Review: Israeli-American Domestic Horror Comedy ‘Happy Times’

Michael Mayer presents a traditional family gathering gone horribly wrong in the upcoming Happy Times, a raucous horror-comedy that follows his 2012 gay-themed drama Out in the Dark. With gradually mounting tension and increasingly outlandish proceedings, Mayer crafts a wild fast-paced ride.

Happy Times centres on an Israeli-American family gathered for a Shabbat dinner at a luxury Hollywood Hills mansion. A fusion of alcohol, frosty relationships, family drama, sexual tension, and egos at bursting point lead to events culminating a ferocious violent showdown.

Filmed in a blend of Hebrew and English, Mayer and co-writer Guy Ayal take a familiar premise of a family gathering and push it to new extremes in a manic, outlandish fashion. Playing with hot-headed Israeli stereotypes and a wealth of chaotic personas allow the filmmakers to craft a watch that proves hugely entertaining for viewers as tension mounts and proceedings get increasingly gory and unorthodox.

Michael (Michael Aloni) and Aliyah (Stéfi Celma) are our gateway into the family – the two slight outsiders, aspiring actor Michael and his girlfriend Aliyah, are invited to this Shabbat dinner with the intention of making an excuse and sharply escaping. Their car being blocked by Maor (Daniel Lavid) gives some hint that this exit will not be going to plan. As Mayer and Amal introduce us to the ensemble of characters – we see they are a rather unpleasant mixture of self-obsessed, slightly racist, or wholly judgemental. The writers clearly have an enjoyable time with the lingering set-up with tension mounting at the dinner table when conversations regarding female roles as mothers, money and wealth, and religion all are raised. Mayer shoots this in a static claustrophobic fashion ensuring we are not allowed to escape that dinner table.

The ensemble rise to the occasion with a ferocious sense of over the top fun that this family feuding allows. Liraz Chamami is massively enjoyable to watch as frustrated matriarch attempting to keep the awry family gathering under her tight control. Iris Bahr delivers a playful humour as her sexually frustrated friend, charged-up by the handsome Maor, whilst Michael Aloni’s leading man keeps proceedings convincing with an impressive sense of both comic timing and action credibility.

After the first forty-five minutes of mounting tension and sharp yet humorous character drama, Happy Times veers into Ready or Not Style survival horror. Character’s existing relationships and bonds seem second to heated egos and chaotic outbursts as events turn into a domestic Battle Royale with household objects transferred into weapons of destruction and survival of the fittest being the only thing on anyone’s minds. Mayer’s direction becomes fast-paced and sharp delivering moments of carefully constructed horror with this site originally intended for family joy turning into a deadly warzone. The characters make the transition from expected family archetype roles to cold-blooded killers, which gives Happy Times a manic, surreal edge.

Even in these moments of grisly exploitative action, Happy Times retains its sense of manic humour. Finding joy in the overinflated Israeli stereotypes – to the point of bringing a Rabbi into the events – keeps things well-intentioned and refreshingly silly.

Happy Times is an impressively constructed fusion of family-farce, survival-thriller, and grisly horror. Well-pitched humorous performances that verge on the right balance of camp and chaotic ensure that Happy Times is ferociously fun ride.

Happy Times is be released  on DVD, Blu-ray and streaming platforms this February 9th.