Synopsis: A stand-up comedian on the verge of breakout success must make a terrible choice when he discovers a murderer on the loose in the theater where he’s about to perform his biggest show.
Stars: Steve Vanderzee, Eric Stone, Lowell Deo, Angela DiMarco, Meranda Long
Director: Jeremy Berg
Running Length: 81 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review: It’s likely fair to say I’m an easy target when it comes to horror films. I’m apt to take the bait on a well-cut trailer and enticed by a poster or advertising that is sometimes more creative than the film itself. Though in the real world I don’t suffer fools gladly I’m apparently more than willing to give a scare flick a pass if it can muster up even the slightest bit of sustained energy. That’s why when I give a genre film my enthusiastic stamp of approval you know I mean business…and how you can also tell when I emphatically urge you to steer clear of the true garbage when it appears. As has become evident so far in 2020, horror feels like it’s on an inspired upswing with filmmakers taking some otherwise cliché set-ups and making them, if not precisely elegant in their execution, than at least fairly entertaining.
The latest surprising delivery is The Last Laugh, the barest of bare bones slasher film that marries a love of the slice and dice masked killer movies of the 80s and 90s with, of all things, theater nerdom. Even with its shoestring budget, uneven performances, and at times frustratingly sluggish pacing, I found it to have a particular charm missing from many of its modern counterparts. Writer/director Jeremy Berg seems to have approached the idea with an inspired energy and makes the most of the location (an actual working theater in Tacoma, Washington) and resources available. Add in a few neat gore effects courtesy of a well-done effects team, plenty of blood, and a surprisingly rich air of whodunit mystery and you’ve got a show worth attending.
Self-deprecating comic Myles Parks (Steve Vanderzee) is still working the same comedy clubs he’s been in for years while waiting for his big break. He’s not exactly leaving them rolling in the aisles when his agent Nelson (Eric Stone) books him for a one-night engagement as the opening act for Reggie Ray (Lowell Deo), an Eddie Murphy-ish star comedian on his comeback tour. It’s a great opportunity for Myles and he knows it, especially when Nelson confirms a TV talent scout will be in the audience. The stage is set for success, that is until a killer wearing a theatrically-themed disguise begins hacking their way through the backstage crew leading up to showtime. Is the killer intent on tracking down Myles, or is there another motive behind the murders that Myles has found himself caught in the middle of?
Berg introduces an interesting quagmire for Myles early on by having him find one of the dead bodies and attempting to convince others there may be a murderer amongst them. Dismissing his claims as pre-show jitters (!) or merely part of his own antic act, he’s left with a decision: involve the police now and ruin his opportunity with Reggie Ray or say nothing until later after he’s made a killing of his own onstage. As people continue to die, I think there were opportunities to give Myles more, um, mileage to go with the cover-up but unfortunately, Berg doesn’t stay the course with this moral dilemma. Instead, he seems to be preoccupied with introducing more theatrical lore about the ghost of a dead actress said to haunt the space, which may explain to Myles who is behind the murders…or could just be a red herring. This aspect is fun, don’t get me wrong, but it feels like its from a different movie about a haunted theater rather than the one we’ve been seeing up until that point.
Like magicians, I find it hard to believe actors playing comedians in film because it’s a talent that can’t be taught or always captured well onscreen. We’re told Myles is this impressive comedian who has knocked the socks off of many people but any time we see his set it’s made up of groaners or observances that are just plain unfunny. Vanderzee helps sell it to a point but even he starts to spin out a bit the more his character spirals into delirium as he gets caught up in more and more murder scenes. As the super serious theater manager that is a true aficionado of the classical stage, Angela DiMarco is sort of fun in a “is she for real?” kind of way…hearing a character wax on about Moliere in the middle of a slasher movie is a treat indeed. The most appealing character by far is stagehand Bethany played by Meranda Long. Long is just the laid-back bright spot that gives the film its strange charm. The rest of the performances are serviceable but are the most obvious amateur-trappings on display in the film.
As far as indie hack ‘em up films go, The Last Laugh is one of the better efforts in recent release. It may not have the finances to look totally polished, but I was surprised at how effective it was once it settles into the evenings events. Plus, it actually manages to keep the identity of the killer a mystery throughout, another rare occurrence in my movie watching world when you can often tell within the first fifteen minutes who done the deed. Appealing to both fans of slasher films and also anyone that’s spent time in a working theater, The Last Laugh finishes first in delivering a worthwhile watch.