execution, and you won’t regret adding it to your watchlist. Just be mindful next time you are at a comedy show...not to heckle.
By Kalani Landgraf