Beside the seaside

Andy Edwards on the magic of the seaside, British horror and making Punch

by Jennie Kermode

Punch
Punch Photo: courtesy of Frightfest

Blue skies. Crowded beaches. The smell of salt air, cheap lager, soggy chips and melting ice cream; the jingle of the arcades and excited voices. Somewhere, there’s a small read-and-white striped tent which children gather eagerly around to watch a puppet show, cheering for a male figure with a swollen nose as he uses a club to beat up his wife and the policeman who comes to investigate – cheering still louder when he is, in turn, eaten by a crocodile. This is how many British people experience the seaside, and it’s a joyous thing – but what happens out of season, when the visitors go away, when the funfair rides and candyfloss stalls close down? This is the setting for Andy Edwards’ latest film, Punch.

It revolves, as you might expect, around the puppet from that little stripey tent, or rather a man dressed up as him, with equally malicious intent. Heroine Frankie (Alina Allison) is back in town after moving away to go to university, and is facing a barrage of questions from locals who complain that she thinks she’s better than them. The mean streak in the film extends far beyond Mr Punch himself, and yet Andy doesn’t intend to be mean-spirited towards such towns or the people who live there year round. They hold a special place in his heart.

“I'm from as far from the sea as it's possible to be,” he says. “I'm from Birmingham. The seaside was always a magical place for me. We went maybe once or twice a year to Weston-super-Mare or Torquay or somewhere like that. They were incredible places to be. But an ex of mine, she went to university in one of these seaside towns and I visited her a few times and it was out of season. That was the first time I'd been to a town like that out season. And, yeah, just the windswept, melancholy, everything is shut...

“It's almost that feeling you get if you walk you into a school or a hospital, somewhere that is normally full of people, and there's nobody else there. It’s strange. Just walking past beach huts and places where you buy sticks of rock and all of those kind of things and arcades and everything, and yet they're all just shut. It had quite a haunting atmosphere, and that's stuck with me ever since.”

Did he go to Punch And Judy shows as a kid?

“I remember seeing them when I was little. It's all very hazy, but I remember seeing one. Obviously they're pretty terrifying, this squeaky-voiced guy beating everybody up. Kids laugh and find it funny when people get hit, but the faces themselves are quite grotesque, so it didn't take much to transform it into a horror character. It wasn't like the Winnie the Pooh where they take this lovable character and completely change it to turn into a horror thing. It was like, yeah, a lot of the horror is there.”

It’s real folk horror, I suggest.

“Yeah, it comes from such a weird tradition. Originally he was Italian and then he came over to the UK and it was a very much a satirical thing for adults at first, before it morphed into this children's entertainment. But even now it's not practiced by that many people. It's almost like a carnival tradition. The guy who operates the puppets is called the professor, and they have to learn how to do the voice. There’s a little piece of metal called a swazzle that goes in your throat and you talk through it and you can quite easy swallow it. It's quite dangerous. It's a tradition passed down through the ages.

“I think there's some weirdness there, some kind of British eccentricity, that there are these people who still learn this skill. We looked into it for doing the film. We were going to have our guy put the thing in his throat and do the voice and it was just too difficult. The Punch voice in the film is a mix of digital effects and our guy doing an impression, but there's no actual swazzle.”

It sounds like it would just be too dangerous to do that whilst being physically active, I say, and he nods. We talk about the way that other characters react his Mr Punch when they see him walking around the streets of the town at night.

“Everything kind of sprang from this idea of the British slasher movie,” he says. “How can we get the structure that you associate with the slasher movie, especially on Halloween, the one night out when you can wander in around in a costume like that, and there are teenagers getting up to no good, and being attacked. But then, yeah, it was that. How would people in reality react? I wanted it to feel very grounded and the characters to feel real rather than like sassy high school teens who know they're in a movie. There's no Scream-style stuff like that going on. I think drunk people would laugh at him at first. He's a ridiculous character. And depending on where you meet Mr Punch, if you meet him on your own down a dark alley, he's probably quite terrifying. But if you're drunk with your mates, then who's this stupid guy with a big red nose?”

That allows for a lot of humour as well, which is important for balancing out the grim aspects of the film.

“Yeah, I mean, it's a balancing act and you're never too sure which way to play it. Obviously, in a comedy horror, you're always going for the jokes. But I wanted it to be scary as well. So you're always trying to go, how far can we push one thing or the other? And the jokes from Mr Punch as well, he says these sort of end-of-the-pier lollipop jokes and that's all part of the seaside thing – Jim Davidson down the end of the pier, kind of. That's where his humour comes from and you maybe laugh at it despite yourself. He's not a funny man. He's trying to be funny.”

There’s a lot of that kind of attempted humour elsewhere in the film, with men shouting out jokes about sausages. That seems to be their way of flirting, shouting at a woman as she walks down the street, and a lot of the women have constantly grim expressions are rarely raise their eyes. I venture that this creates another kind of horror in the film, and he says I’m not the only person to have looked at it that way.

“Before the horror gets going, there's this general kind of chipping away at this lead female character by these sexist men,” he reflects. “I wanted to make it so that Mr. Punch wasn't an anomaly, he’s not just come out of nowhere. He's the product of sexism. He's the product of small town violence. He's kicking out time at 11:00 at night in a small town. That's what Mr Punch is. He's cat calling. That's where he springs from. So it's nothing unusual. He's just all of those bad things personified into a single character. I wanted it to be like the whole world had birthed him, so that was part of that.”

We discuss the generational conflicts in the film. Often in slasher films, I observe, there's a conservative element of morality where young people are seen as behaving in a shocking way and being punished for it, but the young people here feel very human any sympathetic. How did he approach that? They're obviously partying and doing all kinds of irresponsible things, but we feel for them as people.

“The generational thing is 100% a deliberate thing. Often it will be some kind of sins of the past inflicting themselves on the young crowd who don't necessarily want anything to do with that. But I wanted to tie it into the generational conflict that exists right now in this country in terms of things like Brexit and climate change. I think the older generations have to some extent fucked over the younger generations and left them with not a lot of hope in some places, and that was always part of it. So the young, you know, no matter how misguided they are, or maybe how daft they are, they're always trying to improve their situation.

“You've got Frankie, who wants to leave to better herself, but you've got her best friend who's like, ‘No, I'm going to try and stay and improve this town.’ Even the gentrifiers, misguided as they may be in a lot of their attitude, they are trying to make things nice and trying to make things better, whereas the older generation – and Mr Punch is part of that – think ‘Nobody must better themselves or try and leave. Nobody must try and improve the place. We're happy and miserable as we are.’ That's a big part of it.”

We talk about the visual language of the film and the way that elements of nostalgia combine with a sense of loneliness and emptiness and despair.

“I don't want it to come across as mean spirited to anyone who lives in any of those places,” he stresses. “Like I said, I'm from Birmingham, so I still view seaside towns as magical, even in winter. I'm still very excited to see the sea, and I love a tuppenny arcade. I've got a kid now, and we take him to the seaside and he loves the arcade. So I'm not denigrating those places in favour of the big city or anything else. But what I obviously do disagree with is that sense of you can't make this place better.

“We shot most of it in Hastings, which, interestingly enough, is halfway going into a stage of gentrification right now, so next to old, traditional, rougher parts of town or old school seaside attractions, there are various attempts to change the dynamic of the town. So obviously, we avoided all the nice places, pointed the camera at the traditional seaside places that have fallen into a little bit of disrepair.

“Hastings itself has got a little bit of that kind of Pagan edge to it as well. They have the Jack in the Green festival and, yeah, there's just a little air of madness down there. So it was perfect. We had a lovely time there and everyone was super friendly.”

I mention that it reminds me of a conversation I once had with Robin Hardy, in which he told me that he’d found every small British town he visited had some kind of Pagan tradition still going on. Andy nods.

“Yeah. And you don't know until you live there. And that's one of the British things I wanted to bring to the slasher – let's add that little bit of Paganism, that little bit of folk horror, that little bit of weird small town.”

I ask about Edwin Matthews’ sound design, which contributes a lot to the atmosphere.

“I'd worked with Edwin on Ibiza Undead, which we made a few years ago together,” he says. “He kept in touch and then I asked him if he was up for this. And, yes, sound was a big part of how I wanted it to come together, because it can be so evocative. The seagulls and the sea and the amusement arcades and all of that. You can shut your eyes and you could hear all of that. We just sat down together and he came up with some cool ideas. I probably went around to his house once too many times. He was like, ‘Are we not finished yet?’ But we wanted to get it right.

“It’s the same with the score, which comes from Will Gold. He's quite local to the area, and he went and recorded those found sounds: the sounds of the sea and the sounds of arcades and old fairground rides. This mixed in with the score as well. So it's kind of a mix of the score and the sound design. And there's some bits I wanted it to almost be ‘What's score, what's sound design?’ It's all just coming together into a big atmospheric noise collage. Because I think for a slasher movie, it's quite easy to just go, ‘Okay, John Carpenter synths.’ I wanted to avoid that and have some more interesting concerns on the score.”

Last time we spoke like this, Andy was talking about his ambitions for the British film industry, especially around genre filmmaking, and that’s something he remains passionate about.

“I think it is something that we do need to do more of. And I think it is starting to happen,” he says. “We do have a lot of talented people in this country. I think it's a wider problem across the whole British industry, that we don't actually have an industry. As was exposed starkly when we had the strikes in America – we shut down over here because so many productions were relying on American money. We realised how little we actually produced ourselves.”

We discuss current attempts by Hex studios to create a much more organised, interactive industry in Scotland.

“I think that's what we have to do, really,” he says. “Rather than working in our little silos around the country. I think places like Frightfest and the other festivals have got a role to play in that as well, first off by showing British movies and then providing space for everyone to get together. Punch is off to Horror-on-Sea in two weeks, which is a perfect place for it. That was one of the places we looked at shooting in, Southend. And the reason we didn't is because that pier is too long.” He laughs. “We’d be trying to push someone off the end of the pier in one bit, and then we’d think ‘We need another light. Oh, it's a mile back onshore.’

“There'll be a lot of people there, other filmmakers. And I think the more we can work together, share resources, get a name for ourselves and make it clear that British horror has a place in the world, beyond just playing at small festivals – I think we need to make it clear that it's commercially viable. Because the powers that be in British film aren't really massive fans of the genre. It means we've got to go and do it on our own. But I think we can do it.

“If we talk to each other, hopefully we can all go onwards and upwards together. Really, we're not in competition at all. Our job is to raise the profile of British genre filmmaking and try and make something of it. Because horror is big right now. If the larger bodies in British film want to stick their heads in the sand, then that's up to them, but I think we should try and seize this opportunity.”

He spoke before about Mr Punch potentially becoming a franchise character for the UK – so is there going to be a Punch 2?

“If this does well, absolutely!” he says. “I want Punch 2, 3, 4, 5 – however many. Because again, not to denigrate the British film industry too much, but we don't have many franchises. Whereas if you look at what Blumhouse are doing, they're making some big new films and giving Jordan Peele lots of money, but they're still making Insidious 12 and so on. That's their bread and butter, the franchise. We don't really go in for that here. When was the last British horror sequel you can think of?

“The Americans tend to have a success and go, ‘What are you going to do next?’ And they go make ten more of those. Here, we don't have that same sort of commercial mindset. So my hope is that Punch will be successful enough, commercially, to warrant number two and then number three and number four. He's a strong character, I think. And there's a lot more of the punch kind of backstory and history and mythology that I want to explore. But I also think that we could take him outside of that environment and take Punch around the world. And then that becomes then the conflict of Mr Punch being in these different locations.”

I tell him that the other place where I’ve seen Mr Punch is children’s birthday parties.

“We could go to a children's birthday party,” he says, laughing darkly. “I mean, there's lots of possibilities because he's a strong character that everybody recognises. And I'd like to do some historical ones as well, go back, explore the origins of Mr Punch and everything. I feel this is not making a franchise for the sake of it. There's room and there's lots of exciting things to explore and it would be great if we could do that.”

Punch is available on UK digital platforms on 22 January 2024.

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