October 11, 2015

Why can't they make good horror-comedies anymore?

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.


  1. Just seems like a tough genre to succeed with regardless of the audience. Comedies, in general, rarely succeed in that they live up to their trailers or their concept. I mean the idea for most comedies seems funny(the movies got made after all) but the actual movie isn't very funny. Wedding Crashers or The Hangover comes to mind. The set dynamics of these combo films must be interesting. I know if I was working on the horror part I would want it to be scary and spot on although that would detract from the larger purpose of the film. Bottom line.

    Good combo movie- Arsenic and Old Lace
    Bad combo movie-Wayan Brother's movies, just too dumb
    Good Blog- Akinokure

  2. Horror comedies are a notoriously tough sell. They really took off in 1985/1986, though I don't necessarily understand why. Friday the 13th part 6 had some self-aware jokes and it's box office declined faster than Part 4 or Part 7 which weren't jokey at all.


    Some horror comedies become cult classics, but the casual audience usually has a hard time laughing during or between the scares.

    "Fright Night, Lost Boys, The Witches of Eastwick, Arachnophobia, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, etc., all from the later '80s and early '90s."

    A writer for Grantland.com (which is a PC loony bin I usually find tiresome aside from good football articles) made the valid point that the very late 80's and early 90's seemed to go out of their way to make characters goofy and hard to relate to. That was the beginning of cocooning and also the point at which striving really took off in Hollywood. So most movies made back then just aren't as effective as stuff from the mid 70's-mid 80's. I think music, video games, and paintings from 1988-1992 are still pretty good. But a lot of actors, producers, and directors seemed to start acting like total assholes during that period, which is really noticeable. I don't think ordinary people (and even non striving artists) really jumped the shark until 1995 or so. Though people in the early 90's were certainly more pretentious and aloof than they were in the Reagan era.

    The Lost Boys was the 38th highest grossing movie of 1987, which isn't that bad.

    Arachnophobia was the 22nd highest grossing movie of 1990, pretty good.

    Still, aside from Gremlins, straightforward horror movies have tended to do much better. Accurate numbers are harder to come by for 70's movies, but evidently stuff like Halloween, The Omen, and Dawn of the Dead was often in the top 10 for yearly B.O. This persisted into the early 80's with The Shining and Friday the 13th being huge hits in 1980.

    Horror movies in the top 25 movies per year:

    1981: American Werewolf in London (23)
    1982: Poltergeist (8), Friday the 13th part 3 (21)
    1983: Jaws 3D (15), Psycho 2 (20), Twilight Zone (25)
    1984: Gremlins (4), The Terminator (21, the movie is scary enough to be horror)
    1985: None
    1986: Aliens (7, a quasi action movie), Poltergeist 2 (20), The Fly (23), A little Shop of Horrors (25)
    1987: Witches of Eastwick (10), Nightmare on Elm Street 3 (24)
    1988: A Nightmare On Elm Street 4 (19)
    1989: Pet Sematary (23)

    Beginning in 1984 (the 1st year that really felt like the 80's), horror movies that weren't associated with James Cameron, Spielberg, or Freddy Krueger just weren't very popular. Probably because they mostly were not as well acted, photographed, or written as they were in the 70's/early 80's. Unless titans like Cameron or Spielberg were involved.

  3. Shaun of the Dead is probably the most notable horror comedy of recent years, although I thought the action movie parody in Hot Fuzz was significantly better. Movies like that and Cabin in the Woods are too humorous at their core to really be effective horror movies. You're Next is definitely a horror movie, but has a large vein of black comedy running through. The former two are interested in joking about horror movies, while the latter finds horror & comedy in a situation.

  4. The Cabin in the Woods was like, at least written by Joss Whedon I believe. Who is a big, big offender of the annoying post mid 90's tendencies to create cooler-than-thou characters and "witty" stories and dialogue. Guys like him and Tarantino should be shot. At what point is Tarantino gonna be filmed blowing one of his black heroes, anyway?

    At least mid century media was usually earnest. Nowadays we have to put up with smarmy douchebags like Whedon and Tarantino polluting the screen with their egos.

  5. Didn't Sam Jackson get blown up in Django Unchained? Of course, he was a villain then. I forget if the black guy in Inglorious Basterds was in the theater when it blew up.

  6. I meant (sarcastically) Tarantino making love to a beloved minority. Even white people born as late as '63 are still stuck in the civil rights era. How 'bout sticking up for your own kind, for once?


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