James Roday is an interesting fellow. You’ll probably know him best as the star of “Psych”, the long-running TV comedy about a fake psychic who helps the police, but he’s also heavily involved in theatre in Los Angeles, and is a writer – he co-wrote the 2006 werewolf movie “Skinwalkers”, as well as 16 episodes of “Psych”. Aside from episodes of his own show, “Gravy” is his directorial debut, and looks…well, not like the sort of thing you’d expect from a light comedy TV guy.
Kerry (Sutton Foster) has passed her paramedic exams and is completing her last shift, on Halloween, at a Mexican-themed bar/restaurant, and the rest of the staff is gathered to celebrate with her. There’s friendly boss Chuy (Paul Rodriguez), security guard Winketta (Gabourey Sidibe), perpetually angry prom-dress-wearing Cricket (Molly Ephraim), and boxer-in-training Hector (Gabriel Luna), with a French chef and a customer who passed out after having his proposal turned down thrown in for good measure.
Upon discovering the (unlockable) door is stuck fast, the staff come into contact with three psychopathic cannibal killers who have a very specific MO – find a place with no windows or security, weld the doors shut and go to work. We’ve got the Wish brothers, Anson and Stef (Michael Weston and Jimmi Simpson) and Stef’s girlfriend Mimi (Lily Cole) and boy oh boy do they enjoy their work. When Mimi bites out Winketta’s voice box, you know it’s on! Our three cannibals then put the staff through a series of pop-culture themed games (including “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon”), the losers getting murdered in some particularly gruesome way and eaten.
I don’t want to give any more away, as it’s out on VOD today, and yes, that’s just the speed we produce these reviews at. But let’s talk horror-comedy. Despite it being a long-running genre – horror-comedies have been around as long as we’ve had horror or comedy – they’re really really difficult to get right, with a tiny handful of recent successes (“Cabin In The Woods” and “Tucker And Dale vs. Evil” spring to mind). You tend to get quite a lot of comedies which are about the tropes of horror more than being horror movies themselves, such as “Shaun of the Dead” or “Young Frankenstein”; less often, straight horror movies where the characters occasionally crack jokes (“Hatchet”, “Behind The Mask” – and yes, there’s a reason you’ve heard of one set of those examples but not the other).
Now, “Gravy” is way more a straight-up comedy than it is a horror, but it’s an exceptionally dark one, liberally (and I mean liberally) drenched in blood and guts. Roday and team throw everything at us – characters get chopped in half, have their feet hacked off and then have those feet offered to their friends, get their heads rammed into fan-blades, and so on, and so on. It’s just so…relentless, like a hyperactive child trying to recount a movie to you.
I think we ought to have a moratorium on ultra-verbose pop-culture-obsessed psychos, too. Firstly, I don’t think they exist – once your mind’s in a place where eating people seems okay, I’m willing to bet there’s not a lot of room in there for discussions about obscure Wil Wheaton movies. Secondly, okay, it’s a comedy and I bet there are an extremely tiny number of decent, friendly 40-year-old virgins out there too; but there’s the horror part of the equation to consider, and I don’t find the switch from movie trivia to sticking a skewer through someone’s liver to be intrinsically frightening (or funny).
Having seen every episode of “Psych”, I’m now aware of just how much character and actor came to resemble each other later on in the show’s run. Curt Smith of Tears For Fears made several appearances in that, and does the soundtrack for this; plus, there’s the episode which was an homage to “April Fool’s Day”, perhaps the greatest horror comedy of all time. In Roday’s writing for “Gravy”, there’s a lot of “Psych” coming through, especially in the Wish brothers and Mimi, who feel like little more than a deranged version of the central three characters from that show, most of the time.
Roday should have probably resisted the desire to put himself and Dule Hill in cameo roles; but he’s got some really strong performances from superstars of alt-comedy (Simpson, Weston, and a cameo-ing Sarah Silverman), and most of the rest of the cast is great too. Kudos especially to Sutton Foster, who takes what could be the straight-person role and gives it some real meat.
Ultimately, though, the movie just tries too hard. It’s so relentlessly trying to shock that by the end, even the grosser events sort of just elicit a shrug, and the ending really doesn’t make a lick of sense, being one of those things that happens in horror movies that would 100% never happen, ever, in real life. Plus, and this is the mortal sin, it’s not really all that funny. There’s some nice jokes in there, sure, but watching it made me remember how tough “Psych” could be to watch when Roday was given full rein, and writer/director on a low-budget comedy is pretty much the definition of full rein. It’s really difficult to do a gore-drench black comedy when most of your cast feel like they’re acting in a sitcom, and I’m not sure this movie pulls it off.
It looks like the movie distributors of the world agreed with me, as this has ended up being picked up by Shout Factory, best known for box sets of old TV shows. But…it’s not terrible, just a bit much. By all means get it via your favourite VOD service, support independent cinema and keep your fingers crossed that someone can marshall Roday’s considerable talent a bit better next time.
Rating: thumbs in the middle