Comedy Horror Do's And Don'ts
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As a subgenre, it took quite a while for comedy horror movies to be (ha) taken seriously, but like a certain franchise about a juvenile murderous redheaded doll, the genre simply refused to quit. In 2019, we saw 19 comedy horrors released compared to a whopping two back in 1979. The little genre-that-could-slash-and-laugh has come a long way, and with it, many a trope that sometimes delights and sometimes makes us groan harder than when we first heard the logline for The Hunt.
Now before we take a dive into some of these tropes, a quick note: Yes, comedy horror movies differ wildly and can sometimes be a bit challenging to define. For instance, while Malignant is billed as a horror/thriller, the fact that James Wan so clearly exposed the tongue hiding in his cheek all over the movie practically begs us to file it in the comedy horror subgenre.
The point is that some horrors will have more horror than comedy, some will have more comedy than horror (think Attack of the Killer Tomatoes), and some movies will bend genres like James Wan bends the scope of rationality.
Groovy, let’s dig into those comedy horror tropes that work, and those that can go fly like that chair did in Malignant.
DO: Give Us A Joke In The Opening Titles
It’s fairly easy to establish a movie as horror in the first five minutes: Just make sure someone dies, gruesomely. What’s seemingly more challenging is how to introduce comedic elements from the start, but not if you look at films that absolutely nailed it.
Using intro slides to deliver initial jokes works great because it’s literally the first thing the audience sees. In Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, the absurd horror movie opens with slides talking about how people laughed at Hitchcock's The Birds...until a bird attack actually happened, before diving straight into a scene where a tomato attacks a woman. It is as glorious an opening as it sounds.
Bubba Ho-Tep — where Bruce Campbell plays an Elvis obsessed with his, and we quote, pecker — starts with two tongue-in-cheek slides on the definition of the title that immediately identifies the level of bonkers you’re about to experience.
Probably the finest example of how this works comes from one of the best comedy horrors of the year:
What makes the opening slide of Werewolves Within so damn good is that at first, it’s genuinely rather scary, what with the creepy font, the slow text reveal, and that eerie spooky sound playing over a quote that could arguably mean something truly sinister because spooky sound says so. And then BAM!, they hit you with the name of the person who said it, the joke pays off, and the mood shifts to one where it’s okay to laugh at what you’re about to see, however murder-y it may be.
DON’T: Overdo Titles In Opening Sequences/In General
Title cards can be pretty fun additions to a movie, especially when the game is to try and fit those titles into the actual action happening on screen. The Babysitter franchise gets this right, and so did Zombieland:
The opening of 2011’s Detention also works…
...until it doesn’t. Because while the opening scene nails the title cards, the opening credits prove that it’s never a good idea to ride a joke for too long, especially if the joke is font-based.
The pacing is off, the jokes are hardly, and the whole sequence feels forced. It worked in Zombieland because the opening credits were subtle. They weren't the focus point of the action — they were added to the scene like set trimmings on Thanksgiving. In Detention, it seems as if the filmmakers were so afraid jokes would be missed that they ended up shoving those gags in our faces. Which is like telling someone you just met that you're ‘deep’. That's the kind of thing people have to notice for themselves, not something you can credibly inform them of.
DO: Give Us Hilarious And Innovative Kills
Getting people to laugh about death/murder/gore requires some scene-stealing kills, people. Decapitating a character might sound very “been there, done that” but what if it's decapitation by surfboard in the desert? Now that gets our attention.
Even better is having the victims pretty much pick themselves off, ala Tucker & Dale vs. Evil:
Sweet, let's talk weapons. Axes and knives and guns are old and just not inherently funny. Give us cheese graters around the arm like in the underrated and hilarious New Zealand movie Housebound, or the legendary kitchen fight in You’re Next that'll forever be remembered for its excellent use of a blender.
It’d also be sacrilege not to mention Braindead and the carnage that is a man with a lawnmower in a zombie outbreak, especially since this example shows how over-the-top hilarity can be acquired by making a scene feel like it’s never, ever going to end:
What we’re watching might be objectively horrific, but the presentation of it is what drives the laughs. Ash in Evil Dead 2 having to cut off his homicidal hand is mortifying, sure, but it’s the slapstick way in which the whole scene plays out that provides the comedy gold. The point is that the humor often lies in the absurdity of the action itself. It’s why Willy’s Wonderland has some of this year’s greatest, funniest kills. Truly, what’s more hilarious and whaaa? than Nicolas Cage using a broken pool cue to fight a giant robotic ostrich puppet?
Of course, the sooner we see these creative kills, the better. While the opening kill of Scream left many of us traumatized thanks to the sheer violence it depicted, the second movie — in keeping with the format of sequels — took itself less serious and gave us one of the most over-the-top opening kills in cinematic history. Housebound on the other hand (which is not a slasher but a haunting movie) brought the funny in a different way but still within the first three minutes:
And then there’s the 2020 movie Freaky that not only has some of the best kills in modern slashers, but also an opening sequence filled with what may be some of the most creative, most nutty kills in slasher openings ever.
It really is amazing what a slasher movie killer can do with a wine bottle and a tennis racket.
And while we’re talking about kills…
ALSO DO: Kill The Following Characters:
1) All The Horrible A-holes, especially (sexual) harassers, bigots, and abusers. No one wants to see these characters survive, especially in a less serious horror film where reality can be bent and stretched. Examples here include the early death of the idiot boyfriend in The Frighteners, those two bozos at the beginning of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, everyone who dies/gets maimed in Teeth, and all the satisfying murders in Freaky.
There’s a trick to this trope where knowing who dies (the jerks) trumps the usual tension created by the mystery of not knowing who’ll get their guts shown to them down the line. In society, horrible harassers and abusers seldom get their asses handed to them. The real horror — for many folks IRL — is that these absolutely terrible people simply (and often) get away with their BS. Comedy horrors provide a cathartic, albeit fictional remedy. It’s where we at least get to see the tables turned for once.
2) All The Rich People. Also cathartic, because no one wants to see rich and entitled people make it through a nightmare (except rich and entitled people). Even better if it’s at the hands of their own rich and entitled inner circle. Movies like Creepshow, Ready or Not, Werewolves Within, and You’re Next lean on this trope to our full satisfaction. We support it one hundred percent. It's a good trope, no notes.
DON’T: Just Make Everyone An Idiot To Justify Their Kills
This was probably one of the biggest mistakes The Hunt made. The movie might possibly have been better if it didn’t make most of its characters more dumb and shallow than a Looney Tunes villain. Every antagonist who dies in this movie is a complete idiot, not only for their ridiculous beliefs and rationales, but also because — and no matter how you want to swallow the film’s attempt at ambiguity — they picked the wrong woman to “hunt.” Sure, the movie tried real hard to say something satirical, but sometimes even satire requires subtlety.
And before you say, "Well come now, Cracked, Tucker and Dale did the very same thing!," uhm, no. The difference is that Tucker & Dale vs. Evil didn’t take itself half as serious as The Hunt did. It's a difference that shows, because while we laughed at the hysterical, bigoted kids flying into Tucker and Dale's woodchipper all by themselves, the kills of these flat, liberal-elites-because-we-say-so characters felt, in a word, empty.
But hey, at least they were all rich. That helped a little.
Diving a little deeper into character…
DO: Give Us Self-Aware, Sensitive Men, And Badass Women
Give us new ranger Finn from Werewolves Within, who goes from being non-assertive and chanting “balls! balls!” along with his self-help tape in the search of his inner confidence or whatever to a guy who’s had it with everyone telling him how and who he needs to be. Give us Officer John Marshall from The Wolf of Snow Hollow, a character that straight-up mocks those toxic aspects of masculinity and shows us that, sometimes, a man just needs a good cry. By Jove, give us more Dales:
As for women in horror, the more badass the better. We’re way past the “damsel in distress” era of horror and also all other genres. Show us female rage; show us women who can absolutely destroy a face (or, in the case of Teeth, other precious parts). We’ve already mentioned You’re Next, Zombieland, and The Babysitter movies. The Hunt had a lot of problems, but Betty Gilpin annihilating everyone sure wasn’t one of them. Add to this list Jennifer’s Body, Prevenge, Life After Beth, and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and it’s easy to see how women who slay are all the fun to watch.
Don’t: Cast Objectively Attractive Girls As Characters Supposedly Invisible To Everyone Around Them
Okay, so this is not some deep revelation, but it's annoying when the audience is expected to believe/pretend that girls as pretty as Kathryn Newton in Freaky or Shanley Caswell in Detention are weird wallpaper outcasts who no one pays any attention to. And if it’s only true from the characters’ own point of view, then that needs to be ham-fished obvious, especially since this has been a dumb trope in almost all genres since forever.
WE INTERRUPT THIS BROADCAST FOR A SPECIAL ANNOUNCEMENT ON ZOMBIES
Give us unique zombies. The Return of the Living Dead gave us zombies who were fast, clever, and could lure cops to their deaths using their cop walkie-talkies — all of this back in 1985. Gone are the days of slow and boring zombies because Shaun of the Dead already made all the points about it. Zombies in comedy horrors need creative quirks to hold our attention, like having them be addicted in death to what they were in life:
Or, instead of playing up the old trope of zombies being a metaphor for consumerism, do something different, like making them horrible little prepubescent kids:
Or how about just straight up make them Nazis and see the audience’s Kill Satisfaction Meter spike.
We’re done with the overweight-zombies-are-slow jokes. It’s old, it’s juvenile, and if there’s no actual point being made about an atrocious healthcare system or poverty or any actual socio-political problem, please refrain from body-shaming even the Undead.
Moving on to…
A modern comedy horror is in some ways incomplete without a list of genre references and/or pop culture jokes. But fulfilling this criteria doesn’t make all comedy horrors equal. Going meta, especially, is a delicate process and can easily lead to a movie getting lost in itself and leaving its audience wondering if the filmmakers forgot about them. So, here are the simple ways to pull this off.
DO: Use A Character
Do it with a dedicated character like The Scholar who can provide us with genre and pop culture related jokes. The Scholar is a horror stereotype that works more often than not. In older movies, it was the scientist who tried to stop the evil monster, or the researcher who cautioned against opening the ancient book. Simply put, the Scholar is the character who knows things.
In modern movies, the Scholar who also knows his pop culture is TSA officer Rod in Get Out:
The Subvert Meta Scholar — because he’s also the villain — is Leslie in Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon:
And, of course, the Father of Modern Horror Movies Scholar is Randy from Scream:
Wise old Randy makes a very good point about the key being simplicity because, for the love of all things horror…
DON’T: Try So Damn Hard
In trying to display knowledge of modern pop culture, genres, and all things zeitgeist-y, sometimes movies just way overdo it, causing them to come across as either bombastic or smug or both, like your conspiracy-loving cousin who thinks he’s always right but can’t carry a rational argument for jack.
Telltale signs are when the characters sound like the writer/director thinks they’re the only smart person in the room. Detention runs into this problem, as it becomes apparent quite early on that the movie wants you to know that your knowledge of popular music sucks and, while that has nothing to do with the plot, it's the most important thing you should apparently know.
And while we’re talking about genre mashup movies and parodies,
DO: Give Us Original Parodies
Even when a comedy horror is deliberately and directly trying to say something about previous movies, genres, and styles, it should at least do so by using an original concept, angle, or story. When done well, it’s the magic of the “What If” at work. What if Victor Frankenstein had a grandson who wanted nothing to do with his notorious grandpa’s fame or work?
What if ‘80s camp slasher movies happened today, with modern kids thrown into the mix?
Another spin on this is what TV Tropes calls Punch-Clock Villains, which basically looks at the everyday, mundane things of villains when they’re not murdering or preparing for their anniversary of carnage. That’s what gave us Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, and that’s also the kind of thinking behind one of the 21st century’s biggest franchise hits:
Don’t: Cram Your Parody Movie With Too Many Ideas
The best parody films are the ones with a simple premise, but recent horror movies seem so over-eager to have a say and do some meta commenting that they end up trying to say too much and muddling everything in the process. Detention, again, had some problems here and could certainly have cut back on some of its ideas and focused more on … whatever it was actually trying to do. Happy Death Day and its sequel were fun, but the simple (and clever) concept of “Groundhog Day Slasher” got convoluted when they chose to add twist after twist to the story, and then pretty much went full Detention in the sequel.
It’s why, of all the modern meta slasher movies we’ve had of late, The Final Girls worked best. It used the “What if” premise of an ‘80s camp slasher done with modern-day youth, employed a mom and her daughter to connect the two time eras, and justified a time loop by making the kids go inside an actual movie that has a set running time. The rest of the film simply focused on the tropes surrounding camp councilors getting killed because sex, and how that concept ultimately gave us “the final girl.”
And it worked.
Now, if someone from Hollywood can please look at our script about a woman who swaps bodies with a werewolf and gets stuck in a time loop where all she wants to do is eat rich people…
OH, WAIT! WE’RE NOT DONE YET!
FINALLY: Do Give Us One Last Laugh
Whether it’s completely subversive and unexpected, like that screwball ending in Drag Me To Hell:
Or whether it’s pretending to be a set up for a sequel but not really because it’s just a joke:
It’s the Rule of Endings: In horror, the audience gets one final scare. In a comedy horror, you better give us that one final laugh.
Or at least leave us cheering in our seats and fist pumping the air, which is pretty much what we're doing here by leaving you with Millie's final line in Freaky.
Zanandi nerds out on horror over at Twitter. She also wrote a comic for Trailer Park Boys that you can order here.
Top Image: Fox Searchlight Pictures