An unassuming seaside town in southern England is thwacked, whomped, and clobbered by the resurgence of an enigmatic, squeaky-voiced, no-nonsense killer who brandishes a club to brutally execute his victims. Mr. Punch sends his regards.

Punch (2023) is a new assault on the senses from prominent horror director Andy Edwards (Ibiza Undead, Midnight Peepshow), in which he not only crafts a tight, memorable cult flick but audaciously transposes the American slasher icon a la Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, Ghostface onto uniquely British cultures, genealogies and sentiments. The slasher film’s consistent track record of acting as a mouthpiece for a movement rears its head here: Mr. Punch, from the classic British puppet show Punch and Judy, represents the evil fragments of a divided contemporary Britain.

 

Punch (2023)

Frankie (Alina Allison) yearns for a life beyond pebbled beaches littered with washed-up hopes and dreams. Before heading back to university, she indulges in one last night out in her hometown with loyal friend Holly (Faye Campbell) and on/off boyfriend Daryl (Macaulay Cooper). The drinks are not the only thing that’s flowing, however, as anyone who stands in Mr. Punch’s way is in danger of swiftly being served one big knock-out club sandwich. Punch and Judy’s cultural standing is fascinating, and begs the question: why hasn’t anyone re-interpreted it sooner? Punch may be the answer to that question. At once Punch and Judy manages to be a puppet show that has entertained children and adults with its slapstick comedy since the Victorian era, but simultaneously acts as an old-fashioned and outdated tale littered with awkward depictions of domestic abuse and misogyny.

Edwards’ Punch attempts to spin a modern twist onto a problematic classic, with decidedly mixed results. This iteration of Mr. Punch channels the comic nature of the show’s origins-delivering a fistful of snarky quips before enacting his gruesome murders. The maniacal singing of the classic British tune “Oh how I love to be beside the seaside…” and the delivery of imaginative puns like “Are you a piece of cod? Because you’re about to get battered!” will clinch belly laughs from horror buffs as Mr. Punch’s cruel yet admittedly funny lexicon reminds one of Freddy Krueger in the A Nightmare on Elm Street series.

 

Punch (2023)

The murders are offset by the toothy grin of Mr. Punch’s mask, and his painfully squeaky voice that is way too distorted, rendering him incomprehensible most of the time. The feelings of deliriousness one might contract from the graphic deaths is short-lived. His choice of victims lapses into the same vices that make Punch and Judy so unappealing to contemporary sentiments, be that the drunk hen party he randomly murders, or, in one particularly stylized and shamefully gratuitous scene, gay men at a rave. One could argue that Mr. Punch’s preference to eliminate the vulnerable is part of a wider commentary on an ugly post-Brexit Britain preying on those who are different, supported by the image of Mr. Punch riding in a police vehicle later on in the film. This violence is seen to fester into the authority figures of our society that we are supposed to trust. It plays out in a similar vein to James Watkins’ Eden Lake in this respect: cleverly inviting ties between traditional ideas of Britishness and sickly collective violence to outsiders. However, you cannot have both, and some sequences do leave an unsavoury taste in one’s mouth.

The discourses around Punch as an allegory can only go so far. It seems that a fleshed-out examination of contemporary British society is sacrificed ahead of the central narrative surrounding Frankie, which is often unengaging. The first act, for example, is replete with stiff and unconvincing dialogue, where we are crucially told all of the film’s subtext, instead of being shown what is happening. This treatment of the audience is disappointing considering the thematic weight Punch undoubtedly possesses.

 

Punch (2023)

The entire film is shot on location, providing a charm that only independent cinema can deliver. Arcades, chip shops, pubs, boat yards: all admirably authentic. A particularly evocative moment comes when, after another brutal murder, we see Mr. Punch, soundtracked by the foreboding score, cleaning his murder weapon in the crashing waves of the ocean before traversing the beach… gunning for some clubbing. Whilst there are undoubtedly impressive stylistic flourishes in key murder sequences, the film’s cinematography is rather uninspired. Edwards cannot amount the wintry seaside landscapes into anything truly meaningful. The countless aerial shots of an empty beach or surrounding area that appear between most sequences are amateurish and halt the rhythm of the narrative.

Kierston Wareing (Fish Tank, Eastenders) who plays Frankie’s mum, and Jamie Lomas (Hollyoaks, Eastenders), who plays her boyfriend Elton, bring necessary star-power and experience to the cast. Drafted in to essentially play caricatures of their star image, and putting the glaringly obvious trajectories of their characters aside, the duo’s intensity, especially in the final act, is gripping. The performances from the trio of youngsters are more-than-serviceable with Allison’s Frankie shining the brightest on her feature film debut.

 

Punch (2023)

There are no Punch-es pulled in Andy Edwards’ unique vision of the Punch and Judy puppet show as a fully-fledged slasher flick. It is a brave attempt at allegorising modern Britain that misses the mark by contradicting itself, firstly undermining its social criticism with its distasteful choice of victims and secondly failing to execute lofty ambitions with flavourless visual storytelling. Nevertheless, those who are yearning for an inventive new horror figure with bone-cracking, head-caving one-liners… look no further than Punch (2023) to satisfy your cravings for blood-curdling chaos!

Punch (2023) is available to watch digitally now 

This article was provided to Grimoire of Horror by Cameron Smith

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