Hollywood is going to take another stab at the Christmas-themed horror movie -- a genre on hiatus since the 1980s -- with Krampus. Unusually, it is also a comedy, an attempt to mix contrasting tones. See the trailer here, and a long list of horror-comedy movies here for comparison.
In Krampus, they're going for a mash-up of Christmas Vacation and The Evil Dead, but the tone that comes off in the trailer is clashing and discordant rather than balanced or blended. Perhaps it's better executed in the full movie, though tone usually comes across fairly reliably even in a trailer.
At least it's not the standard approach to horror-comedy of the past 20 or so years, where the horror is meant to be taken somewhat seriously, and the comedy comes from self-aware positive responses to the horror -- "Isn't it hilarious how gory the killing is, and how over-the-top the plot premise is?!" Meta-commentary winking at the viewer, who is in on these in-jokes, is not very funny to begin with, let alone when the audience is beaten over the head with them throughout the whole movie. When they're the sole source of humor, the attempt at comedy fails.
Zombie Strippers is a perfect example of this failed approach to horror-comedy, though I only single that one out since I caught it on TV last Halloween season. There are dozens of others like it that I've caught bits and pieces of on late-night TV since the '90s.
Attempts from the '70s and '80s were not quite so bad, when the self-aware humor was open and campy rather than unstated and smug. The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Little Shop of Horrors are way too campy to feel like real horror movies -- they're more like comedy movies set within a horror-inspired narrative.
I'll admit that there may be a genuine exception in Re-Animator from 1985, though. The characters are played as genuine eccentrics, not campy caricatures hamming it up. The overall atmosphere is likewise not deliberately exaggerated, but feels genuinely surreal and absurd. It doesn't feel like the whole movie is one great big in-joke and winking at the audience. In this way it's like Twin Peaks, another classic that's sui generis in terms of tone, blending and alternating all manner of dark and light emotions.
The sparseness of examples in the surreal approach to horror-comedy stems from the difficulty in trying to obscure the deliberate nature of cultural creation when portraying such an absurd world. Something so absurd makes the audience suspicious that the creator is just yanking our chain, and we can't slip into the suspension of disbelief. Most writers, directors, and actors just don't have the level of poker-face discipline to present such an absurd world in a sincere and straightly-played way.
More typical is the approach that Krampus follows, where horrific and comedic tones alternate and contrast with each other. Horror movies are about the supernatural or paranormal destabilizing of the usual order of things, so much so that it disturbs or even frightens the audience. Comedy could be worked into this framework if it took the form of having a sense of humor to get the victims through such a dangerously disordered world, a case of gallows humor. That tends to skirt too closely to the self-aware approach, though, since the characters are voicing what the audience is already thinking: "Hey fellow character, isn't it sickly hilarious how screwed-up our situation is?!"
Examples of this style, where humor alternates with horror as comic relief to terror, haven't been tried in a long while, and were not very successful as either horror or comedy movies back then -- Fright Night, Lost Boys, The Witches of Eastwick, Arachnophobia, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, etc., all from the later '80s and early '90s. That doesn't bode well for the revival of the style in 2015.
The only sure-fire way to incorporate comedy into horror is to blend the two tones rather than alternate them. Somehow the evil beings themselves have to be funny while wreaking havoc, instead of comedy contrasting with horror. The natural choice, then, is to make the evil beings an example of the trickster archetype, a preternaturally mischievous being whose violence takes the form of pranks. Who can suppress their laughter when someone pulls off a great prank, no matter how much their victim may be hurt by it?
Since the trickster is the source of both the horror and the comedy, the tones blend better and cohere better in the audience's mind. And they don't feel so bad laughing at violence if it is not cold-blooded, calculated, and purposeful. The trickster is not a serial killer -- he's an anarchic life-of-the-party type of guy.
Laughing at purposeful violence feels like taking sides in a dispute, and agreeing or identifying with the monster. Laughing at off-the-cuff and indiscriminate violence, however, pardons you from choosing sides. The source of danger is more like a natural disaster roaming around unpredictably, rather than a purposeful actor, and those who get in the way are more victims of bad luck than targets of malevolence. Laughing at the unfortunate victims of a trickster's pranks is therefore a type of schadenfreude. No trouble making that blend of horror and comedy work, in principle.
At the same time, times change in how willing the public is to encourage the trickster to let loose and give us viewers something both funny and a little terrifying to behold. It's hard to think of a purer example of a "bad peer influence" that parents would not want their children to hang out with, even if only in pop culture form. And horror movies are directed primarily at those who still scare easily, namely children and adolescents.
Ever since helicopter parenting took off during the 1990s, this trickster approach to horror-comedy has bitten the dust. But it was very popular during the nadir of parental supervision, back in the '80s.
The most financially successful example is Gremlins, which was the fourth-highest grossing movie of 1984, and like Krampus was set during the Christmas season. Just think about how unlikely the odds were for its success -- a horror movie set during Christmas, and blended with comedy throughout. That's a fine line to walk in writing the script and acting out the characters, as well as designing the monsters and bringing them to life.
Casting the monsters as tricksters made it easy to incorporate humor into their very look and feel -- they can look a little cartoony, and it doesn't detract from their menace, since they aren't portrayed as a serious and sublime evil. In a movie like Krampus, where the monster is designed to look frightening in itself, every time you see the monster only adds to the problem of comedic and horrific tones interrupting each other, and the audience's brain shutting off from too many emotional switches back and forth.
Gremlins spawned a host of imitations -- Critters, Ghoulies, Killer Klowns from Outer Space, Leprechaun, etc. These don't work as well as the original since the monsters are not as adorable and commit much more gruesome violence. But they work well enough to watch if there's nothing else on late-night TV.
But don't expect a successful revival of the horror-comedy genre until helicopter parenting goes into retreat, and parents won't mind their children laughing at the violent and terrifying pranks of supernatural or paranormal tricksters.