The new film Shaky Shivers opens in medias res: two friends, Lucy and Karen, drive up to abandoned camp site (Camp Happy Bear, to be precise), and sit in their car, waiting for one of them to turn into a werewolf. They bicker nervously and trade barbs as the full moon rises. One of them brought a small canon of a pistol to shoot the other in case it happens, but they both forgot the silver bullets. Suddenly something's at the door. The gun is fired. It hits its mark. The relief is joyous, at least for one of them, until a low growl comes from the other side of the cab, and she turns to see…
Then a title card: "The day before." And we backtrack in time to see what brought Lucy and Karen to this place. What unfolds from there is a brisk, confident comedy directed by Sung Kang and featuring a motley troupe of characters.
But it all comes down to Lucy (Brooke Markham) and Karen (Vyvy Nguyen), two pals who work at the local Dairy Queen-style Friendly Freeze. They resist the idea that they're losers, staying in their hometown after high school and not fulfilling their potential, from a snarky rival classmate. Their specialty is the Shaky Shivers drink (hence the title). Enter a feral woman in a dirty shift who looks to have tree branches growing out of every orifice. Karen (the accommodating one) seeks to accommodate, while Lucy (the feisty one) gets in the crazy lady’s face, until a hand that has teeth (!) darts out and bites her and sends her into a black void. She comes to at Camp Happy Bear, where she and Karen bonded in childhood, buck naked except for handcuffs, the steering wheel of her car hanging off the other end of them.
And so forth.
Comedy is tough these days. It's being scrutinized, shaken for change, canceled, and tweaked to contemporary sensitivities, until new forms emerge. It ain't easy to get a laugh anymore. I'm happy to report that this small film slips very well into a new form. Shaky Shivers is funny. I laughed out loud, which I hardly ever do at films that pass for "comedies."
Don't get me wrong: Shaky Shivers isn't a knee-slapping laff riot. Its humor is subtler than that, and more subversive. The jokes sneak up on you, and usually grow out of character. They have a "did I just hear that?" quality.
Shaky Shivers has an appealing pokiness about it, not least due to its leads. They trade quips, complain, and come with razor-sharp cultural references and a willingness to entertain. Credit the script, written by Andrew McAllister and Aaron Strongoni, for that, and Ms. Markham's and Ms. Nguyen's snappy delivery. They are deadpan and true to character. This being a horror film as well, and incorporating everything from the Undead to Bigfoot, certain clichés—brain eating, zombie transforming, pagan cults—must be honored. But the principals do it with endearing grace and wonderful comic timing.
Sung Kang, the director, is Korean-American and known for his acting roles in the Fast & Furious series and Justin Lin's Better Luck Tomorrow. This is his first directorial effort. He and scriptwriters McAllister and Strongoli are deep into fandom here, tapping into their affection for '80s movies, a la Netflix's Stranger Things. But together they have a loose and amiable style.
The cast is a mix of veteran actors and newcomers. Brooke Markham, who plays Lucy, has done some TV like Beyond the Dark. Vyvy Nguyen has been on Young Sheldon. Both are comic finds. Herschel Sparber plays their boss, Bob, and has been on TV’s Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, as well as The Birdcage. Jimmy Bellinger (TV's Shameless and the film Blockers) has a cool turn as their workmate Eric, and Erin Daniels plays the "crazy old lady," a.k.a. Mama Nature, and has been on The L Word: Generation Q. Skyler Day is their nemesis (TV's Parenthood and Law and Order). Danielle Weeks has been on Will & Grace. And isn’t that Sung Kang himself in a cameo as the mysterious lothario Roger Bang?
It looks like the filmmakers had access to an abandoned camp and improvised and shot the thing over a weekend. That’s what I mean by "pokey." Its moves are odd and illogical, and the fun is in anticipating what will happen next. It takes itself just seriously enough that when the goofiness hits, it hits the sweet spot. You have the distinct feeling of being in on the joke.
Shaky Shivers. Directed by Sung Kang. 2022. From Cineverse Releasing. 82 minutes. On DVD and VOD.