Lunatics and Laughter: An Introduction
The time is almost here, friends. Like I did last year, I’ve assembled a slate of movies, I’ve begun watching them, and I’ve been composing my thoughts about significant films in a single field. But where last year I looked at pure horror films, this year I’m spending the rest of the month with horror’s goofy cousin, the horror/comedy.
I’ve loved the horror/comedy far longer than I loved straight horror movies. While I was a bit too nervous, as a child, to dig into the really dark stuff, I was eager to see the adventures of the Ghostbusters, the Teen Wolf movies, or virtually any movie or cartoon show that utilized any variation of the Universal Monsters. By my formative years in the 1980s, the more classic icons of horror had already lost much of their bite (excuse the pun) and had become icons of a “safe” scare. Dracula, the Wolfman, the Frankenstein monster were all creatures that children new instinctively were supposed to be scary, but instead of being actually frightened, we flocked to them as fun creatures. Whether Dracula was chasing Abbott and Costello or the Wolfman was being chased by Scooby Doo, part of us secretly was rooting for these beasts that gave chills to our parents and grandparents.
As I posited in the introduction to the first Reel to Reel project (then under its original title, Story Structure), I think most human fear is connected to the unknown or the unfamiliar. When movie audiences first saw the Universal monsters, back in those formative days of cinema, they were something brand-new, unearthly, and frightening. But after 80 years of people wearing masks sculpted like Boris Karloff, there’s no longer anything unfamiliar about the classic monsters. The horror icons of the 80s have begun to suffer from a similar problem — who’s left in western civilization that doesn’t recognize Freddy Krueger or Jason Voorhees? Familiarity has cost these creatures their ability to make us fear them.
When this happens, there are basically two approaches you can take. You can try to strip that familiarity away and make them fresh again (done mostly successfully by Rob Zombie in his Halloween remake, far less so in its sequel), which is brilliant if it works well. The other approach is to embrace that familiarity and turn the monster into a jester. This is surprisingly easy to do – both horror and comedy are predicated on a buildup and release of tension. The biggest change is that the storytellers must now release that tension with a punchline rather than a slashed throat.
So from now until Halloween, we’re going to take a look at one movie a day (hopefully, assuming nothing happens that makes me fall behind) that uses these classic elements of the scary movie and, instead, makes us laugh. Come back tomorrow for Day One of Reel to Reel: Lunatics and Laughter, in which we meet up with one of the greatest American icons of comedy, Bob Hope, as he deals with the darkness in the 1940 classic The Ghost Breakers.
And don’t forget, Reel to Reel: Mutants, Monsters and Madmen is now available as an eBook! You can pick it up for just $2.99!