Broken Lizard’s Club Dread

(2004)

by Matt Wedge, Managing Editor

If you’ve ever stumbled across a notorious critical and commercial bomb on cable and thought, Hey, this isn’t so bad, this is the column for you. Each month, we’ll examine a new failed film that’s worth a second look.

It’s so dreadful you want to bash its disagreeably unfunny characters with a club. — David Germain, Associated Press

Broken Lizard’s Club Dread, a horror spoof set on a tropical island, is about as funny as malaria. — Desson Thomson, Washington Post

…the film lays out its standard wares with the weariness of an overworked street vendor: a topless female here, a scatological gag there, a hip movie reference somewhere else. — Dave Kehr, New York Times

The naïveté with which the Broken Lizard comedy troupe approached Club Dread, the followup to their surprise sleeper hit Super Troopers, is almost endearing. Apparently unaware that audiences and critics expected more of the same good-natured hijinks of that film, they went in a completely different direction. Not only did they choose to do a film that was neither a straight slasher film nor a spoof, each member of the troupe changed their personas to play a character that was a complete 180-degree turn from their characters in Super Troopers. The result was a film that was funny without going for the obvious jokes that the Scary Movie franchise had already poached numerous times over. But critics bashed its straight-faced approach to comedy and audiences stayed away in droves, turned off by bad word-of-mouth that the film was just as much a horror film as it was a comedy.

The film is set on Pleasure Island, a resort near Costa Rica owned by Coconut Pete (Bill Paxton). Pete is a burned-out, Jimmy Buffet-style rock star from the ’70s whose music glorified drug use, booze, and a relaxed island lifestyle. Cashing in on his famously hedonistic lifestyle (one of the better recurring gags in the film are his album and song titles like “Seas Shanties and Wet Panties”), Pete has created a resort where people can come to get drunk, laid, and stoned with no one to judge them.

Operating as the staff are the members of the Broken Lizard troupe. Lars (Kevin Heffernan) is the new masseur, a rabid Coconut Pete fan who is so skilled with his hands he can make people urinate by touching them with one finger. Sam (Erik Stolhanske), is the “fun police” — a glorified activities director who walks around with a super-soaker filled with tequila. Putman (Jay Chandrasekhar) is a dweeby tennis instructor with a forced British accent and ridiculous dreadlocks. Dave (Paul Soter) is the DJ, which means he’s also in charge of the drug supply for the island. Juan (Steve Lemme) is the perpetually shirtless diving instructor who butchers the English language with his inability to pronounce a soft G.

In addition to the usual suspects are Jenny (Brittany Daniel), the fitness instructor, and Yu (Lindsay Price), whose job is ill-defined, marking her as one of the potential early victims when a killer, dressed in a poncho and wearing an ancient Mayan mask, starts hacking up background staff members with a machete. Or could Yu be not a victim, but the killer?

That’s the kind of movie that Club Dread is. It understands the clichés of the slasher genre, acknowledges them in a manner that’s less-than-winking, and sometimes follows through on them, while veering wildly from the norm in other instances. While the film is more concerned with mining the territory for comedy, it is still an effective game of whodunit, with the answer actually surprising me, but leaving me satisfied because the script and direction never cheats — something many straight slasher flicks can’t claim.

Interestingly, though the film does base much of its humor in slasher stereotypes, it refreshingly draws just as many laughs from character moments. A scary campfire story that doubles as exposition finds an unexpected visual punchline with the idiotic Putman stealing Dave’s thunder. Sam deciding to take the “fun” out of his fun police title and become the face of law and order during the murders, is far funnier than it should be. Pete’s simmering resentment towards his fans that is just barely held down by his constant inebriation finds him lashing out at a girl who asks him to sing “Margaritaville.” In one of the best lines in the film, he refers to Jimmy Buffet as a “Son of a son of a bitch!”

Obviously, the comedy is helped along by the fact that the troupe has great chemistry together and write to their personalities. But the supporting cast is full of ringers that know how to sell a joke. Paxton predictably mugs for the camera as the over-the-top Pete, but his paranoia as the film becomes increasingly violent is played seriously. Daniel brings a knowing smirk to the promiscuous Jenny that makes her thankless straight-woman role more entertaining than it should be. Between Club Dread and her recurring role as a transsexual on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, I really don’t understand why she doesn’t get more comedic work. Even Jordan Ladd, M.C. Gainey, and Samm Levine score big laughs as potential suspects in minimum screen time.

But beyond just functioning as joke delivery vessels, the Broken Lizard members show a surprising amount of versatility when compared to what they did in Super Troopers. In that film, with the exception of Heffernan’s over-the-top turn as the precinct jerk, all the members of the troupe shared the same laid-back, jovial personality. In Club Dread, they each create completely different characters with their own personalities. Even more impressive is the fact that, except for Chandrasekhar’s ridiculous Putman, each actor plays their character as fully-formed human beings. Even Lemme’s potentially offensive Latino stereotype comes across as a sweet, decent guy who just so happens to harbor some dark secrets about his past. Surprisingly, Heffernan displays a leading-man quality that belies his doughy physique and silly introduction. This ability to play their characters straight while still garnering laughs lends the film a surprising amount of verisimilitude.

I think this focus on creating unique, individual characters speaks to the troupe’s desire to create a “real” movie, and not just another slasher spoof. Unfortunately, coming after the end of the Scream trilogy and in the middle of the execrable Scary Movie series, they were late to the party. Even worse, they refused to play the genre trappings for the most obvious jokes. Whether critics and audiences went into the film expecting signs to be held up announcing where the jokes were and what they were gently spoofing, or the terrible marketing, Club Dread tanked. It’s a true shame because it’s funnier than all the Scary Movies put together (not to damn the film with faint praise) and a more effective skewering of genre expectations than the Scream sequels. It’s a film that never fails to entertain, something that’s definitely worth rediscovering.

Matt Wedge is a writer and film critic currently doing time in the suburbs of Connecticut.

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