Last blog, I started an examination of the horror comedy and why it seems everyone fucks it up. If you haven't read that one yet, check it out before continuing on below.
I've said this before in other blog posts, but it's really worth restating here. Humans are pack animals, herd animals if you ask some scientists, and either way, we look to our peers if we sense danger. Do they seem to be reacting too? Are they scared? If they're scared, should I be? And through millions of years of evolution, we've become finely tuned instruments, capable of reading each other's faces for even the slightest signs of fear and danger.
In horror cinema, we use that instinct against the audience. And it's why I've always said that the victim (protagonist) is way more important than any monster that we can portray. If we BELIEVE the expressions of fear from the actors on screen. If we REALLY get sucked into their dangers with them, then the horror is going to work just fine. It's this fine point where most horror films fail - bad actors who can't portray honest fear. And it's where good horror excels - talented actors who draw us in to their jeopardy and fool our survival tools into thinking they're in REAL danger (and thus, WE are in real danger too).
The way that the horror comedy fights this essential horror cinema tool is that if the characters are cracking wise the WHOLE time, what that tells us is that there's no real danger, and if there's no real danger, then there's no real horror.
The key to fixing this? Allow the humor to come from the situation, not from the jokes and wisecracks. The characters should think they're in a drama. They're terrified and tormented by what's going on, but no one told them they're in a comedy, so joke's on them, and the audience is in on it.
There are visual and design reasons why comedy and horror tend to fight each other when mixed, and these too have to be balanced to succeed. Allow me to geek out on cinematography and lighting for a sec...
In comedy, lighting tends to be flat. In horror, lighting is often one sided, sculpting the subjects in moody shadow.
In comedy, camera angles tend to be straight on and moving. In horror, camera angles tend to be angled, skewed and often perverse to the norm.
The idea behind all these visual principals is simple...
In comedy, you want to get out of its way and let the characters and jokes breathe and do their thing. So camera, lighting and design are usually minimal. The idea is to just stay back and let the subject do it's thing.
In horror, on the other hand, you want to get in there, twist and manipulate the audience's perspective - make them uncomfortable with not only WHAT they're seeing, but HOW they're seeing it. As one example, imagine the slasher film without the ominous killer's POV.
So what do you do with a horror comedy? Most people don't know there is a difference so what they end up making is something that's tonally a mess because they skewed too far in one direction or the other. The trick is to work between the two - slightly bright, flat and wide for the comedy, and dark, tight and manipulated for the horror.
Why is the horror comedy on my mind? Well it's all I've been thinking about for 4 weeks, because next week, I'm off to direct three episodes of MTV's new horror comedy TV series Death Valley. Wish me luck that I'm able to apply all the principles I've outlined above (and the many more that there are) to the shows so that they'll have maximum impact. I've already read the scripts and they're great, so we're off to a great start. Now it's time to roll up my sleeves and get ready to skate the precarious waters of the scary-funny film...
And while I'm stressing over the details with my friend (and the show's creator) Spider One, check out a few of my shorts below where I too have walked the razor's edge as a filmmaker.
Gaudium Per Atrox.
THE BAD COOKIE
THERE'S NO SUCH THING
THE FRIDGE MONSTER