Grim smiles and bitter laughter: Humour in horror cinema

By Steve Balshaw, Grimm Up North

It might seem an odd combination at first, some genre-spliced abomination, dreamed up by marketing men, the dark flipside of the Rom-Com: The Horror-Comedy.

And yet it has always existed in some form.

Humour and horror are long-time companions. Shakespeare has the bawdy joking of the Porter in the middle of the murder scenes in Macbeth, and the sarcastic asides of the Fool to comment on the savagery in King Lear.

The full-blooded barnstorming melodramas of Tod Slaughter are filled with gleeful gallows humour. James Whale’s Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein benefit hugely from the director’s eyebrow-arching sense of mischief. The most famous line in Tod Browning’s Dracula is a joke: “I don’t drink… wine!”

And let us not forget that the classic Universal Horror cycle of films ended in several raucous slapstick comedies which brought the likes of Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi into contact with Abbott and Costello.

The great Vincent Price, while he was capable of being bone-chillingly cold and cruel onscreen, as demonstrated by his performances in Corman’s The Masque of The Red Death and in particular Michael Reeves’ The Witchfinder General, was much happier if he was able to inject an edge of camp knowingness into his roles.

Witness his star turn in Jacques Tourneur’s darkly-comic classic The Comedy of Terrors, alongside fellow horror icons Karloff, Peter Lorre and Basil Rathbone; all four actors are clearly having a ball. The influence these great performers, Price in particular, had on the genre can never be underestimated. Ever after, there has been a tendency to place jokes into the mouths of horror’s most iconic figures.

Think of Freddy Krueger’s leering wisecracks or Pinhead’s pokerfaced one-liners as they torment their victims. Indeed, far from being unusual, a comedic element in horror might almost be seen as the norm, the one constant in an ever-evolving, ever-shifting genre. Perhaps the humour is there as a pressure valve, some necessary light relief.

The 80s and 90s, however, saw that comedic element begin increasingly to dominate. It was the era of the cheap and cheerful straight-to-video schlocker, of “Scream Queens” such as Linnea Quigley, Brinke Stevens and Michelle Bauer, and the gleefully trashy Troma Studios.

Cinema releases, too, began to shift their tone to reflect the market. From the increasingly tongue in cheek Nightmare on Elm Street cycle, to Dan O’Bannon’s riotous Return of the Living Dead movies, the emphasis was on gore with giggles, squarely aimed at a teenaged audience, most of it male.

Much nudging and winking, and a revelling in the more ridiculous elements of the genre, that would culminate in Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson’s hugely successful Scream movies, and then reach a nadir in the Wayans’ brothers’ increasingly witless Scary Movie franchise (have they really just released a fifth of those?!). In-jokes were everywhere.

The intention was to entertain. To provide thrills, certainly, but not really to scare. Horror, by upping the humour, had become increasingly mainstream.

The last fifteen years or so however, have seen a reaction against this. Low-budget found-footage frighteners, from The Blair Witch Project to the Paranormal Activity movies, the so-called “Asian Extreme” horror, the New Waves of Antipodean and Gallic horror, the rebooting of various grim and grimy grind house gore fests of yore – the focus is once more on creating cinema that will shock and scare an audience, rather than provoke superior sarcastic smirks and sophomoric sniggering.

And yet…

Horror fans are among the most cine-literate of film buffs, and certainly the most knowing. Post-Modernism could almost have been devised with them in mind.

They are intimately familiar with every narrative trope, every directorial flourish, every stylistic tic, every over-used cliché of the genre they love. They enjoy seeing those various elements being revisited, reworked, reimagined, reconfigured.  And they certainly like a laugh – provided it’s a suitably grim one.

British horror fans in particular, raised on an arcane mix of high camp Hammer Horror, Monty Python and the League of Gentlemen, seem to have a particular love of Comedy-Horrors, or Horror-Comedies, and the crueller and blacker they are the better we like them.

Thus, some of the most successful horror-themed British films of recent years have been comedies, from Shaun of The Dead, to The Cottage, to the recent Cockneys vs. Zombies, which was a huge hit with our audience at Grimmfest at the end of last year.

In selecting films for release from our own Grimm Entertainment label, we have of course been influenced by audience reaction as much as by our own taste and judgement.

And we have found that many of the biggest festival hits have had a strong comic element. Thus, we launched the label with Ryan Levin and Jack Perez’s Some Guy Who Kills People, a twisted, yet surprisingly sweet-natured tale of a man released from an asylum and trying to rebuild his life, who finds himself increasingly under suspicion when the bullies responsible for his original breakdown start to get murdered in increasingly horrible fashion.

In a somewhat darker comic vein, our second release, Chop, is a blacker-than-black comedic spin on “torture porn” movies such as Saw and Hostel, that traces its lineage back to the infamous Troma studios, and marks the directorial debut of Deadgirl screenwriter and cult actor Trent Haaga.

And waiting in the wings, we have Mon Ami, a droll, deadpan, very, very dark comedy of (violent) errors and criminal chaos, in which two hardware store clerks decide to revenge themselves on their grasping boss by kidnapping his daughter and holding her to ransom.

Combining narrative elements of The Cottage with the slacker humour of Clerks and dialogue worthy of Martin McDonough (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths), it won the audience award at the influential Fantasia festival in Montreal, and had the Grimm team laughing themselves sick.

We’ve other, far darker releases in the pipeline, of course, and some of the screenings we have planned over the next few months are pretty damned extreme in content. But first of all, we thought it might be an idea to soften everybody up with a few laughs. All the better to catch them unawares later on, when we go right for the jugular.

Because that’s how horror works, of course, and that’s why comedy has a place in it. It’s about keeping your audience off-balance. Make ‘em laugh, make ‘em cry, make ‘em scream…

But always keep ‘em guessing.

There’ll be a chance to see the latest film from Cockneys Vs Zombies screenwriter James Moran as part of Grimm Up North’s New British Horror double bill (Saturday January 26, Stockport Plaza, 7.00pm start. £8.00 entry).

Tower Block is a study in urban paranoia and claustrophobia – a tale of one tower block, fifteen tenants, and one sniper. We’re pairing it with a special pre-release screening of acclaimed rural found-footage shocker Hollow, from Manchester-based producer Matt Holt.

Then, less than a week later, there’s our Bloody Black Comedy double bill, featuring special preview screenings of upcoming Grimm Entertainment releases Mon Ami and Chop.

Image courtesy of Grimm Entertainment, via YouTube, with thanks.

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