Welcome to Funny Bones, Nightmare On Film Street’s look at horror comedies. Each month, we’ll examine the skeletal structure of a horror-comedy, how the film connects it’s unique brand of funny and creepy, as well as the metaphorical fleshy details laid over that skeleton which bring the movie to life!
The human mind can only take so much before it needs a break. And if it doesn’t get a moment of respite it could shatter and cause someone to start breaking other people’s bones and faces. All this month, the Nightmare on Film Street team is exploring incidents of emotional, mental, and physical breaks in horror. So, it only seems fitting that for this month’s Funny Bones, I take a look at a film set in a toxic work environment where the idea of breaks from work, sanity, and social responsibility take on a whole new meaning. I’m talking about director Joe Lynch’s (Wrong Turn 2: Dead End) 2017 action-horror-comedy Mayhem starring the now Oscar nominated Steven Yeun (for Minari) and Samara Weaving (Ready or Not).
Mayhem takes place in a world where a virus that increases stress levels and disrupts the brain’s ability to balance reason and emotion is raging across the country. This emotional hijacking “Red Eye virus” has lead to important legal precedents. In the film’s cold opening we see what happens when it enters an office board room and through voice over Yeun’s character, a lawyer named Derek Cho, explains how a recent court case has cleared one of the infected of murder and ruled that those suffering from the Red Eye virus can’t control their emotions and aren’t legally liable for what they do.
We’re then taken into Derek’s workplace, Towers and Smythe Consulting; a cut throat, duplicitous, and morally bankrupt law firm. It’s a place where Derek is trying to find success and hold onto his sense of self. When the film begins he’s accomplished the former and failing at the latter. A sudden bad day where he becomes the victim of corporate scapegoating and is fired becomes an opportunity for payback when the Red Eye virus hits Towers and Smythe and the entire building is quarantined for eight hours. So, Derek teams with Melanie Cross (Weaving), a woman who lost her home thanks to the firm’s unscrupulous practices. The two arm themselves with an impressive array of tools and embark on a bloody floor-by floor crusade of vengeance against the cutthroat and now murderously unhinged corporate creeps who’ve wronged them.
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“[Mayhem is] set in a toxic work environment where the idea of breaks from work, sanity, and social responsibility take on a whole new meaning.”
The idea of horror in the workplace, particularly offices, is not a new one. It was on the mind of several film makers in the late 2010s though. 2015 saw the release of director Brian James O’Connell’s horror comedy, Bloodsucking Bastards where a cubicle worker discovers his boss is both a metaphorical and literal nosferatu. Writer James Gunn and director Greg McLean’s The Belko Experiment, where office workers are mysteriously thrust into a game of kill or be killed, hit theaters in 2016. Joe Lynch took a look at writer Mattias Caruso’s script for Mayhem (originally titled Rage) and saw that it was a film that had plenty to say about toxic office culture, but felt the best way to get that message across was by playing up the film’s twisted sense of humor. In a 2017 interview with Collider he revealed that a lot of the inspiration for the film’s tone was the 1980 workplace comedy 9 to 5 starring Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, and Dolly Parton.
The comedy in Mayhem is imbued with the same dark spirit that informed a lot of 9 to 5, but Lynch’s film is more over the top, and of course a lot more bloody. The Red Eye virus makes characters act bizarre, violent, and say the things they’ve always wanted to say. So, workers engage in fisticuffs with each other, a woman make copies of her butt, the head of the firm snorts some Tony Montana levels of blow, and there’s some really funny lines. My favorite involved a very profane expansion of the “dropping the ball” metaphor. Plus, because of the virus a lot of the characters share the same reaction as the audience; they can’t help but be amused by some of the shocking and twisted behavior that’s unfolding around them.
There’s a lot of violence and blood in Mayhem, but no real outright scares. That doesn’t mean there aren’t any horror elements though. The beginning of the film does a great job of establishing the tyrannical and all powerful nature of the law firm’s leadership. Like ancient gods they’re mercurial, dwell above their subjects (in this case on floors protected by access cards), and can strike them down by destroying their livelihood whenever they see fit. It’s also worth noting that Mayhem is an example of pandemic horror. The characters are forced to quarantine and are at the mercy of a rampant virus that turns their ids up to 11.
So, Mayhem is a fun blend of subtle horror, twisted humor, and brutal visceral action. Part of the reason that blend is so effective is the film’s cast of characters and the actors that brought them to life. Derek is a great everyman character who tries to do the right thing even when he’s in the grip of the blood thirsty virus. Plus, like the best action heroes he’s flawed and vulnerable; he gets punched a lot, but keeps on getting up and going. Weaving’s Melanie is a righteous and awesome badass who has some especially great moments and lines when she’s in the grip of the virus. The two leads also have fantastic charisma and chemistry together.
Credit to Lynch for seeing that and for realizing his two leads were movie stars before Hollywood did. Mayhem was Yeun’s first lead film role, and it was released just one month after Netflix’s Babysitter, which put Weaving on the radar of many horror and horror comedy fans.
“[…] Mayhem is a fun blend of subtle horror, twisted humor, and brutal visceral action. Part of the reason that blend is so effective is the film’s cast of characters and the actors that brought them to life.”
Mayhem also features some great supporting characters and actors in villainous roles. Dallas Roberts (The Walking Dead) is great as Lester “The Reaper” McGill, the HR person who does all the firm’s firings. Caroline Chikezie (The Passage) is both funny and slimy as Kara “The Siren” Powell, Derek’s arch-nemesis and the person who got him fired. The best villain though is Steven Brand’s (Teen Wolf) John “The Boss” Towers a vain, egomaniacal coke fiend armed with a golf club.
So, if you’re looking for a film that perfectly captures the essence of Nightmare on Film Street’s Break month check out Mayhem! It’s an excellent blend of over the top comedy, horror, and visceral action where minds, bodies, and schedules are broken in a multitude of ways.
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