Dead Funny: How Do Horror Comedies Work?

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If you’re not already excited for the 2014 Sundance darling Cooties, you really should be. Leigh Wannell, of Saw and Insidious fame, wrote the screenplay. Wannell stars alongside Jack McBrayer, Elijah Wood and Rainn Wilson as teachers attempting to survive in a school infected by a violent zombie virus. Maybe Nasim Pedrad will come off funnier on the silver screen than she typically does on SNL (she’s in the cast as well.)

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Early press photos from the film, which has garnered mostly positive reviews so far, look highly saturated, and they appear more suspenseful in tone than comedic. It’s an interesting question that rises in the production and distribution of a horror comedy: is it enough to cast comedians in an otherwise straightforward horror movie, or should a script do most of the heavy lifting in finding both the laughs and chills in each scene? Let’s take a look at what’s worked for the films that preceded Cooties.

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Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, the team behind successful Zombieland, have this to say about comedic horror: “Think back to Hannibal Lecter saying, “I’m having an old friend for dinner” in Silence of the Lambs. Remember Bill Paxton whining, “Game over, man!” in Aliens. Consider how audiences reacted when the bus flattened the girl in the first Final Destination. Big, big laughs.”

At some point, contemporary film critics decided that Scream was one of the first horror comedies, perhaps because it was so successful in its conceit. This set off a retroactive shift in the description of horror comedies that came before Scream, like 1981 slasher spoof Student Bodies. The film was originally billed with the tagline, “At last, the world’s first comedy horror movie,” but since the release of Scream, most posters read “Before there was Scream…there was Student Bodies!”

Though it’s certainly not as engaging as Scream (or as clever), Student Bodies is an effectively self-aware look at popular slasher films like Halloween and Friday the 13th. What it lacks is attention to the tropes of 80s films, which Scream was able to play with in a more funny way, as it was released in 1996. It’s difficult for me to talk about Scream without becoming hyperbolic, because I enjoyed the film so much as a kid, and I still like it on several levels as an adult.

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Don’t even get me started on how much I love Matthew Lillard.

What works so well in Scream is its careful casting; it would have been easier to cast more comedians like Jamie Kennedy (who does a fine job on his own), and really drive home the idea that the film is supposed to make us laugh as much as it makes us cringe. Casting Neve Campbell as the sullen-faced female lead confuses the film’s signals. We’re not sure who to take seriously, and this creates a sense of unease that accumulates toward the climactic end at the house party. Though Matthew Lillard has been quoted as regretting his campy, over-the-top performance as Stu, I’d argue that his role throughout the film as comedic relief makes him the most effective choice for the revealed killer (although he obviously shares that spot with Skeet Ulrich’s Billy).

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Together they are a monstrous pair of twisted teens, with no reason for killing people in their town other than a fascination with 80s horror movies. The metatextual work here is so much fun. Drew Barrymore’s character is killed off in a legitimately scary opening scene, which calls to mind Hitchcock’s surprise murdering of his female ingenue in the first third of Psycho. In one of my favorite scenes, the not-yet-revealed murderers Billy and Stu discuss the ethics of serial murder and slasher movies in a video store with Jamie Kennedy’s character.

The only film in recent memory that lives up to the pure, fun debacle that is Scream is Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard’s Cabin in the Woods, which plays out like a witty, gorey love letter to the teen horror genre. Arguably, Whedon’s twist ending is far more creative and disturbing than the final scenes of Scream, but both films will stand the test of time for horror fans interested in the scaffolding behind their favorite films.

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I’d advise everyone to watch Cabin in the Woods for this actor alone.

scream-1-matthew-lillard-killerIt seems disingenuous to call a horrific story about smalltown murders fun, but that’s precisely the impression horror comedies are striving for. A monster between genres, the horror comedy looks to incite two typically different reactions from its audience, both dread and mirth. When the sensations intermingle, great and terrible things happen.

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Who could forget Michael Keaton as Beetlejuice in Tim Burton’s 1988 film? He leaps and snickers across the screen like Charlie Chaplin, burping and hitting on every woman who happens to walk by. The character is truly disgusting, but he’s also dynamic and fun to watch. Is he the villain of his own film? Certainly the ghosts in the house, Adam and Barbara, have reason to fear him, but because his style is so chaotic, they’re able to evade his advances pretty easily.

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The only in-arguably villainous monster in the film is probably the sandworm.

Tim Burton operates in his own universe in nearly every film he produces, including projects that employ cartoonish humor as often as they do jump scares and gore (see: Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, Mars Attacks, Sleepy Hollow, Dark Shadows). One recalls Danny Elfman’s characteristic scores, that music which could be described more easily as “creepy” than “scary.” Can a film be truly harrowing while also being funny, or does a horror comedy have to straddle the line as Tim Burton’s work tends to?

large_american_werewolf_london_blu-ray_8All you need to know about An American Werewolf in London is that Jack, a character who appears after being viciously killed by a werewolf, reanimates and immediately asks “Can I have a piece of toast?” No one could argue that the transformation scene in American Werewolf is one of the most classically horrifying bits of contemporary cinema, and yet so much of the film’s dialogue is borne of wry, clever humor. The characters react honestly to the atrocities in the film, but they also slip in one-liners and evade jokes from minor characters.

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It probably takes a confident screenwriter to include comedic “bits” between scenes like the transformation in An American Werewolf in London, and John Landis pulls it off. For reference, this sequence is very disturbing because of the realistic special FX and because we’re watching a funny, likable dude go through something incredibly painful and scary. As Reese and Wernick put it, “When your characters are staring down a monster or a murderer, particularly the characters who already possess senses of humor, step back for a moment, and realize: in the face of danger, those characters would become more likely to start cracking wise, not less. Comedy can be a survival strategy.” The comedic dialogue that precedes the transformation scene, enhances our feelings of dread.

Another film using comedy as a means of attaching the audience to its protagonists is one of my favorites in the horror comedy genre, Shaun of the Dead. At the time of the film’s release, American audiences were still largely unfamiliar with the particular stylings of the Pegg-Frost-Wright trifecta. (I haven’t seen Pegg’s upcoming A Fantastic Fear of Everything, but early reviews call its energy “forced.) Once we re-adjusted our ear for quick, monotone dialogue, characters played by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost became incredibly endearing to us. There’s realism in Shaun of the Dead‘s comedy, because Shaun and Ed really are low-life everymen.

Reese and Wernick pin-point exactly why Pegg and Frost are so successful in Shaun of the Dead by emphasizing the power of character development in horror comedy. They call it the rats-in-the-maze problem. “You spend a ton of time constructing the perfect frightening predicaments for your characters – their maze, if you will. The problem being, once you drop your metaphorical rats into the maze, you don’t pay enough attention to the rats themselves. Your characters become alike – same long tails, same white fur, same pink eyes. They react similarly to various horrors, not because the horrors are similar, but because the characters themselves are too similar, indistinct, unmemorable. In order for your horror comedy to be scary and funny, you have to take as much care with the rats as you do with the maze.” This, of course, means that Simon Pegg’s Shaun and Nick Frost’s Ed are likeable, three-dimensional rats.

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Shaun of the Dead, is of course, a direct parody of zombie films like Dawn of the Dead, sometimes employing shot-for-shot imitations filmed for comedic effect. There’s certainly more creativity at work (mostly in the characterization of Shaun vs Ed), but the film does play out like a straightforward genre parody. (Wayans brothers, take note: this is how you do a horror parody!)

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Films like Shaun of the Dead encourage male protagonists to be less motivated by a raw enjoyment in killing things, and more motivated by fear, attachment to loved ones, and a desperate will to survive. This play with masculinity is twisted slightly in the Bollywood zombie parody Goa Goa Gone. This film is particularly interesting because of its combination of three genres: zombie horror, buddy comedy, and Bollywood musical.

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Dr. Frank-N-Furter is shocked that I don’t consider Rocky Horror a horror-musical-comedy hybrid. There’s not a lot of pure horror there.

Because Bollywood fans are primed for hyperbolic, staccato imagery, films like Goa Goa Gone work successfully within these combined genres. After all, horror films and comedies both look to incite a visceral, uncontrollable reaction in the audience, and Bollywood films only ask us to further expand our understanding of reality. Why shouldn’t characters who fear monsters enough to scream be motivated to sing about it? I’m surprised that zombie musicals aren’t more popular, to be honest.

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I’d be remiss to not mention Ghostbusters, the film that warped my perception of attractive men too early. (Sidenote: If I haven’t seen Ghostbusters as a young girl, I might have ended up with a dude who looks like Brad Pitt. Instead, I’m perpetually searching for the genuine, bumbling weirdness Peter Venkman uses to woo Dana Barrett. Thanks, Bill Murray.)

ghostbustersIt’s difficult to conceive Ghostbusters as a full horror comedy, partially because the special effects have not stood the test of time. What may have been slightly scary and slightly funny now appears campy (see: Slimer, the StayPuft Marshmellow Man, Gozer’s portal guards). However, the film is still an exercise is toeing the line between apocalyptic works and goofy buddy comedies.

Films like Ghostbusters still have a definite 1980s feel to them, and even more contemporary horror comedies like Scream and Cabin in the Woods are paying homage to the ’80s teen slasher classics. What I find exciting about the horror comedy genre, however, is that recent films are playing at a tone of their own, something more timely and rooted in film tropes from the last twenty years.

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You might recognize Tucker and Dale VS Evil as the film that’s been unwatched in your Netflix queue for years (or maybe that’s just me). The film is a must-watch for fans of genre-bending. Although it’s technically a classically-formed parody, the works it lampoons are further from Halloween and Friday the 13th and closer to Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes. These films are borne of the contemporary fear of the white, Southern dude; you know, the inbred Deliverance guy who’s been alone in the deep woods so long he no longer recognizes human emotion or the sanctity of life? Where did this idea even come from?

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Tucker and Dale, usually the evil cannibals in contemporary horror, go about their normal lives as a group of scared teens accidentally kill themselves around them. At some point, Tucker walks into a swarm of bees and starts waving his chainsaw around in fear. This obviously makes a comedic version of the Leatherface trope, and the whole thing is very clever.

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Before I say this, let me just remind any readers that you are on my side. I still think This is the End deserved an Oscar nod for supportive acting, special effects or screenwriting (not just because I have a HUGE crush on Seth Rogen, who co-wrote the screenplay). The fact that a film like This is the End would never gain recognition in serious, literary-film circles is disappointing, as a well-formed comedy (even something as crass and erratically-paced as This is the End) is an artistic feat. Everyone in the ensemble cast (pictured above) is performing at top capacity.

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I’d even argue that Craig Robinson is one of the most touching and endearing (and original!) characters written into a horror comedy. His role in the film is a testament to what horror comedies can do: allow us to attach to a like-able, goofy character as he navigates a truly frightening environment. As Reese and Wernick put it, “Never forget, conflict heightens comedy. And then, in turn, comedy heightens horror. Think about it, you’re much more likely to fear the death of a character if that character has made you laugh than if they’re dull and humorless. The comedy makes you care. And then the caring makes you afraid.”

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Who knew a movie about Nazi zombies could be so tense?

Other films hard at work to legitimize the horror comedy genre as emotionally arresting literature include 2006’s Slither, 2007’s Teeth and 2009’s Zombieland and Dead Snow. There’s a specifically grand tone present in the latter which critics have likened to the original Indiana Jones trilogy. In fact, Indy’s movies were often as frightening as they were funny and exhilarating, so this comparison is encouraging. Horror comedies that identify with campiness are usually more successful, although this isn’t always the case. There was an element of hokeyness involved in Slither, maybe because Nathan Fillion and Elizabeth Banks tend to sneer and wiggle their eyebrows at us on screen (in a likeable way).

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2007’s Teeth, loved by most feminist film critics, only just barely qualifies as a horror comedy. The comedic effect is due in part to what might translate as a campy premise: a girl grows razor sharp teeth deep inside her vagina. We do get some funny scenes in which her dangerous vagina punishes a creepy gynecologist and a sweet-seeming boyfriend who forces himself on the protagonist, but the subtext in the story is much darker.

The kinetic energy in Evil Dead 2 makes it a highly watchable addition to the genre(s), and Peter Jackon’s Dead Alive shares some of the no-holds-barred tone of films like Slither and Ghostbusters. The gore in Dead Alive is so intense that it threatens undermining the film’s comedy. Though it feels distinctly ’90s, Kevin Bacon vehicle Tremors fits the bill as well. Though Buzzfeed includes Jennifer’s Body on its list of “Funniest Horror Films,” I’d argue that the film flopped because it doesn’t commit fully to any particular genre.

It’s exciting to parse out what works in horror comedies (complex characters, ensemble casts, over-the-top gore), and what tropes are best left on the cutting room floor (hollow parody scenes, confusing plotlines). It’s my hope that future films explore the monstrous space between genres with more success. Cooties might be the first one on the docket, but we’ll undoubtedly hear of more.

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