It’s not much of a gig for Myles Park (Steve Vanderzee) being the opening act for a Hollywood sell-out trying to return to his stand-up roots to prove he is more than just a guy making bad movies for the money. But it takes place in a real theater and that sure beats telling jokes to drunks in crappy comedy clubs. And who knows? Maybe it will be the start of something big for Myles’ stand-up career.
Until the bodies start piling up backstage.
Written and directed by Jeremy Berg (Holiday Hell), The Last Laugh is a blend of mystery and mayhem fueled by a fabulous location, strong performances, and, thanks to FX wizard Lisa van Dam-Bates, some excellent practical effects.
Besides a brief opening to give the story some background, the action of The Last Laugh all takes place in the hours leading up to the big show, from the time Myles first walks into the lobby of the gorgeous Pantages Theatre (the film was shot on location at the actual theater in Tacoma, Washington) to the moment before the curtains part for the show to begin. It gives the film an effective combination of time constraint and claustrophobia that is never directly referred to but is nevertheless felt by the viewers as they watch the story unfold.
A story like The Last Laugh could probably take place in a thousand different locations — even the seedy comedy club from the start of the film — and still be effective, but having a classic theater like The Pantages as the setting adds so much to the texture of the film. From the opening shot of Myles entering the theater, a tracking shot eerily reminiscent of Jack Nicholson crossing the lobby of The Overlook Hotel in The Shining, to the labyrinth of halls, dressing rooms, and various theatrical departments behind the stage, Berg uses the theater as more than just a cool looking background for his cast to perform before. It’s a bit of a cliche to say he makes The Pantages a character in the movie; and it’s not entirely accurate because the building doesn’t ‘do’ anything to propel the action along. But the theater, it’s haunting backstory, and all the theatrical traditions and superstitions that come with it all add levels of intrigue and intensity to the film.
The supporting cast all do a great job of ‘acting’ as if they work at the theater, too, whether it’s the frustrated theater director Donna (Angela DiMarco) or Bethany (Meranda long) the young stagehand who is the unofficial historian of all the spooky stories from the theater’s past, there is a sense of camaraderie among the cast that anyone with any experience in the theater world will immediately recognize. Berg does an excellent job of keeping the camera, and the story, moving in and around the various stagehands to capture that sense of pre-show energy that builds an underlying tension into the story.
Of course, if this was just a story of a comic getting his big break, you wouldn’t be reading about it at gruesomemagazine.com. There’s a killer at the heart of The Last Laugh and it’s both the best and the worst thing about the movie. Here’s why. While he’s a pretty funny guy on stage, Myles Parks is a mess in real life because of a horrific event that happened in his recent past. He’s on some sort of meds to repress the memories and let him lead a ‘normal’ life, but his manager has been pressuring him to stop taking them because in his opinion he was funnier before he started taking them. If not taking his meds makes Parks suffer some horrible delusions, the manager explains to him, then it’s worth the price if it makes him more successful. Berg and Vanderzee, with the help of van Dam-Bates’ FX expertise (especially with movie blood), create some pretty horrific images to illustrate what Parks is going through. And it’s scary to think as you watch that maybe the next one they show you will be real after all.
There is also a real killer in The Last Laugh, a mysterious figure in a black robe and mask who wields a very large hunting knife. They’re nothing particularly scary, or even original, about the look of the killer — think of the Scream killer with a more theatrical mask — but the kills themselves are fun to watch, mostly because of van Dam-Bates’ effects.
And so the tension builds. Who is the killer? Is there a killer? Is Parks imagining it all — he’s the only one who has seen any of the bodies — or is he behind it all? Some of the story threads tie together nicely as the film wraps up, like the explanation behind Park’s personal problems, and some don’t. The ultimate ending will have viewers either cheering or jeering depending on how they feel about the last laugh of The Last Laugh being played on them.
- John Black, Last Laugh