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How Not to Bring Comedy Into Your Horror Movie

I'm gonna be a little bit complainy today.  In my last Week in Review post, I said that I enjoyed The Town That Dreaded Sundown despite its comedy aspects.  Today I'm going to get into that in a little more detail.  (I know, I know.  Some jackass has negative opinions on a forty year old movie?  Let's put out a press release, why don't we?)

Town is a horror / docudrama about the real-life unsolved murders of five people in the 1940s.  It is presented alternately with dramatizations of the murders, a narration of the aftermath of said murders, and then the sitcom antics of the police force that's trying to hunt down the murderer and bring him to justice.

The first thing you have to wonder is why the movie even needs comedy.  It's a bit disrespectful, isn't it?  You're taking this Everything Is True approach to the story and then undermining that with laughs?  Wouldn't that be kind of like if Schindler's List occasionally cut to Oskar's disorganized secretary who keeps mixing up his Jewish Laborers List with his grocery list?  "Dah... sorry, boss!  I did it again!"

But I can always appreciate a good joke, so I'm still willing to accept it.  The part that gets me is that they're not particularly good jokes.  Almost all of the humor comes from a dimwitted cop who keeps making mistakes and drives like a lunatic.  So you'll have a scene where a terrifying psychopath with a bag over his head murders some poor woman, and then it cuts to Major Dumbass (Charles B. Pierce, the movie's director) driving a police car up a ramp and into a swamp.  It could be funny if there was actually a setup and a punchline to it.

It's alarming just how dissonant the two halves of this movie are.  There's almost no scenes with the cops where Pierce isn't being an idiot.  I wonder if he forgot what movie he was making?

Anyway, it got me wondering why horror comedy works sometimes and not others.  I've often heard people say that horror and comedy are two sides of the same coin.  I don't know if I totally agree with that, but I can respect the sentiment; both require a setup and a punch to the gut for the best effect.  But why is it that something ridiculous like The Town That Dreaded Sundown is so lame, but something even more ridiculous like The Cabin in the Woods is so engaging?

I don't have an answer.  But I have a guess.

Comedy is really hard to pull off.  People who are good at it get that way through careful construction, planning, and practice.  Horror, by comparison, is easy.  I'm not saying that just anyone can make a scary movie, but it's definitely easier because it relies on more universally-shared fears and attitudes.  A slimy monster hiding in a dark corner is creepy and scary no matter who you are; the joke that somebody makes about it is going to be a hell of a lot more subjective.

So my guess is that the best horror comedies are those that start out as comedies and have a scary aftertaste, whereas not-so-good horror comedies are those that try to throw in some comic relief after the fact.  You can more easily sprinkle horror tropes into an existing comedy and make it creepy than you can sprinkle jokes into a horror and make it funny.

I might be wrong about this.  And there's probably a hundred movies that'll disprove my hypothesis.  But I can't imagine I'm too far off.  Certainly The Town That Dreaded Sundown speaks in my favor.