Monday, March 28, 2011

The Pros And Cons of Horror-Comedy

In the past decade, most horror films released were... legitimately terrible. Gore-hungry filmgoers usually had the unsavory choice of either seeing a poor remake -excuse me, "re-imagining"- of a classic, or an American redo of a film that was far better in its native tongue. There was also a glut of vampire romances which I do not need to name here, suffice it to say that I'm looking forward to the next Garlic Years period. The one ray of light in this sea of sewage was a handful of horror-comedies, notably Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland, I Sell the Dead, and, to a lesser extent, Dead Snow. (I've just realized that all the films mentioned feature zombies. Cannibalism guarantees big laughs, kids.)

As I've said before, horror and comedy go down real smooth. They both rely on well-timed shocks and outrageous predicaments, so it's not hard to see how they flow into each other. But is mixing funny and frightening the best thing for the genre? Let's draw up the list.

PROS:

Horror-comedies are unquestionably the best horror films we've gotten for years, and the trend is nothing new. From Sam Raimi to Peter Jackson to the Imagineers who first gave us Disney's Haunted Mansion, legions of fright masters have been sprinkling in humor dark and otherwise to spice up their sordid stories. More folks are willing to give scary movies a chance if they know they'll get a few chuckles out of it. Hey, Shaun of the Dead got me a date. So did Zombieland, come to think of it. So thank you, flesh-eaters!

CONS:

If Hollywood gets wise to the fad, we'll soon see dozens of rotten horror-comedies flooding the multiplex. A good movie is more than jokes and jump scares, fellas. Worse is the very real possibility that more of the same could weaken the viability of the genre as a whole. If all people see is silly zombies and wisecrackin' ghosts, serious horror may not be considered so seriously. And of course, there's the ever-present threat of more tired spoofs like Transylmania and Vampires Suck. Ugh.

The secret to a solid horror-comedy is knowing where to draw the line. Why was Ghostbusters so hugely successful back in 1984? There's several reasons for its enduring popularity, but the reason it worked as a movie was simple: they treated the ghosts as an actual threat. There wasn't so much as a wink from the cast or the director. These freaks were not Casper. They possessed helpless women, tore up entire city blocks, and very nearly killed our heroes. A comedy it was, and a damn good one, but the funny wasn't coming from the dead. It came naturally from the quirks and dialogue of the characters.

This is the same reason that Shaun of the Dead was so well-received. Director Edgar Wright stated in an interview that he'd scripted and even filmed a few scenes where the zombies were doing something "silly" like mimicking the meerkats on local street crossing signs, or flossing their teeth with human hair. He quickly realized that this not only made them less frightening to the audience, but it lessened the impact of the humor that came from Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. What's so funny about these two schlubs when you've got a zombie doing the "Thriller" dance! Wright removed these bits and played the zombies straight. With the jokes having a single source (Shaun and Ed's ignorance in the face of the zombie apocalypse), the danger felt real and the gags hit harder.

Horror-comedies are not going to go away anytime soon. A sequel to Zombieland is being filmed (in 3D, no less), and there are plenty of other projects in the pipeline. Done right, a horror-comedy is one of the best cinematic experiences you can have. Let's just hope studio execs, screenwriters, and directors keep to this simple formula: People are funny. Their impending death is not.

And do note I said "impending death." After someone's dead? Comedy gold.

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