Screaming With Laughter: When Comedians Make Horror Movies

This article was originally commissioned for Fangoria Magazine in September 2018, but didn’t make it to print, for reasons I cannot remember. Accordingly, it does not mention Us, or David Gordon Green’s Halloween, though it would have, had they come out at the time.

Comedy and horror have been bedfellows for longer than any living person can remember.  Washington Irving and Edgar Allan Poe were writing horror stories with pitch-dark senses of humour as far back as the start of the 19th Century, and the birth of cinema only increased the genres’ closeness to one another. Horror parodies have been around nearly as long as horror movies have – D.W. Griffith dropped comedic elements into his 1922 murder-mystery One Exciting Night – but it wasn’t until Abbott and Costello met Frankenstein in 1948 that the genre really took off. The subsequent decades of horror-comedies should be familiar to any self-respecting fan of either genre.

Lately, though, there’s been a remarkable trend wherein filmmakers who got their starts in comedy have started making out-and-out horror movies. It’s not “new,” per se, but it’s accelerated – and notably, seen remarkable mainstream success – in the past few years.

Many comedians take an obvious route towards making horror films: that of the horror-comedy. It’s a natural choice for comedians looking to deal with darker, more violent subject material without sacrificing their unique voices. John Landis’ An American Werewolf In London, now enshrined in the horror canon, was a major left-turn for the director when it released in 1981. Despite having dealt with creatures before, largely through the use of gorilla suits, Landis was best-known for full-blown comedy hits Animal House and The Blues Brothers. Even Werewolf, an uproariously funny film with a crowd, wasn’t what people expected; the marketing tagline – “a different kind of animal” – goes out of its way to remind audiences both how much they loved Animal House and not to expect the same thing again. Recently, former TV sketch-comedy maestro Ben Wheatley jumped to horror with the existentially dread-inducing Kill List; Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace actress Alice Lowe directed pregnancy horror-comedy Prevenge; and the two teamed up to make the underrated serial killer comedy Sightseers. We’ll be hearing more about Darkplace in a bit.

More intriguing than horror comedies are films firmly planted in horror, that merely contain some comedic content. Jordan Peele’s Get Out is the platonic ideal of this kind of film. The former sketch-comedy star’s debut social horror feature won an Academy Award for its screenplay, which uniquely balanced truly terrifying social, psychological, and visceral horror with incredulous, what-the-fuck levity and one of cinema’s most effective comic-relief characters. Stand-up comedian Bobcat Goldthwait – a veteran of three Police Academy films, for God’s sake – stomped out new territory, too, when as a director he followed up a string of black comedies with Willow Creek, simultaneously revitalising both the Bigfoot and found-footage genres. Even slacker/pop-culture comedy hero Kevin Smith made such a move, with a trio of horror-adjacent films – Red State, Tusk, and Yoga Hosers – though they grew sillier with each subsequent release.

Then, there are the filmmakers who jumped from “pure” comedy into “pure” horror. 2018 alone has seen two notable examples, one of which even broke outside the niche horror audience. The Office star John Krasinski wrote and directed A Quiet Place, which blew through all box-office expectations to become a significant hit and even garner awards-season attention. Krasinski’s film, centring on a family beset by bloodthirsty creatures attracted by sound, was one of the more intense cinematic experiences of 2018 – and utterly devoid of the deadpan humour people once associated with the now-reinvented filmmaker. Matthew Holness (Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace co-creator and curiously, co-star with Alice Lowe) debuted his first feature as a director at the Edinburgh International Film Festival 2018, with a film possibly more serious and harrowing than any of these films. Possum, based on Holness’ own short story, is more atmospheric and psychological than Krasinski’s film, dealing with childhood trauma through dread-inducing tension-building and a transformative performance from Sean Harris. It burrows into the soul of the viewer, rather than shouting “boo” at them, and it’s one of the more distressing films of the year.

That two prominent examples have emerged this year is not to say that other filmmakers hadn’t already made the same jump. When Rob Reiner came to direct Kathy Bates to an Oscar in his adaptation of Stephen King’s Misery, he was mostly known for comedy, too. Though he was already something of a genre chameleon, and had already directed non-horror King adaptation Stand By Me, Reiner’s most celebrated films were the likes of This Is Spinal Tap, The Princess Bride, and When Harry Met Sally. Misery, a terrifying horror film despite a lack of supernatural material, and whose “hobbling” scene is routinely quoted as one of cinema’s scariest, was the hardest horror the director would ever make – and one of the last great films in his oeuvre before his mid-’90s decline. 

Even parody-master Mel Brooks dipped his toe into horror in the 1980s, though not as directly as the other filmmakers cited here. Through his company Brooksfilms, the parody auteur produced David Lynch’s horror-adjacent historical drama The Elephant Man, before moving on to David Cronenberg’s all-timer remake of The Fly (and its lesser, underrated sequel) and Freddie Francis’ Victorian-era grave-robbing horror-drama The Doctor And The Devils. Brooks believed in these projects to the extent that he was reportedly nervous about putting his name on them, fearing the association with his comedic work would do them disservice in the eyes of the public. He needn’t have worried. Though Francis’ film has faded from memory somewhat, The Fly and The Elephant Man are still considered classics to this day, the latter scoring eight Academy Award nominations – though Lynch’s film is barely ever mentioned in the same breath as horror, despite heavily employing the genre’s visual language. Given the “elevated genre” rhetoric floating around these days, that’s just what happens to critically-acclaimed horror, it seems.

The list goes on. God knows how horror fans responded when they heard The Silence of the Lambs was going to be adapted by the director of Married to the Mob. Few expected American Pie’s Paul Weitz to make a vampire film in Cirque du Freak, or Ace Ventura/Nutty Professor director Tom Shadyac to craft a melancholic chiller in Dragonfly. It’s a little-known fact that Balls of Fury star Dan Fogler directed a horror comedy, Hysterical Psycho. And who knows what kind of emotional and physical horrors are contained within comedy legend Jerry Lewis’ unseen, locked-away maybe-masterpiece The Day The Clown Cried?

It’s worth noting that you see “horror filmmakers” going in the other direction more frequently. How many horror series have gone from straight-up horror to horror-comedies, or even meta-level jokes about their own existence? How many directors started off in cheap horror movies before moving towards other genres? How many horror actors have parodied their typecast personas? Numerous horror franchises – Evil Dead, Texas Chainsaw, Nightmare on Elm Street, Child’s Play – have gone in this direction at least once (or in the case of Friday the 13th or The Howling, in plain silly directions), sometimes even becoming better-known for the comedic versions of the characters than the “straight” ones. (All of this to say nothing of the Universal Monsters’ encounters with Abbott and Costello, and subsequent endless parodies!)

It’s not hard to see the connections between comedy and horror, and indeed, they’ve been analysed many times over. Robert Bloch referred to horror and comedy as “different sides of the same coin,” and the meeting of the two allows users to laugh at what scares them most – a psychological release often needed in the darkest of times. Movies that scare one person might seem hilarious to another; both genres deal in absurdism, which in its purest form teeters on the edge of dread and amusement. We laugh at jokes, yes, but we also laugh to defuse tension. That also explains why horror movies have jokes in them, from a character perspective: people tell jokes all the time in tense situations. A horror movie in which no character said something funny wouldn’t just be oppressive; it’d be an unrealistic depiction of human behaviour.

In an interview with Birth.Movies.Death, Matthew Holness defined the similarity as “having a willingness to go places that aren’t necessarily places most people would go to.” Or, in Peele’s words, “they allow us to purge our own fears and discomforts in a safe environment.” Both genres operate on the fringes of acceptability, and examples of both have been pilloried in the media and public discourse for crossing the line (whatever that line may be). Perhaps extreme splatter being funny and extreme comedy being discomfiting are linked; perhaps the instincts for both responses come from a similar place. Both horror and comedy push audience boundaries on a regular basis; it’s no wonder they so frequently become intertwined.

But it’s not just thematics that are linked; the skills required to pull off both are closer than a casual observer might think. Holness says: “to create a [joke] and execute it well, it’s a similar sort of thing to creating a scare.” And indeed, the craft of creating jokes and creating scares is virtually identical – just aimed toward extracting different emotional responses. Comedies operate on setups and punchlines, whether delivered through dialogue or visuals: the most basic structure of a joke is to establish a routine, then break it unexpectedly. The same is true of scares. Sinister writer C. Robert Cargill put it thus on Twitter:

Whether that “something even more fucked up” has comic or horrific effect is dependent only on the content – the structure is the same. “I felt like everything I learned in comedy I could apply to this movie,” said Peele of making Get Out, and you can see the evidence onscreen – especially as many of its most uncomfortable moments inspire laughter as much as they do dread and terror. Creating moments that do both is the mark of true craft. In Get Out, there are sequences structured like this, but the whole movie, too, is structured as both a joke and a scare. It’s built from a series of subtle hints and misdirections, then increasingly-clear indications of where things could go, followed by an utterly deranged Big Reveal. It plays with audience expectations all the way through, and even the final fist-pumping moment of the film – the arrival of Lil Rel Howery’s TSA agent Rod – is the punchline to a whole movie’s worth of setup.

Intriguingly, both horror and comedy can’t reach their full potential with craft alone. They’re incredibly dependent on their audiences for success – and not just in an obvious financial sense. With a receptive crowd, an amusing comedy becomes hilarious; an unnerving horror movie becomes terrifying. Says Holness: “you don’t know whether either will work until an audience or reader experiences it. You know instantly if a joke goes down well or not, just as you see with a scare moment.” Horror movies are audience-tested heavily for this reason: like a stand-up workshopping new material, you have to see how an audience responds to your work to hone it to its best possible form.

It’s probably not coincidental, either, that the “sad clown” jokes are true: comedians routinely suffer from depression and other mental illnesses. Frequently, when comedians tell jokes, they’re doing so to defuse the horror in the world or in their own lives, and many comedians have dark inner worlds people rarely see. Robin Williams committed suicide. Owen Wilson, Stephen Fry, Drew Carey, and others attempted suicide. Jim Belushi abused drugs until he overdosed. Jim Carrey, Maria Bamford, Wayne Brady, Sarah Silverman, Richard Pryor, Patton Oswalt, and others have spoken or joked about their struggles with depression. Spike Milligan wrote a book about it. The Laugh Factory in L.A. has an in-house psychologist. British comedy producer John Lloyd suggests that “stable people think the world’s fine as it is. They don’t see any particular need to change it. Creative people don’t feel like that.”

All of which is to say that it shouldn’t come as a surprise that comedians have demons to be exorcised – or that they might make films about demons being exorcised. When you see or experience paralysing dread in your daily life, communicating it or defusing it through your work is a natural response. Comedy and horror are “like therapy” in terms of the release they offer audiences, says Peele, and it’s easy to see that in creators too, once you become aware of it. Hell – I spent twelve years working in comedy, and I have clinical depression, and all the scripts I write now are horror movies. The connection feels like second nature to me.

Ultimately, the lesson to be learned here is that storytelling and filmmaking is a skill much more transferable from one genre to another than many fans might expect. Too often, we pigeonhole writers, directors, actors, and the like as “comedy filmmakers” or “horror filmmakers” or “drama filmmakers,” when realistically many of those people would do just as well in other genres. Just as an immediately post-Nightmare Robert Englund would struggle to get a comedy role, or an immediately post-Ace Ventura Jim Carrey would be literally laughed out of the room at a horror audition, we expect filmmakers to stick to “what they’re good at” – even when we simply haven’t seen them do anything else yet. 

It used to be that directors were considered borderline disposable contractors, hired to guide actors and crew and cross the finish line with whatever project studios deemed necessary. Auteur theory – and the subsequent glorification of the director in the public eye, especially in the Internet age – has changed fans’ concept of the job substantially. We now see directors as entirely defined by the stories they’ve told already – which is fair, to a degree, but prevents us from fully appreciating the actual skills underneath. Directors are not their work; they’re human beings with, as Liam Neeson might say, a certain set of skills. If they’re good, they’ll make good work regardless of their tonal palette. And maybe – just maybe – someone known for doing one thing might want to do another thing.

With Us on the horizon, labeled “a new nightmare from the mind of Jordan Peele,” all eyes will be on the writer/director’s continued evolution as a filmmaker and storyteller. Will it be funnier than Get Out? Scarier? Will the laughs and scares marry themselves yet tighter with one another? Or will Peele buck tonal expectations again, delivering something altogether new? Whatever he makes, it’ll be because he believes in his story – and because he goes for story first, and genre second. Whether audiences laugh, or scream, is just a byproduct of the craft.