4 Reasons Why Comedic Directors Are So Good At Horror
Not many film fans, we're guessing, can say they predicted the fact that some of the best horror movies of the past decade would come from one of the guys responsible for a sketch called "If Names Were Farts," but perhaps we should have seen Jordan Peele's ascension coming. For one thing, that sketch where he plays Baby Forrest Whitaker is more unsettling than anything in the Saw franchise.
Seriously, that's basically a three-minute horror movie there. But more importantly, Peele isn't the first or last filmmaker to jump so seamlessly between both genres. From Mel Brooks producing David Lynch movies to Ben Stiller nailing some pretty mind-@#$%ing sequences in Severance, there are tons of examples of famous funnymen turning out to have serious horror chops. And this makes sense when you think about it because ...
The Timing Is Similar
When you're making, say, an introspective film about the search for meaning in a capitalistic world, you probably don't say, "Okay, this is the shot where I want the audience to despair about the state of society" ... or maybe you do, but it wouldn't work very well. Most genres aren't that specific; they're more about slowly building up a mood (dramatic, thrilling, boner-inducing, etc.) as the plot advances. Comedy and horror are the exceptions. During the making of a comedy, everyone involved is aware that this specific line is the setup, this is the dramatic pause, and this is the punchline that makes soda shoot out of your nose and embarrasses you in front of your date.
It's the same in a good horror movie: here's the setup, here's the quiet moment that lulls you into a false sense of security, and here's Johnny. Sorry, we mean, here's the creepy part.
Sure, both genres also build up the mood in subtler ways, but in the end, they're both all about cause and effect; it's just that one "effect" makes you laugh, while the other freaks you out. It's telling that both of these genres, in extreme cases, can result in ruined undies -- no one ever said, "Man, that historically-accurate period drama was so good I peed myself in awe." Probably.
Everything Is Intentional
Related to the above: comedy and horror are the two genres where directors are allowed to be most blatantly and nakedly "cinematic" without breaking the immersion. For instance, if a romantic film pulled a romantic line, romantic gesture, or romantic background detail on you every five seconds, that'd probably take you out of the movie. And yet, a film like The Naked Gun can get away with packing every scene with jokes coming from all directions, and not only is it not jarring, but you start to get antsy if it's been a full minute with no jokes -- like you aren't getting your money's worth.
Something similar happens in horror: The Shining can show you quick cuts of creepy images creepily framed with creepy music, and we don't think they're breaking the "reality" of the movie because, well, that's what we're here for.
In other words, we give comedy and horror directors more freedom to express the humor or spookiness through the various elements of the movie, from the soundtrack to the frame composition or even the depth of field. Other genres have to be tempered with doses of naturalism to make you forget you're watching a film; comedy and horror can be injected straight to your veins in their purest form with no negative side effects (aside from the aforementioned soiled pants). And this might explain why ...
They Mix Really Well
There are lots of classic comedy/dramas and lots of awesome horror/sci-fis, but horror/comedy seems to be the most personal and career-defining combination for many filmmakers. Look at Sam Raimi, who jumped from another indie horror director to cult legend when he decided to make Evil Dead II funny and just threw in some references to that movie in his latest superhero film, 35 years later.
Or Edgar Wright, who went from sitcom director to superstar with, of all things, a zombie comedy that is equal parts gory and hilarious. Shaun of the Dead defined his style, and it's surprising that he only released his first straight-up horror movie last year (Last Night in Soho) ... unless you count the impressively authentic fake trailer he made for Grindhouse in 2007.
James Gunn is another one: he jumped to fame making funny horror movies, and his love for gore and snappy dialogue still shines through in his superhero work. (In case you hate joy and thus haven't watched Peacemaker: there's gore and NSFW language in the clip below.)
And so on. But then again, for every filmmaker who pulls off the magical combination that is comedy/horror, there's another one who couldn't figure it out, including some pretty big names. Because ...
Comedy Is The Hardest Film Genre For Writers/Directors
That's not us saying that: that's Chris Nolan, who once confessed he never wants to do any comedies because: "They rely on unanimity of audience response. You screen a comedy for people, and if they don’t laugh, you've got to figure out a way to make them laugh. There's no hiding behind the art of the film. There's 'Oh, you don't get it.'" And he's not alone there. Some of the biggest directors ever were frustrated comedians.
Alfred Hitchcock loved comedy and included funny elements in many of his films, but the two times he tried to do a black comedy (The Trouble with Harry and Family Plot), contemporary audiences didn't care for them. Orson Welles had The Lady from Shanghai (which had comedy elements) re-edited by the studio and Monsieur Verdoux was taken by Chaplin, who was like, "Off you go, I'll handle this." Stanley Kubrick did Lolita and Dr. Strangelove, but they were misunderstood in their time, and he wasn't able to make his sex comedy version of Eyes Wide Shut starring Steve Martin or Woody Allen a reality. David Lynch loved There's Something About Mary, and it's probably not a coincidence that he included this scene in the next movie he made after watching it (Mulholland Drive):
Our point being: comedy is dang hard, so if you master comedy, chances are you'll have an easier time cracking the other genres than the average filmmaker. Even horror, which is another toughie. In short, if Peele wants to do a western or a period drama or a musical next, sign us up.
Thumbnail: Universal Pictures