Remember when it was announced that we'd be getting yet another Saw movie — this time disguised as a spin-off — and that it would star the legendary horror actor … Chris Rock? Yeah, a lot of us did a double-take on that announcement, but boo for us because the comedian absolutely killed it in the not-Saw-but-also-totally-Saw movie where all the cops die. More amazingly, the horror/thriller film features very few scenes where Funny Rock gets to grace us with his comedy chops.
The rest of the movie sees him playing it straight while still bringing his comic timing and exceptional line delivery to every scene he's in. There's no trace of mocking the genre or being ironic or whatever, and the audience ends up hanging onto his every word because he has total command over the spills from his face hole. It's really brilliant to watch, but also not that surprising because comedians know all about delivery and timing. It's why you'd expect them to star as the comic relief in any genre film, really. The more interesting thing is that, while Chris Rock plays the protagonist in Spiral, many comedians and actors known primarily for doing comedy films have starred in horror movies as the creepy villain types, and they've nailed it, too. Let's look at the why.
(Most) comedians bring an intensity to their work, and that intensity translates pretty well to horrors/thrillers
Whether comedians and comic actors are yelling their lines, talking at lightning pace, or throwing in huge pauses while staring down their audience, most of these humans are just pretty damn intense. Take Vince Vaughn, the guy who can go a mile a minute on any topic with the intensity of a televangelist mainlining money.
Now put big Word Hulk in a movie like Psycho and let him play a somewhat quieter, creepy Hitchcock character, and tell us it doesn't work:
That's the thing about a comedic actor like Vaughn: The guy can just look at you, and you either want to start giggling uncomfortably or run away, real fast. The man is intense, and that intensity works great in slow and creepy buildups in horror and thriller movies. This fact was also masterfully showcased by everyone's favorite American big bear John Goodman in 10 Cloverfield Lane. The ever-lovable and larger-than-life comedy actor was downright terrifying in producer J.J. Abrams' bonkers sequel about aliens ... and stuff. Goodman's looming presence and incredible timing literally sucks up the air in that tiny bunker:
Or maybe size has something to do with said intensity because, much like Goodman, Kevin James totally filled up the screen and impressed our innocent little socks off playing a menacing Neo-Nazi asshole in the gorefest thriller Becky:
The unconscious expectation
There's a certain sweet spot in casting comedians in horrors that would catch people off guard while at the same time tap into an existing and non-obvious expectation. Take Tim Heidecker, for instance. The comedian has established himself as an offbeat character, so casting him as an insufferable guy who has an offbeat, tethered doppelgänger in Us makes total sense:
The thing about comedians is that they often display an...edge. They don't hide their dark and crazy from the world like a lot of straight actors do. Comedians lay their guts out on the table, then pick it up and dangle it in our faces to see how we'll react. There's a provocative edge to them, and most of the time we normies just hope that the full force of that edge won't be unleashed unto us all. It's why Jim Carrey worked so well in The Cable Guy.
It's also why Steve Martin nailed the homicidal dentist and terrible human guy in Little Shop of Horrors:
It's why Mark Duplass gave us the creeps in Creep:
And it is why Allison Williams so easily went from cringy comedy girl in Girls to cringy white psycho woman in Get Out:
The unexpected: Subverting expectations
The last point acts somewhat opposite to the previous one, and it illustrates why horror and comedy have worked so well together since literally always. Both these genres work by way of subverting what we think we know or expect. Comedy and horror aim to destabilize and, oftentimes, unsettle. A good joke will lead you one way, just to swerve and pay off in another, unexpected way. That's what makes it funny; that's what gets a reaction from people. A thriller or a horror — at least a good one — will work using the same mechanism. Modern classics like Scream, The Descent, The Orphanage, and It Follows all worked because they subverted our expectations of what we thought horror movies should be or are capable of being.
That is why one of the creepiest castings of a comedian in a creepy movie is this:
Robin Williams in One Hour Photo was disturbing on so many levels. While he was an exceptional comedian, Williams was also a stellar actor in general, so of course he managed to play the hell out of Sy, his character in this thriller. It's just not what anyone would've expected Williams to do, at all. And frankly, no one wanted to see him do it either. Williams created the ultimate cognitive dissonance when he took on this role because, for a lot of people, it seemed near impossible to reconcile their beloved, funny, family man movie guy with the smiling madman in this film.
And, to keep with the mechanics of good comedy and horror, Williams subverted our expectations yet again by starring in another psychological thriller and playing another smiling madman the very same year.
The against-type casting simply works. Another example is that of the late Rodney Dangerfield, who shocked many at the time by playing an abusive father in a sitcom-type scene in Oliver Stone's genre-bending movie Natural Born Killers.
And who remembers Kristen Wiig's horrific scene in Mother!...?
You probably will now.
Top Image: Warner Bros.