Treading the fine line between scary and campy in horror films
Pat: Horror films, more so than films of other genres, tend to tow a fine line between creating anxiety and hilarity.
Sam Raimi, among others, picked up on this trend some time ago with his “Evil Dead” series; it’s part of what gives the genre its charm. After you’ve seen the same scare a dozen times, it tends to become absurd, and it’s more fun to laugh at the film than to be scared by it after a while.
Most horror films that miss crafting coveted anxiety in the viewer succeed in other ways. Even the worst of horror films can be good for a laugh among friends, which tends to be what engenders such a cult following.
There’s some evidence for this in watching films that have become clichés with age. While “Jaws” was once a “horror” film, scaring people away from beaches, the original is now predictable and feels so trite and overwrought that it really is horrifically funny.
Perhaps the reason these films tend to sway into comedy more easily than other films is their inherent absurdity. The seemingly unkillable Jason Voorhees of “Friday the 13th” — with his endless, creative murder spree — is initially sublime in some way, calling up the image of the serial killer, but his longevity eventually seems so absurd that it clashes with reality and deviates into comedy.
A lot of modern horror films embrace that hilarity. “My Bloody Valentine 3D” reveled in its absurdity as its slayer threw objects at the viewer and subjected them to up-close-and-personal bloodbaths using 3D glasses.
The plot of almost any slasher film can be read as a reductio-ad-absurdum of the teen drama or romance genre, a tradition harkening back to John Carpenter’s 1978 “Halloween.” Most seem to have a pack of lusty teenagers ready to indulge their high school love fantasies when their dreams are smashed by a laughably ridiculous murder spree.
In some ways, the horror genre can be used as a subtle and amusing criticism of the preponderant, cloying teen dramas. Even if the filmmakers behind some of the lower-grade horror films don’t see it that way — even if they just missed the mark — the cult followers that arise around them probably look at the films that way, rooting for the archetypal slasher to cut the throats of the proverbial leading love of the teen romance while laughing at the sheer absurdity along the way.
It’s been fun, UCI.
Shapan: Props to Pat. What was the last good horror film you saw that really fell back solely on suspense? Did you really have fun during that? Really?
While it’s not a complete lost art, it’s tough to get that perfect balance between a damsel running around in distress and the moment the damsel gets, well, you know, the axe. There are only so many times you can play the screeching strings from “Psycho” before an audience gets weary. Well, that’s why the words “scary” and “funny” seem to go together so well. It’s a healthy break between the slashing stuff you’ve already seen in a movie before. The best horror films in recent memory seem to make fun of themselves, either through parody or excessiveness.
“Freddy vs. Jason” pits the immortal Jason against the pesky Freddy Krueger from the “A Nightmare on Elm Street” series, and the result is awesome entertainment. The fight scene between Freddy and Jason is made solely to give fans of the franchises some cool eye candy while both monsters try and one-up each other with ridiculous over-the-top stunts. It didn’t even matter who won, in fact the result was subjective at the end as it is; it was all just for fun. The film ended with little resolved aside from the murder spree of kids that got on the audience’s nerves in the first place.
Wes Craven, the creator of Freddy Krueger, has had more fun with the manipulation of the horror genre. The “Scream” trilogy, directed by Craven, was one of the more popular horror franchises in the ’90s. The trilogy was known just as much for its constant self-parody as it was for creating a new iconic slasher in Ghostface. The trilogy marked a revival of horror films in the mid-1990s not because learning the craft of a slasher brought suspense, but because of knowing how to poke fun at it.
As more time passes on, horror audiences are becoming less patient to wait through the repetitive motions of a boring slasher and would prefer immediate gratification with a little edge to it. Through these laid back horror flicks, there’s always something entertaining happening.
Whether it’s an obscenely ridiculous puzzle Jigsaw set up in the latest “Saw” movie or the fun, reckless attitude toward zombies in “Shaun of the Dead,” the realization that these movies are made for entertainment is helping all parties involved. After all, 10 years from now, it’ll be nice if history remembers your horror movie as being silly because you intended it that way.