Movie Review ~ The Last Laugh (2020)

The Facts

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

Rated: NR

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.

31 Days to Scare ~ Holiday Hell

The Facts:

Synopsis: A mysterious shopkeeper narrates four horror tales, each set during a different holiday.

Stars: Jeffrey Combs, Joel Murray, Jeff Bryan Davis, Meagan Karimi-Naser, Lisa Coronado

Director: Jeremy Berg, David Burns, Jeff Ferrell, Jeff Vigil

Rated: NR

Running Length: 100 minutes

TMMM Score: (5.5/10)

Review: I really tried to hold back from giving you another anthology during this year’s 31 Days to Scare but this was a new one that came my way and I had to give it a shot.  I get a sense these short film structured scare flicks are making a tiny comeback so count on seeing more pop up because they are easy to produce and, with a bigger budget and the ability to attract actors from a higher paygrade, can turn a quick profit.  Now, in the case of Holiday Hell, there’s little profit to be had because the film will be going direct to streaming so they’re counting on interested parties being enticed by the artwork and reading the plot summary.  Clearly that was enough to get me to check this out.  It’s not an entirely wasted evening but the low budget hampers this one quite a bit.

A woman is on the hunt for a last-minute Christmas gift and finds herself in an antique store owned by a weary shopkeeper (Jeffrey Combs, The Frighteners) about to lock up for the evening.  Desperate, she asks him to please stay open a while longer and help her pick something out.   Like other anthologies such as From Beyond the Grave, the shopkeeper is happy to oblige and offers up four objects found in the shop and the gruesome tales that accompany them.  Now, I don’t know about you but if I had the choice between a bloody Santa suit and a really nice bottle of wine, I’d take the pinot noir any day…but obviously this woman knows who she’s buying for so she’s willing to hear the shopkeeper out.

The first story involves a porcelain mask used to cover the face of a disfigured girl that lived in a house where a massacre took place.  A group of kids has broken in for a Valentine’s Day make-out session and, shocker, a killer wearing the same mask returns and stars to off them one at a time.  There’s a bit of a mystery at play here and it works for the short running length, but any interest is often spoiled by the abysmal acting.  I liked the heroine was a girl with a hearing impairment and it had a twist I didn’t spot but I couldn’t get over some really terrible performances.  The next item the shopkeeper offers up is rabbi doll from a Hanukkah-set tale.  When a boy receives the doll as a present, he uses it as protection against his babysitter who has evil plans for him.  More bad acting in this segment but, again, a decent kernel of an idea.

The final two tales are longer and begin with Joel Murray (Monsters University) as a put-upon man in a dead-end job and a nagging wife.  As Christmas draws near, he knows he’ll have to be the Santa at his office Christmas party and when he takes a new medication his company sells before he puts the suit on, he can’t foresee the murderous side of him it will bring out.  This one was pretty sleazy and felt like it was out of place in context with the others, definitely the weakest of the bunch, though I would take a gander it was likely the favorite one of the filmmakers.  The final tale actually turns the tables a bit in a nice reversal to the previous action.  A young girl takes a room in a rural farmhouse in the middle of a town that’s decidedly creepy…and has been waiting for someone just like her to fill an important role for a childless couple.

The wraparound story that fills the gaps between the tales serves up some good moments as well, which isn’t always the case with anthology films.  Instead of being a time waster in between chapters, the shopkeeper and customer are worked in nicely to the stories and into the finale of the film.  Holiday Hell ends with a bit of a thud but it at least finishes off it’s thought before the credits roll.  I like that kind of resolution better than many horror films which seem to go to black mid-scream.  Definitely a notch above most of the awful dreck often shoved in our faces around this time of year, but could have been much better.