The Art of Horror Comedy

Genres. We know the main ones: comedy, drama, horror, romance, science fiction, western, musical, action, adventure, etc. We know that genre is a term applied usually to some sort of personalities or tropes found in films that make them easily identifiable when categorizing movies. Without them, it would be almost impossible to locate films similar to one another and we would never actually know what we are getting into. That being said, genre can be flexible. Filmmakers can use the expectancies we enforce on genres to shock us. Shifting from one to another, or taking aspects from different genres altogether, genre can become fluid in the eyes of filmmakers and watchers alike. Most often, we see elements of a particular genre combined with the comedic genre; this is apparent in: romantic comedies, action comedies, musical comedies, and, my favorite, horror comedy.

            Horror comedy, by nature, seems off. In theory, both genres are purposed to illicit entirely different emotions from a person. Comedy makes us laugh, happy, and filled with joy. Horror, on the other hand, plays with our fears, scares us, and most importantly, creates disruption and stress in our life. These two genres also give us some of the two most visceral reactions found in genres. When successful, we are either uncontrollably laughing, or fear-stricken. Though they are different, comedy and horror both affect us on a base level. Joyous. Fearful. These are two of our most human qualities in life. It is also the qualities that set these two genres apart from others. So what happens, when we blur the lines between these two genres?

            One of the most popular ways to weave these two genres together is to put a comedic character in a terror-filled situation. We see this pretty early on, with films such as Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), their other ‘Universal Monster’ counterparts, and the duo’s first horror comedy Hold That Ghost (1941).  The two actors provide comedic relief, and the horror elements of the film are almost secondary to the comedic genre. We see the trend continue into films of today as well, with films such as Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead (2004) and Eli Craig’s Tucker & Dale Vs. Evil (2010). The film is almost just one genre, and horror just seems to be a set piece or segway to more comedic elements.

We also have what is known as the “meta” approach to horror comedy. This is where the comedy isn’t as outright, with comedic elements coming to fruition from recognition of horror tropes and qualities predictably found within the genre. These films have been increasingly prevalent since the 1990’s, with Wes Craven’s Scream (1996) and New Nightmare (1994), as well as Drew Goddard’s The Cabin in The Woods (2011). In both of these methods, comedic characters and comedic Meta, we normally find quite a balance. The movie will give us a horror scene, as well as a comedic one, and typically allow for the film to be considered what we refer to as a “horror comedy”. There is another approach though, and this is evident in the films that Sam Raimi has made, originating with Evil Dead II (1987).

            There is nothing in particular that makes these movies comedic, and on paper, they should be deemed to be ‘classic horror’. In Raimi’s films, and films inspired by his work, the scary parts are also the funny parts. The scenes that make some people’s blood curdle; make other’s burst with laughter. The characters aren’t necessarily comic relief, and the situations in which they find themselves in aren’t either. We get something similar to comedic films though, and that’s the set-up and payoff. In comedies, we get a joke set-up, and we see how it plays out on screen. In Raimi’s films, we see a suspenseful situation, payoff with a scare. Instead of separating the two into scary parts, and funny parts, they become interlaced and as a result, are the same thing. Oddly enough, the first Evil Dead (1981) doesn’t follow this route. The film is a straight-up horror film and takes itself quite genuinely. The sequel on the other hand, while almost indistinguishable, finds a way to tilt itself into the absurd and allow for a horror to become a comedy without spoon-feeding you jokes or things of the sort. The key thing in this situation would be the nature of the film.

            The stage is set by exaggeration. Dialogue. Cinematography. Effects. Sound. All are made almost extreme, and allow for a movie that is obviously horror, to tip into the comedic realm. Once the tone is set, Raimi can use things like sound and camera movements to evoke comedic elements in a film that in theory is horror. One example, which I can think of, is the excessive amounts of gore and gross-outs that Raimi will use. The blood we see on film can be in absurd otherworldly proportions, and that, in unrealism, is comedic. There is also intense melodrama, such as when characters share heartfelt moments in nonsense situations that bring out comedic elements in a horror film. Maggots. Decapitations. Disembowelments. All of these can be comedic if the correct tonal approach is taken to creating and crafting the scene.

            This is the art of the Raimi film. Creating a movie that can evoke multiple emotions at once, tickling our brains, and puts us in a place that we are unsure of what is to come next, and in that non-predictableness allow ourselves to see the absurdity and laugh at it in these extreme situations. Fights can be gut wrenching, jaw dropping, and belly crushing. Oddly enough, most movies require a familiar tone throughout to be successful, both critically and commercially. This is evident with most films that we consider to be some of the universally accepted ‘greatest’ of all time. Coppola’s The Godfather (1972) maintains a serious and dramatic tone throughout, never flinching and allowing the viewer to become invested in what the movie has to say. It’s fascinating how Raimi can take the exact opposite approach and still achieve similar results. His inability to stay in a singular space makes his films more creative, intuitive, and gripping. For this reason, I think it’s important that we recognize what horror comedy is as a genre, and its importance to the evolution of horror as a whole.

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