Sewer Robot on Comedy Horror
Comedy Horror, eh? It’s bleedin’ everywhere nowadays. In movies, in those comics your kids buy, even on proper, non-satellite, tv channels. But has its ubiquity blinded us to fact that this marriage of genres is an ill bred abomination? I mean, I like sitting at home at my “table” and I also enjoy a vigorous game of “tennis”, but that doesn’t mean I can just bolt these two words together to produce a game involving tennis-style skills that can be played indoors on a waist-high wooden surface.
The poet Patrick Kavanagh has a line about the newness that was in every stale thing when we looked at it as children. True dat – but it’s also true that there were loads of things we encountered as kids which, though of fairly recent vintage, we, in our stupid innocence, assumed had been around forever.
Chuckle worthy beasties were ubiquitous in the culture when we were kids. “Over He-e-e-r-e” were Scooby and Shaggy hiding from ghosts in the pantry, over there was Creature Teacher and the other assorted ghouls of Monster Fun comic. We bought gum containing cards where the black and white monsters from old RKO films cracked one liners. Come Halloween we’d laugh through our own plastic fangs as the elastic snapped on our friends’ sweaty masks.
That night was a perfect example of how the most nonsensical and unlikely mishmash of Paganism, Christian Hell fetish and figures from Hollywood movies could seem a perfectly reasonable thing to someone born the day before yesterday.
Between those gum cards, The Munsters and Monster Fun, stiff-of-walk geezers with stitches and bolts through their neck were just the silliest.
And then on tv one night I saw the trailer for the original black and white Frankenstein movie and I was terrified.
So, how thoroughly undignified was it that, a very short time later, I saw Karloff repeat the role, this time playing against Abbott and Costello for laffs.
At the same time we were laughing at various silly onscreen spooks, we also got to hear the grisly fairy tales of a previous century – stories about the sinister Pied Piper and kids getting baked in an oven. These grim tales of the pre-pictures era were presented Poe-faced. If you were looking for humor it would be the image of the wolf dressed Red Riding Hood’s granny’s nightie with his sparkling row of great big teeth.
The old stuff was genuinely scary, as stories read, or read to you, allowed the possibility to amplify the scary details with the darkness of your imagination, like the way you became paralyzed with fear every time the shadows in your bedroom turned into scary monsters and super creeps..
So, if pure horror is perfectly realized in the mind’s eye, can we explain the rise of comedy horror by the limitations of visual effects..? Growing into adolescence I began to appreciate the heaving bosoms of Hammer and Amicus, but – hey! – that bat is on a string, the Wolf Man always seems to conveniently disappear offscreen mid-transformation and I’ve seen enough blood to know it doesn’t look like that… (the ketchuppy blood problem makes one think Frankenstein was so scary precisely because it was in black and white).
It would be fair to say that Hammer/ Amicus cranked them out, and such a production line mentality meant cheaper effects, formulaic plots and constantly reusing sets. And they weren’t alone in that respect, for much of its history horror has been seen as “b (or even “c”) grade” material and made as cheaply as possible to maximize turnover.
Formulas are suspense killers: once people know what to expect they are unlikely to be surprised and consequently less likely to be genuinely scared.
And anything with a recognizable formula is open to being lampooned, so another British cinematic production line – home to Jim Dale, Kenneth Williams and Joan Sims, brought the world Carry On Screaming. It’s one of their best, having an actual (and quite novel) plot, decent make up and mise en scène and fistbitingly fabulous Fenella Fielding is quite literally smoking.
The Carry Ons were just a series of tableaux into which our familiar cast inserted their double entendres so the scenario in Carry On Screaming is just a “situation” for comedy like any other.
But while it’s easy to see how you can employ horror in your comedy (really that’s what’s happening in Munsters/Monster Fun etc), shoehorning comedy into your horror – that’s another thing entirely.
A simple way is to use the limited effects for laughs – for example, the zombie cat wrestling scene in Re-animator.
Sometimes the makers of horror find some deliciously nasty wicked wit in their tales of torture. One thinks of Vincent Price’s revenge on dismissive critics in Theatre Of Blood, such as Robert Morley being presented with a plateful of his beloved poodles to eat.
Sometimes the inherent camp is amplified (Camplified, if you like) as in the Dr Phibes films.
These films also star Vincent Price, an actor with a gift for walking the comic-horror tightrope.
Because the real trick with this genre is getting the tone right.
Although, getting it wrong can be unintentionally hilarious: you would need a heart of stone not to explode with laughter at the notorious final “shock” in The Mist.
The scene in Planet Terror, where a lady leaves her kid in the car with a gun telling him to be careful with it, only to hear it go off before she’s taken ten steps is no more funny just because it’s meant to be funny.
If you want to set the tone there’s nothing like a daft pun title, try Chopping Mall or Zombeavers. And, proving – à la the Free As A Bird hitmakers – that having a sh*t pun in your title doesn’t necessarily mean an absence of quality, (indeed perhaps the contrary) there’s Shaun Of The Dead.
There’s a scene in the middle of SOTD where Shaun’s group, while sneaking through some gardens, encounter another similar assortment of people coming the other way. This idea, that there are other perspectives and we could just as easily be watching their movie has great comic potential.
Aaah! Zombies (a.k.a.) Wasting Away is a zombie film from the perspective of newly-turned Zombies who think everyone else has gone crazy. Clues to their situation emerge gradually:
“Hey. Are you ……eating that guy’s brains?” etc.
What We Do In The Shadows presents, documentary style, the practical difficulties of maintaining a vampiric existence in the contemporary suburban world rather than in lofty past-century castles in places ending in -ania.
In Tucker And Dale Versus Evil, teenagers with an acquired but unfounded fear of woods dwellers manage to kill themselves one by one while the woodsmen remain amusingly perplexed by their behaviour, guessing drugs must be involved somehow.
A further comic trick is to have more and more ridiculous sources of terror.
In another film from New Zealand, ovine horror Black Sheep, features the tag line “The Violence Of The Lambs”. Jennifer Aniston’s first movie credit was in the film Leprechaun (Top O The Mourning To Your Next Of Kin!)
Chucky, the killer DOLL from the Child’s Play movies became a controversial figure when he was cited (by, presumably, otherwise sensible people) as influencing several real life murders, including in the case of Jamie Bulger.
While there is no real evidence that onscreen violence is a cause of real life harm, the trajectory of the Chucky character is an interesting one. Film studios nowadays love franchises, so in many cases what might have been seen as the natural narrative of horror – regular people being placed in peril before ultimately emerging safe – which provides both the spine tingling thrills of terror and the catharsis of overcoming it, has had to take a back seat to keeping the monster available for possible sequels.
When the regular people are being killed off but the monster keeps returning, well then the monster is the star of the film. And that, in turn, means we begin to identify with him. And one way to do that is to give him more comedic one liners. As the Child’s Play series progresses, “Child’s Play” disappears from the titles and they become the “Chucky” films. The Nightmare On Elm Street films exercise a little more restraint title wise, but the posters for every one leave you in no doubt who is the star from film 2 on.
Robert Englund’s comic chops enable the transformation of Freddie Krueger into Freddie Star, a charismatic, wisecracking (almost) antihero whose continued presence, movie after movie, somehow becomes less threatening and just …silly.
In turn, this kind of how-far-can-you-stretch-it silliness (Freddie. Versus Jason! In space!), added to the ever-present phenomenon of cheaply made and formulaic horror and the rise of a cine-literate and smartarse audience has led to the phenomenon of “hate watching” horror for kicks.
Nightmare On Elm Street guy Wes Craven addressed this in the self-aware classic Scream. Here, the plot is based on following as well as cleverly undermining the established rules and tropes of slasher films, as explained in one expository scene by a geeky video store know-it-all (who we are actually meant to like). These kids know better than to investigate the noise in the cellar as they’ve seen the films. In fact, one of the characters says that if they make a movie of this she hopes she won’t be played by Tori Spelling. In Scream 2 they make are making a movie about the events in the first film and Tori Spelling is in it.
Scream 2 opens with a framing scene of a black couple watching the new scary movie and bemoaning the fate of black characters in slasher films. They are almost immediately killed by ol’ Ghostface.
Wes Craven is happy to acknowledge the way his horror audience and how they experience these films has evolved, but, in Scream, he is also demanding respect for his ability to scare us. And to surprise us – as with the fate of poster girl and assumed star Drew Barrymore.
Despite containing their own critique, the Scream films begat the Wayans brothers’ largely forgettable Scary Movie trilogy. Really, how do you outdo a film which has a girl killed after failing to escape through a catflap?
Pastiche ain’t what it used to be. In 1974 Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder gave the world perhaps the masterpiece of comedy horror, Young Frankenstein. This film uses a largely authentic recreation of the atmosphere of the black and white classics as a launchpad for absurd, physical and verbal gags, brilliantly utilizing the unique comic qualities of Wilder, Marty Feldman and Madeline Khan and extracting note perfect performances from Cloris Leachman, Peter Boyle and Teri Garr.
The same reverence for its sources and attention to detail is found in much of Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton’s Inside No 9 series.
This is never more effective than in series 1 closer The Harrowing, when the twin classic tropes of teenagers half-afraid of creepy weirdo neighbours and campy OTT vampires in a mundane and restricting domestic setting come together in an unhappy ending. (Mind, it’s belly laughs almost all the way ‘til the end).
Back in the day, if you wanted to leave a theatre having been terrified to your wits’ end and had some hearty chuckles, then the film for you was An American Werewolf In London. John Landis and his team got the effects so spot on that they transformed not just cinema but the history of pop music too, while Griffin Dunne’s fantastic deadpan (SWIDT) performance as the decomposing werewolf victim Jack provides the delicious black humour.
While Wes Craven was happy to expose and mess with the tropes of horror for Scream, in The Cabin In The Woods, Joss Whedon deconstructs the premise behind all teen slasher films. It’s clever, but it’s also very funny as the bureaucracy behind the facilitation of evil is revealed. Hey! It’s just like your job. They have a sweep on which monsters will be unleashed by the hapless victims. “I really wanted to see a Merman”, says office drone. Half an hour later he is eaten by a Merman.
And, in a useful message to the youth of America, the only one of the kids not confused by the brainwashing gas of sinister behind-the-scenes forces is the one who brought his own stash and travel mug bong.
‘Course, if you were playing Only Connect with the clues “Horror”, “Comedy” and “Cabin In The Woods”, your first thought would probably be Ashley Williams from the Evil Dead movies and tv spinoff.
It was recently announced that the current, third series of Ash v Evil Dead will be the last, which means we may be approaching the end of a comedy horror era, when Bruce Campbell hangs up his chainsaw for good.
In many ways that bizarre mixture we call comedy horror has justified its existence by giving this man (on and off) work for forty years.
Here’s hoping he took the news of the show’s cancellation on the chin..