Reviews: seaside terror in Punch

Punch,
Directed by Andy Edwards,
Starring Kierston Wareing, Alina Alison, Daniel Fathers, Jamie Lomas, Faye Campbell, Macaulay Cooper, Sarah Alexander Marks

That’s the way to do it!

The slasher sub-genre, like the found-footage one, is one I rarely visit much these days – not because I don’t like them, but more because for the most part they feel pretty played out these days. Every now and then though, someone does something a bit different, and when I heard about Punch, it got my attention – British slasher, for a starter, and using the iconic Mr Punch character? Oh, and it went down well with the FrightFest crowd? Oh yes, I was totally having a look at that!

Andy Edwards and his cinematographer, Max Williams, deserve kudos straight off for making the most of their location here, shot around Hastings. And yes, of course while Punch and Judy shows have been performed everywhere, including markets and fairs in towns and cities, today most of us associate it with the British seaside, and probably, if honest, the fading British seaside, a generations-old act that somehow kept going into the fairly recent era, but was always fading away (even when I was a kid many years ago, it was already something you saw far less than you used to).

And that fits this film perfectly, because this is the British seaside town out of season, when it is quiet, many of the businesses literally boarded up until the next summer season and the return of the tourists and day-trippers (which seem even less each year as the once popular seaside holiday is swapped for affordable foreign trips). Edwards and Williams really make the most out of this feeling of semi-abandonment, taking in garish, colourful signs for amusements and food places, most of which are closed for the off-season, their bright signage now more like mockery of a small town that, outside the summer, has little left to offer, especially for the local younger folk.

And after dark it all seems worse, not just run-down, but creepy – if you’ve ever walked through a funfair as they are switching off all the lights at the end of the night, you will recognise that feeling, where something that was bright and cheerful becomes creepy and scary. Then add in to that the unsettling figure of Mr Punch, who, despite being sometimes being seen as children’s seaside entertainment, is (and always has been, really) also a downright creepy and potentially scary figure himself…

Frankie (Alina Allison) is reluctantly back home, forced to take time off from her university studies to take care of her mother (Kierston Wareing), a mother who seems less than grateful her daughter came back home to look after her, and downright hostile to the thought she will soon leave again – you can feel the resentment bubbling through. Frankie finds more of that around some of her old friends in the town as she and her best friend Holly (Faye Campbell), and later her ex, Darrell (Macaulay Cooper), reluctantly drawn into their social circle, head out for a good time. While some are happy to see her back, there’s an obvious air of resentment from others – she made it out, made it to somewhere else, somewhere better, away from this dead-end with no prospects.

They’re reminded of an old local story about a killer in a Punch mask who is said to attack wayward youths (in the finest Slasher tradition, our killer especially hates youthful character who are having fun like drink, dancing, and sex). They all pretty much dismiss it as an obvious scare story told by parents to put teens and twentysomethings off of misbehaving at night, but we get glimpses of fading “missing” posters on the closed pier and seafront businesses (a nice nod to the missing posters in Lost Boys), and naturally there is a raving lunatic character around the town who delights in telling the kids how the killer will hunt them down. It’s all a silly, old story… Until the killings start…

As the Punch character appears, starting by picking off side character before slowly moving towards out core group of characters, the tension and creepy levels mount, and again the use of the location and season work well (an extended chase on a now empty pier at night, all the noisy lights of the amusement arcade playing to nobody except the victims and the killer make for an eerie setting). I should probably amend “slasher” to “basher” here, though, as the choice of weapon is a baseball bat! And to be fair, Mr Punch is known for walloping people, so that makes sense!

The mask and that creepy Punch voice add to the unease, and the film even drops in scenes which help explain how the killer (relentless but always slower than the running victims) manages to always catch up to them and find them (which was a nice wee touch, some movies don’t bother with that), and then, on top of the actual slasher (or basher) serial killing, the film also starts to infuse a touch of British Folk Horror into the proceedings – yes, this is a relentless man-in-a-mask killer, stalking youthful victims, but there’s more going on here, drawing on both the mythos of the Punch act and old traditions to add that frisson of folk element to the proceedings, which for me really added to the film.

It’s fun to see someone take the old slasher genre and give it a fresh twist, and for me especially fun to have it be a British location for a change (I know slashers can be set anywhere, but most of the really big ones that spring to mind are mostly US-set), and adding in the possible tradition/folkloric element of this unusual and unique (and often as creepy as he is entertaining) character like Mr Punch just gives more depth to the film, while the good use of those closed-up, out of season seafront locations imparts a distinct style and atmosphere to the whole film. I really wouldn’t be surprised to see another Punch follow this one.

Punch is released by Miracle Media via On Demand services from January 22nd.

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

FrightFest – To Fire You Come At Last

FrightFest 2023 – To Fire You Come At Last,
Directed by Sean Hogan,
Starring Mark Carlisle, James Swanton, Richard Rowden, Harry Roebuck, Stephen Smith,
Severin FIlms

Debuting at this year’s recent FrightFest, Sean Hogan’s To Fire You Come At Last may be short, but it certainly delivers, drawing on the influence of classic British folk-horror movies. It’s a nice, clean, simple set-up: Mallow, the local squire (Mark Carlisle) and his manservant Pike (Richard Rowden) have enlisted Holt (Harry Roebuck) to arrange the carrying of the coffin of the squire’s son Aldis (Stephen Smith), Holt having been his best friend. The squire has sent his man to obtain villagers to carry the coffin across the moors to the church, but none want to come, as the moors (of course!) have an evil reputation for witches and mysterious black dogs that signify impending death (shades of the old Black Shuck legend). All they can get is Ransley, a local drunk and ne’er do well, forcing the squire to also assist in the carrying of the casket.

It’s against this backdrop of lonely moorland our four men set out with their macabre burden, Holt warning that with only four of them they will not likely make the churchyard before dusk, and they really don’t want to be caught on the moors after dark. The squire arrogantly chides him for foolishness and superstition, and the four continue, but Holt is correct, darkness falls while they are still treading this lonely, rural path, the blackness of the countryside at night, dispelled only in small pools of light around them from their lanterns.

And they start to hear noises – is that a dog growling somewhere in the gloom? Footsteps? As the darkness and thoughts of local folklore play on their nerves, the men bicker among themselves, and soon accusation are flying too – connections each had to the deceased (even the lowly drunk, Ransley), until it seems they have all committed sins that may leave them vulnerable to Damnation, and therefore ripe for the picking for whatever dark, supernatural forces roam the moorland at night. Except the squire, who insists he is a good, upright man (so you just know this arrogant aristocrat is hiding a secret!).

This short film is split into four acts, each slowly ratcheting up the tension rather splendidly. It’s shot in a crisp black and white, which is particularly effective once night falls – four figures burdened by a wooden coffin, illuminated only by carrying lanterns, the world around them almost invisible, black darkness, the odd skeletal tree coming into view as the lamp light reaches it, the only other features the stars in the nocturnal skies above them. It’s a great choice, aesthetically (props to cinematographers Paul Goodwin and Jim Hinson), giving the film a simple but very effective look, and it also works well for a small budget, enhancing the look of the film without the need for expensive sets or locations to match the 17th century period.

A highly effective, atmospheric short that draws on the fine Brit folk-horror tradition.

This review was originally penned for Live For Films