While seemingly at opposite ends of the emotional spectrum, horror and comedy can make for extremely comfortable bedfellows. Laughter and terror are two of the most visceral responses a filmmaker can hope to elicit from an audience and, when traversed correctly, the ground between them can prove dramatically fertile.
Although it skews more towards the funny than the fearsome, Double Date, the debut feature from Benjamin Barfoot, manages to successfully bridge this divide thanks largely to an assured, whip-smart screenplay from writer-star Danny Morgan (who wrote and starred in hit YouTube short Where Did It All Go Ron?, also directed by Barfoot). While comparisons with films such as Shaun of the Dead (2004) and Tucker and Dale Vs Evil (2010) are easy and obvious, they are fair; like the directors of those films, Morgan skilfully mines the entertainment value of outlandish things happening to extremely ordinary people.
Morgan also takes the central role of Jim, an introverted red-headed virgin who, on the eve of his 30th birthday, is persuaded by his loutish mate Alex (Michael Socha) to go out in search of female company. When the pair meet seductive sisters Lulu (Georgia Groome) and Kitty (Kelly Wenham), who immediately agree to join them for a debauched night on the town, they think their luck is well and truly in.
What this pair of wannabe ladykillers don’t know — but we do, thanks to an opening sequence which turns genre convention on its head by showing Lulu and Kitty slaughtering other young men, pleasingly set to the strains of Yazoo’s pop hit Only You — is that this night may be memorable for all the wrong reasons.
That the viewer is in on the sister’s dark secret from the start is part of the film’s charm, the knowledge of their post-date activities bringing an edge of tension and, often, delicious double meaning to the boys romantic bumblings. “They are just girls,” says an unwitting Alex to a nervous Jim. “What’s there to be afraid of?”
The boy’s stupidity is no match for the girls’ sharp seductions — bloodlust being rather more calculating than the hormonal kind — and so much of the resulting action is therefore played for laughs. That is established right from an early scene in which Alex guides Jim through a bar-side pick-up routine via text, hampered both by Jim’s inexperience and some painful auto-correct. (Another stand-out sequence involves Jim, unknowingly high on drugs laced in his drink, visiting his parents for some birthday cake and a silent one-man dance off in their living room.)
This laddy bromance is, however, underpinned by real feeling, Morgan’s screenplay mining the vulnerable, emotional heart of this adult male friendship. The naturalistic performances and genuine chemistry between the boys is helped along by swathes of excellent improvisation — Shane Meadows alumnus Socha proves himself a master of the expertly-delivered one-liner — and their infectious charm gives the film a momentum that’s further propelled by Goat’s pulsing score.
A sequence in which the foursome visit Alex’s deadbeat dad (a perfectly-pitched cameo from Dexter Fletcher) in his trailer, ostensibly to borrow his car, gives the loutish Alex the chance to showcase some emotion of his own, as he is sweetly affectionate towards the father he is so obviously embarrassed by. Equally importantly, Morgan resists the urge to turn the hapless Jim into a wannabe action hero; there’s always the sense that these are just normal guys trying to have fun, get laid… and, ultimately, survive.
As the female players of this quartet, Groome and Wenham give animated performances, in spite of their characters being far more broadly sketched. Groome is quietly expressive as the more reserved thinker Lulu, whose connection with Jim is the catalyst for a change of heart and a shift in loyalties. Wenham is mesmerising as femme fatale Kitty, whose poised persona is at odds with her hobbies of bloody murder and satanic rituals — which, as we finally discover when Jim heads down to the basement, are all designed to reanimate the corpse of the girls’ beloved, and very dead, daddy.
And it’s Wenham who is given the film’s best scene, after Alex finally makes it into Kitty’s bedroom to discover that, he is, in fact, her intended victim. As the pair engage in an ultra-long, ultra-violent deathmatch, Alex is initially concerned with hitting a girl but Kitty proves more than equal opposition. It’s a masterfully choreographed, cathartic sequence, and a treat to see a strong female character allowed both to fight and be fought with.
That Double Date hinges on this literal battle of the sexes means that it could easily have fallen into cliche quicksand. But the film’s knowing wit and energetic pace ensure it sidesteps any thematic quagmire to become a breezy, enjoyable slice of British genre cinema; not to mention a biting cautionary tale about the modern dating scene.
UK release: October 13, 2017
This review was originally published in Sight & Sound, November 2017