Tuesday, October 16, 2007

When Horror Became A Joke

While it's true that we saw some of the greatest horror during the 80's with The Shinning, The Thing, Poltergeist, Hellraiser and The Fly, we also saw the genre take a left turn into funny ha-ha territory and good lord it was scary. When it comes to horror, I'm kind of a serious guy. I get horror spoofs and appreciate them, but for the most part, I like my horror on the serious side. After all, if I wanted to laugh I would have watched a comedy. Just as sarcasm can be a cop-out from making a real statement, so can humor as it relates to horror. The first time I really noticed this new trend of horror/comedy (from here on out I will call it the horromedy) was with George Romero's Creepshow in 1982. On the poster the cut-line reads "The most fun you'll ever have being scared." Creepshow is a good horror movie and I think it delivers rather well in the scare department, but I don't want to have fun being scared. I just want to be scared. It was almost like Romero was issuing an apology before I ever entered the theater. Yes it's true that Romero is no stranger to satire as we saw in Dawn Of The Dead, but I always felt he was still serious about his scares. So what's with having fun while being scared? What happened to the days of people passing out in the aisles and trailers like Suspiria that promise the only thing more terrifying than the first 13 minutes of the film are the last 97. Don't tell me I'm going to have fun. Tell me I'm going to be screaming. Tell me I'm going to have to seek therapy. That's why I go and see a horror movie. It could be argued that the reason I like horror is because I consider it fun to be scared. And I might agree with that argument, but let me decide that.

A few years later, the horromedy took a big step forward with the movie House in 1986. Steve Miner who had directed Friday The 13th Part 2 and 3 had dabbled with the horror genre but decided to turn it on its ear with House. In this movie, a severed hand no longer instilled chills. Instead we were to laugh as William Katt chased the little boy around with the demon hand on his back and then laugh harder as he attempted to flush it down the toilet. In 1987, Sam Raimi remade Evil Dead as a horromedy with Evil Dead II. It is among one of my favorite movies, but still it felt like a step backwards for the genre. Child's Play in 1988 started out creepy enough, but then quickly became absurd as Chucky became less scary and more foul-mouthed. And now the franchise has become fodder for midnight showings.

While it's true that Carpenter, Cronenberg and Barker in particular produced some of their best work during the 80's, some of the success was lost with this shift in the genre. It was as if everyone felt that horror had run its course and the only fertile soil left was with the horromedy. What's ironic is that it took Scream - a commentary on the whole horror genre - to point the genre back in the direction of scaresville. Of course the horromedy is not dead with the likes of Shaun Of The Dead, but it's just not as prominent as it once was. Some might believe that the birth of the horromedy was an interesting period. A time when we looked back on the slasher movies and laughed at the absurdity of it all. But not this guy. I prefer my horror straight up, hold the comedy.


Ray said...

LOL The last post we started talking about horror films that tend to be comical ... and that moves smoothly into this post!

Great article, Piper!

I personally didn't like Evil Dead 2 as much precisely because it was too broad and comical. I didn't care much for the Scream and Nightmare on Elm Street films because of the same reason.

Where are the truly terrifying films at these days??

eric said...

I love horror movies. I will agree the the horror/comedy is not my favorite, but I don't mind watching some of them if I'm entertained enough.

I have to I really like The Sleepaway Camp movies, Fright Night, and Shocker. I definitely prefer just cool old fashion "scare the shit out of you horror", but I like these movies even though they are not scary.

I agree that movies like Child's Play, A Nightmare On Elm Street, and Poltergeist took a turn for the worse when they added comedy, but they are still fun to watch

Piper said...


I still love Evil Dead 2 even though it does some damage to the genre and even love Army Of Darkness even more which I don't even consider horror.


While I take shots on some of these movies, it doesn't mean I don't appreciate them. I just purchased Fright Night and I love the movie. And Creepshow is still one of my favorites, there was just a time though when the pendulum swung a bit too far that way and true horror got lost. And with the introduction of the PG-13 remakes, it has yet to return to true form - at least on a commercial level.

Damian said...

Good article, Piper. I've enjoyed reading a lot of bloggers' opinions about horror films in the past month.

Like you, I also tend to prefer scary movies that take themselves more seriously (The Exorcist, for example, is one of the most serious fright-flicks I've ever seen and one of my all-time favorite films). Then again, sometimes I do find I'm in the mood for one that also makes me laugh (a la The Frighteners, Tremors, Gremlins, etc). In my mind, though, a lot of it depends on what the essential "identity" of the movie is. Is it primarily a horror film with a great deal of comedy or is it a comedy-horror really just a comedy that has horror in it? I would argue that Arachnaophobia and Scream fall into the former category while Shaun of the Dead is in the latter.

On the more general subject of humor becoming more dominant in horror, I think you're right that the pendulum may have swung too far in one direction and the genre is trying to get back to the other side (much like the Bond series, as we discussed over at Windmills), but I think humor will probably always play a part in horror and if used properly it can actually improve it. When I directed a stage production of Dracula last year I observed something that distressed me. Audiences were laughing at some of the moments that I wanted to be serious and/or dramatic. It took me a while to figure out why, but I think it had something to do with the fact that they were actually looking for levity. Talking to people afterwards I realized that they were really were terrified by a lot of the horrific events they were witnessing up on my stage and so they had a lot of nervous energy pent up that they needed to put somewhere. Thus, I thought it would be wise to find humorous places in the story that I could emphasize and thus direct their laughter towards specific moments and away from what I wanted to be more thrilling.

I think it's important for scary-movie directors to do this. A filmmaker can still take his/her subject matter seriously (despite the fact that it usually involves incredibly ridiculous phenomenae) while giving the audience some occasional relief from the tension. I found that if I didn't allow any humor at all into my play, people were going to find it there anyway in place where I didn't want them to. Without at least some degree of "lightness" in the midst of so much dark, it was possible (even likely) that my finished product could become overly "oppressive" to my viewers and the appeal of it--at least for most whole people--could get lost. The fun of being scared could drain away and would be replaced by a simple desire on their part to "survive" and/or endure what I threw at them. Both Hitchcock and Spielberg understood this aspect of horror I think and thus used humor very effectively in their scary movies. Jaws and Psycho, arguably two of the greatest horror films ever made and two of my personal favorites, are both downright hysterical at times... and yet they are both still, at their "core," scary movies. They do not become comedies.

So to what degree scary movies make us laugh is going to be a highly individual thing. As I said, some movies will be more comic than others, some will be more scary than others, but I think that the visceral sensations of laughter and fear both have far more in common than we might suspect.

Neil Sarver said...

Comedy-horror blends have been around forever and shall be around forever. They aren't the problem, nor are they, in any real way responsible.

Hollywood's addiction to repetition is responsible.

Both comedy and horror require surprise to be effective, so constant repeating of the same bits ruin the value of both. Mixing them and then repeating the mix is just dull. Imitation is the only thing Hollywood is sure will work and we, the public, continue supporting their endless goes at it.

But then I'm not a believer that everything that's about the weird and macabre should be scary. I think there's a lot of room to explore there and I find a lot of it interesting... which isn't to say if you aim at scary and miss I won't be disappointed.

Average Jane said...

I feel the opposite. Straight-up horror is too much for me; I need it leavened with some humor.