Stage productions are rife with superstition, in film and in life...
...It’s part of what makes them such interesting subjects to explore in horror. Whether we know them or not, all theaters have a history. A set of stories unique to them that get passed around as lore among the acts and crew, occasionally bleeding their way out to audiences. Then there are the superstitions we all know whether we’re in theater or not. My personal favorite, the unnamable power of Shakespeare’s Scottish play, goes as far back as the play’s arrival in 1606. The Scottish curse goes like this: in any given production, to avert disaster one can say “Macbeth” during rehearsal and performance only when the script calls for it. To mention it any other time is to invite accidents and tragedy. Word has it, Shakespeare’s research for the weird sisters was so thorough he ended up using ingredients for a real incantation, thus pissing off actual witches and leading to a curse that has followed the play since its inception.
The history of the theater in writer/director Jeremy Berg’s Last Laugh is a little like if the Scottish curse and the foundations of the Phantom of the Opera had come together. The Pantages Theater has a past drenched in tragedy, and a ghost out for vengeance to go along with it. Trouble is, while the story of Pantages’ ghost is somewhat compelling, it falls apart just enough to make you go “what?” To the movie’s credit, our main character does acknowledge the oddness of the choice, but it doesn’t make it any less weird, and it’s never explored in more depth than the telling of it.
Myles Parks (Steve Vanderzee) is a comedian still looking for his big break, who seems to have fallen on hard times following a personal tragedy. His upcoming performance as opening act for comic-in-comeback Reggie Ray (Lowell Deo) at the Pantages Theater just might be the stepping stone to greatness he’s been pursuing for years, but when he gets there he finds a theater holding onto its last efforts at life and dripping in blood thanks to a silent masked killer stalking the grounds. On top of this sordid mystery, Myles has hallucinations tied to the tragic loss of his girlfriend, which he treats with therapy and medication. While having an unreliable protagonist in a theater with a masked killer on the loose may sound compelling, unfortunately Last Laugh falls flat on the delivery, despite its moments of potential.
Berg doesn’t give us a lot of likeable characters to latch onto. At some point in his past, Myles’ manager told him he was funnier when he was an asshole and, well, he took it to heart. We’re likely meant to connect with him as the emotional core of the film but being the least-assholish in a cast full of people who build their careers around tearing others down is not the strongest tie. The biggest thing that put me as much in Myles’ corner as I was was the fact that I was so much angrier at almost everyone else he encounters. His manager pulls the worst move imaginable by withholding his medication and trying to convince him his biggest problem is nerves, only giving in when it becomes clear that Myles is spiraling.
Myles’ tragedy is given to us primarily through piecemeal flashbacks which seem to coincide in frequency and intensity with his spiral, initially leading me to believe his medication was some kind of anti-psychotic, potentially making him a candidate for the identity of the masked killer, but no such luck. His backstory feels a little more like one chosen from a hat to bring depth to an otherwise shallow character. While the story doesn’t hold up under its own attempted weight, it does have moments of potential that are worth mentioning.
The killer, while perhaps not entirely fleshed out, has a great mask and a rather interesting fascination with their own ability for bloodshed that brings a deeply needed element of fun to the film with every appearance. They also move genuinely soundlessly, which results in a couple of good jump scare moments that show a little of what I think Last Laugh was trying to be. The ghost story of the Pantages Theater is also relatively compelling, if a little mixed up at its end. We learn the full story in a single basement-scene of exposition, and while it felt like it didn’t get enough time, it was enough to make me wish that was the story Last Laugh had to tell. Instead it seems to be trying for a slasher where everyone is fair game, with little to no depth behind it despite a commentary on the cost of fame coming in at film’s end.
While it feels like Last Laugh has a lot of ideas it hoped to explore, and the perfect setting to explore them in, it doesn’t quite manage to do any of them justice. Despite that, I think everything is worth a watch at least once, so if theatrical slasher sounds like your kind of fun, maybe give it a chance.
Last Laugh comes to VOD from High Octane Pictures September 15th.
By Katelyn Nelson
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