Yes, while I don’t pretend my horror gay tastes are always of the pretentious variety, I like my fair share of critically acclaimed horror. At the same time, I like my fair share of low brow fodder. Slashers clocking it at under 90 minutes that don’t really add much new to the subgenre but still deliver some interesting kills; zany premises buoyed by unfamous but compelling actors; tropes stitched together with verve and mania. It doesn’t all have to make me think. It doesn’t all have to inspire a 4,000+ word essay from me. But inevitably when watching some of the more pulpy horror films, there comes a moment, about halfway or more into the story, when the action pauses, the monsters quiet, and we’re treated to a round of exposition, to some elaborate backstory explaining Why This Is Happening. Most of the time, it’s overwrought for no reason. Most of the time, it isn’t needed at all.
The latest offender I’ve watched is All Fun and Games, now streaming on Hulu and starring Sex Education‘s Asa Butterfield in a much more demonic role than sweet boy Otis, Natalia Dyer of Stranger Things, Laurel Marsden of Ms. Marvel, and Annabeth Gish of many Mike Flanagan productions. The film makes good on its name initially. It’s all fun! And games! A young boy in the town of Salem mistakenly awakens an old evil by reading the inscription on a knife that eventually leads to his brother (Butterfield) being possessed by a demon who forces the others to play kid games with lethal twists. In a game of hang man, a man is literally hung as he guesses letters. In a game of hide and seek, you get stabbed when you’re found. In a game of red rover, well, having known multiple kids who broke bones while playing in my youth, it’s only slightly more dangerous here than its real life correlation!
The acting is solid, and the goofy premise is fun. It’s not a particularly queer movie, but there’s a spunky teen lesbian who is out from the start: Sophie (Marsden), best friend to Billie (Dyer). She’s going to Smith next year! While being pursued by a game-loving demon with a very cursed knife, I kept hoping this little baby dyke would make it to Smith! The film largely works for fans of Fear Street, even if a lesbian love story isn’t at the center.
Halfway into those fun and games though, we get derailed by that erroneously required backstory. The knife’s curse was spurned by the violence of the Salem witch trials (ever heard of em?). We’ve got a bunch of stuff about a mourning mother, a vengeful son, a town defined by mistrust of one’s neighbors and its dangerous conclusions.
The fact that All Fun and Games is a mere 75 minutes? Love. Much like I’m a fan of short books, I’m a fan of short feature films. The fact that so many of those 75 minutes are eaten up by this journey into the town’s past? HATE.
Perhaps it would be a tad easier to swallow if there were some connection to the present more explicitly made, especially on a thematic or societal level. Perhaps the central siblings’ mother Kathy (Gish) has been persecuted as a financially insecure single mom (the film begins with her having to pick up a graveyard shift) in ways similar to the persecution of accused witches. Fear Street does a fine if heavy-handed job of drawing parallels between the past and present in its mythology, which also falls into tedious territory but at least operates on levels deeper than mere exposition most of the time. All Fun and Games doesn’t use this backstory to complicate or deeper the terrors of its present action. It doesn’t draw connections. It just stabs itself in the foot and then struggles to run towards its finish line after a strong if straightforward opening act.
Butterfield and Dyer in particular make the most of what they’ve been given. The few kills in the film (that’s the other axe I have to grind with a lot of these low brow scary movies; more characters should die!) are done well. If anything, it’s a horror movie to watch while cooking or doing some other activity, so that perhaps you can busy yourself with something else when the backstory begins. I know that probably sounds harsh, and I know I’m holding this film’s feet to the flames for a sin committed by an entire swath of the horror genre, but All Fun and Games really is the most egregious example of unnecessary backstory I’ve seen in a long time! “This knife is cursed because we’re in Salem” would have been all we really needed!