Writing for a horror site you get to go to some pretty cool places. But, thus far, none have been so cool as The Old Operating Theatre beside London Bridge. Situated under the vast shadow of The Shard, this museum is the oldest of its kind in Europe. Up a tight, creeky stairs, and through a gift shop, is the main room where we are met with an array of skeletons, slices of brain and scary looking medical equipment. After speaking to my fellow guests for a few minutes it soon becomes apparent the horror press are underrepresented at this screening. This isn’t the usual mix of gorehounds and goths one sees at these events. Nope, this is vlogger territory. For those not of the social media generation vloggers are a community of individuals with cameras, web connections and lots to say. And it’s them that tonight’s main feature playfully mocks and lovingly lampoons in equal measures.
Web allegiances aside though, we’re all here for the world premier of Phillip Human. This takes place up another flight of equally creeky and tight stairs, in the emergency room. Here we sit on traditional wooden benches and are enthusiastically greeted by the creative team. The brain-child of the allegedly popular vlogger Paul Neafcy (it’s not a scene I’m familiar with), this 10 part web series, from Wild Seed Comedy, follows the titular manchild in 6-7 minutes bursts, as he discovers YouTube and seeks out followers. Via a succession of popular trends, such as draw my life videos and cinnamon challenges (don’t ask), he shows us around his unconventional life. Along the way there’s dead animals, hooded cults, crime scene tape and lots of Hellish iconography. Yet it soon becomes clear that he’s oblivious to the terror tropes and is less scared of the dark shadows in his room than he is the possibility of loneliness. Yes, as with his monsterous forefathers, including Frankenstein’s monster or King Kong, all he’s looking for is some genuine human contact: ‘human’ being the operative word. For as the episodes progress, what begins as a light jest mutates into a much more haunting exploration of what the term actually entails as we are gradually fed our host’s tragic backing story. To say more would be to give it away, but its as sad as it is funny.
This combination of horror and hilarity is better realised than in almost any other example I can think of. Whilst some of the punchlines may border on cringe-inducing, the main source of the humour is solid character based comedy. And thankfully Human is an excellent character. A voice for outsiders, Phillip’s loveable, innocent and so endearingly desperate for our approval (as best exemplified by a recurring joke which sees dark revelations followed by a plea for viewer-comments). You’ll regularly laugh and be deeply moved within the same 30 seconds and come the cliffhanger at the end of the last episode be highly invested. The effect is similar to the sort of character Ricky Gervais tried, and ultimately failed, to write in Derek, with the mushy sentimentality replaced by a form that in spite of the fantastical elements manages to stay utterly familiar. Needless to say that throughout I heard vloggers the screen over sighing in empathetic recognition and appreciation of their culture being so well depicted. This balance is in no small part down to the stellar performance of Neafcy who holds 95% of the screen time. Paul is an absolute revelation, boasting excellent comic timing and also accomplished dramatic sensibilities. Even where the gags are derpy or cheap puns, his delivery makes them charming and in the darker second half he sells every hint of loneliness and pathos. Consequently the finished product’s a real emotional journey quite unlike anything you’ll have seen before.
The only problem I can foresee for this series is the constraint of its serialised episodes being released one at a time. While it’s still very accomplished the first half simply isn’t as good as the second, which has more effective humour, is more drama heavy and greater subtlety. Initially building up the character and his mythos Neafcy relies too heavily on dramatic irony as a tool and the core joke initially appears to be laboured. However, the medium likely requires this kind of soft approach for the later sections to carry more weight. Yet I’d wonder if this fragmented approach may unintentionally put some viewers off by misrepresenting the whole picture. To be fully appreciated I think this needs to be experienced in one shot – as with the medically grafted Phillip, this is more than the sum of its parts.