Whilst the British movie industry has added many a fine villain into the canon of horror genres, it’s never been especially good when it comes to the comedic anti-hero side of things. Whilst Hammer Horror developed one of the definitive Dracula’s, Clive Barker birthed the undying Pinhead into the world, and we have enough psychologically-broken bastards to fill Broadmoor Hospital three times over (Max Parry from The Last Horror Movie still gives me the shivers, check that out but keep the lights on!)… but as soon as we give them a pithy one-liner it all goes a bit wrong, normally resulting in something halfway between Kenny Everett and Ken Russell. Maybe it’s a hangover from the 80s when any half decent horror got hurried to the thriller section, or maybe it’s because we were just embarrassed at how very good the Americans are at it.
Whatever the reason for it, in 1994 the independent writer and director Simon Sprackling decided to have a crack at a truly horrific comedy with Funny Man, a 90-minute semi-indie production that managed to punch spectacularly above its budget of £50,000. For that, he got a lot of people in who you’ve never heard of but possibly had seen on the telly – Ingrid Lavey of the then highly popular Drop The Dead Donkey TV series, Pauline Black Of The Selector, and, Christopher Lee. (More on those first two later). He also got Tim James in as the titular Funny Man, a horrific goblinesque cross between Mr Punch, a playing card jester, and an utter git who’s out to wreck your day. Add to that some nice set design, good filming, and a lot of blood and gore, and you’ll be amazed it cost – adjusted for inflation – around the same as a two bedroom flat in the not-classy part of Birkenhead.
The plot is relatively straightforward, utterly mental, and pretty much sorted within the first 20 minutes. Max, the coke-fuelled record producer, wins a house from, er, Christopher Lee in a card game. He then moves his family there and brings forth a bundle of surrealist antagonism that is the Funny Man, who starts taking the family apart in manners that defy all sense of decency and, quite frequently, reality. Think of them as somewhere between Freddy’s Nightmares and a sideroad in Blackpool after one too-many bottles of Lambrini. He also starts torturing Max, for his own personal amusement, by putting him on the mother of all bad trips in a shopping cart. Meanwhile, Max’s brother Johnny turns up to the house with a bunch of literally nameless hitchhikers who meet their ends in a variety of excessive, unnecessary, and mean-spiritedly amusing manners.
Whilst all the victims suffer from that most unpleasant of human traits of “being a bit naff and somewhat annoying”, it’s pretty clear that they just don’t deserve to die (especially not in the drawn-out scenarios that they are put through), and to ram the point home Funny Man tells the viewer this repeatedly. No, don’t run away! This isn’t post-modern, fourth-wall breaking, this is the mid-90’s version that is used to enhance the gags and demonstrate how much of a playful sadist the Funny Man is. He’s a cock, you’re here to see him be a cock, so he’s going to cock about and be avatar of your wish to watch randoms be put through a phantasmagorical hell. About the closest it gets to post-modern moralising is that his jokes aren’t actually that funny, but like a great ‘failure’ comic he stands by them with a devil-may-care until you start laughing too (you jerk!). He’s a demonic, liltingly Welsh-voiced, arsehole that’s out for a crass giggle and a bit of reality bending, for reasons that boil down to “Well, why not? Bit of a laugh, innit”.
About the closest person that acts as a foil to the Funny Man’s switchblade back-alley humour is the disco stomping, Patwa slinging, Psychic Commando played by Pauline Black. Quite how she got involved in the project is lost to the mists of time, so all that can be said is that she’s perfect in it and takes on the role of chief arsekicker with absolute confidence, no smirking, with a haircut that looks imported directly from the 70s. It may be possible to debate if it is or isn’t an exploitative character, but mostly it comes across as the right side of homage and as idiotic as everything else in the film. Seeming a bit more out of place is Christopher Lee, mostly by dint of being Christopher Lee!! He manages his first appearance with class and aplomb, setting the stage and making it clear that everything is going to go to hell. His other appearances are either delightfully intense or delightfully scenery-chewing, depending on your taste, but suffer from seeming to be there because the producers actually managed to booked him for the day (literally, that’s how long he needed to hit it perfectly) so added in extra bits because OMG IT’S CHRISTOPHER LEE!!
Sir Lee’s appearances also highlight the key flaw in the film, and ultimately why there is only one Funny Man film out there; great moments, strung together by not much plot. There is a narrative reason for everyone to be there, but with no grand comeuppance deserved or wrong avenged, it’s just a particular style of slaughter house with no real release of tension or pathos at the end. Wickedly funny, dementedly imaginative, and with sets that occasionally look like Top Of The Pops for serial killers, but nothing beyond that. Even the background to the Funny Man isn’t gone into in any great detail, instead taking the bold but fitting approach of him just being him and everyone else having to deal with it.
If you can accept it on those terms, then it’s a blast – fast paced, fantastical, filled to the gunnels with snappy one-liners and wry observations, whilst managing to corrupt the form just enough to be surprising. People who are after shock and terror are going to be disappointed, because it’s just too silly to be torture-porn, and the 18-rating feels like a hangover from far more puritanical days than something you could compare to Hostel or Human Centipede. The same can be said for people who want a modern narrative driven English countryside horror mythos, or a satisfying story line with a real point other than the set pieces it strings together, as there just isn’t enough detail given or concern shown to keep them happy. But it’s nice to have a film that doesn’t care about those things, because much like its titular character it’s quite satisfied to turn up, decked out smashingly, and piss in your shoes just to see the look on your face. Then, punch you in the face, because that’s entertainment!