Stomping Around in the Dark 6: The Ha-Ha in Horror

Posted: October 23, 2008 in Jeff Holland, poetics
Tags: , , , ,

Jaime had suggested Dolls, a horror movie that scared her when she was young. And the premise – killer porcelain dolls – is one that easily gives me the willies.

(There was this show when I was little, “Tales from the Dark Side.” It was so scary to me, as a four-year-old, that the credits alone gave me nightmares. In particular was this quick-zoom up to the face of a porcelain doll, who opened her eyes right as the music vamped up. Scared the crap out of me.)

So I had a good feeling that Dolls would push those irrational-fear buttons I look for in horror movies.

It took me ten minutes to realize it was a comedy. It took me 20 (and IMDB) to realize it was horror-comedy by the guy who directed Re-Animator. And only after learning that did I decide to soldier on through another hour of vaudevillian acting, silly special effects, and a plot that went for cutesy fun (something about finding your inner child…or else!) when it had the potential for real scary moments.

I mean, really. Don’t porcelain dolls freak you out? No? It’s just me? Well…shut up, then.

Speaking of Re-Animator, thanks to Comcast’s OnDemand, I actually got to watch a movie I never thought I’d catch: Beyond Re-Animator, the third installment in the Herbert West series, which finds the good/bad doctor locked up in what must be a Mexican prison (or else the budget dictated they film in some Central American country), experimenting on inmates and spiting the greasy warden while setting off a prison riot…and also ruining the life of his would-be protégé.

Beyond Re-Animator is a movie you can’t possibly pay a lot of attention to because it’s simply not any good – but you kinda have to, because missing a few minutes here and there robs it of any kind of logic.

Dolls and Beyond Re-Animator are in that sub-sub-genre of the horror-comedy, which is…confusing. On the one hand, being scared out of one’s wits and having your guts busted by comedy should be mutually exclusive. But on the other, horror movies have their cinematic roots in schlocky special effects and paper-thin plots, so the potential for the funny is clear.

And when done right – Slither and Evil Dead II come to mind – they’re brilliant. Cult classics as gruesome as they are hilarious.

But defining what makes a good horror-comedy is really tricky. In discussing “Doctor Who”’s reputation of being “behind the couch” viewing – meaning kids had to hide behind their couches for the scary parts – Warren Ellis noted something along the lines of, “Sure the Daleks might look silly – but their victims are no less dead.”

Maybe that’s it: No matter the joke, the threat still has to be serious.

Next week I’ll be talking about The Signal, the best horror movie I’ve seen this year. It’s broken down into three interlocking segments, the second being weirdly (and intentionally) hilarious. The reason: the audience is never allowed to forget that while the immediate premise of a woman preparing a New Year’s party in the midst of an outbreak of mass psychosis is quite funny, we never forget that the stakes are very serious once we leave the confines of her apartment.

The threat in Dolls is, well, dolls. Assuming they don’t have weird hypnotic powers, you can kick them away and be safe. And the threat in Re-Animator is being locked up with Jeffrey Combs, which is sort of hard to relate to.

(Quick side question: How has Jeffrey Combs not gained the cult status of Bruce Campbell? Combs is as charismatically creepy as Campbell is goofily swashbuckling.)

So while they may be intermittently funny, they don’t at all work as horror films.

Next up: The Strangers, The Signal, and to cap things off, a big fat mash-up of Body Snatcher adaptations!

  1. Lisa says:

    So, sort of a related note, I watched Rosemary’s Baby this weekend. Not scary at all. Basically just 2 hours of Mia Farrow wandering around trying to make it look like she was acting. Then, “holy crap, i just gave birth to Satan’s baby!” and then that was pretty much it. Snore-ola.

    Just thought you’d want to know.

  2. threatqualitypress says:

    I think probably the most laughable part of Rosemary’s Baby is the bit with Anton Zander LaVey as the scary devil superimposed over the conception scene.

    The movie is another one of those ones where mood is so important–if they get it right, it can be really creepy. But if there’s anything that breaks the integrity of the mood for even a second, the whole thing just becomes ridiculous.

  3. Jeff Holland says:

    I was really disappointed by “Rosemary’s Baby,” though I think if you view it as a black comedy it might work better. I was watching it as straight horror, and so the moment where she says, “His eyes…WHAT’S WRONG WITH HIS EYES?!” – which should be a fundamentally disturbing line – just rang totally hollow.

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