Since its first appearances in the cinema, the horror film has been an outlet for all vices. This popular genre with precise narrative codes is full of dark stories where fear sometimes becomes ridiculous… At the origin of our greatest fears, zombies, psychopaths and occult sciences are now the prerogative of the most zany comedies.
“The Manor of the Devil” by George Méliès (1896)
1. The horror film in its infancy, an ultra-coded genre
With The devil’s mansion (1896), George Méliès stands out as the pioneer of the horror genre. In this innovative short film, he unknowingly draws the beginnings of a popular genre, but also his own parody. Seen by the modern viewer, The devil’s mansion is more burlesque than horrific. Yet at the time, the film marked the birth of the thriller in cinema. Subsequently, the silent films of the 20s and 30s laid the foundations of the genre: frightening and frightened characters, mysterious appearances and disappearances and fights against the devil became staples of fear on the big screen.
The horror film is very coded, perhaps too much. Screamers and cliffhangers accompany surprise reverse shots and close-up shots of the characters’ necks. Horror film techniques are well known. So much so that they end up no longer shaking at all. In the 21st century, the genre is now hackneyed, the same scenarios are repeated and often sin by their lack of originality. From slasher movies (a killer terrorizes an entire village) to gore and psychological thrillers, from Halloween from Carpenter to recent Invisible Man by Leigh Whannell, all is said, all is seen. Bloodshed and howls of terror are no longer scary. Worse, they have become laughable.
“Evil Dead 2”
2. When the horror genre starts to make you laugh
Like Harry Potter’s Scarecrow – a horrifying creature that can only be defeated by laughter – comedy quickly comes to counter the horror of horror films. One of the first zombie movies The Night of The Living Dead (1990) by George Romero, is the subject of a short parody by Kevin S. O’Brien The Night of The Living Bread (1990), where the characters are attacked not by the living dead but… by evil slices of bread. For if Romero’s film imposes itself as an innovative thriller, its absurd situations border on the comic. His zombies do not yet have the appearance of rotting corpses that we know them today, they are similar to the living, and sometimes even naked. Faced with this paradox, O’Brien could only jump at the chance and avert the fear by replacing the zombies with a grotesque object. Between the lines, a legitimate question emerges: what if the horror film was in fact a comic work?
3. Laughter to counter fear
“Anxiety is not bearable without humor” said Hitchcock. This is perhaps the paradox of the horror film: unconsciously laughter invites itself at the expense of fear, in order to be able to control it better. Even when the film does not seek to adopt the codes of comedy, its horror scenes are not immune to causing a few grins. Thus, even before it is parodied, the horror film is laughing at itself, without knowing it. This is the case of Jeepers Creepers by Victor Salva, Shark in Venice of Danny Lerner and countless Sharknado by Anthony C. Ferrante. Not content to rely on hackneyed scenarios and archetypal characters, they fail in the original task they have yet given themselves. Between tomato sauce and bad stunts, the latter make you scream, but only laugh. The diversion of fear is then born from the kitsch of the special effects, the lack of means and the moments of suspense which are repeated ad infinitum, so much so that we no longer know if the film is deliberately comic or not.
Trailer of the films “Boulevard de la mort” by Quentin Tarantino and “Planet Terror” by Robert Rodriguez (2007)
4. The comico-gore genre or revenge on fear
In 2007, Quentin Tarantino and his sidekick Robert Rodriguez come out Grindhouse, a diptych in homage to these cinematographic productions overflowing with blood and frantic chases. the Boulevard of Death by Tarantino takes on aspects of a psychological thriller, while Robert Rodriguez’s film Planet Terror is a parody of 70s-80s gore movies. Between references to Kiss me Deadly and to Body Snatchers, the film sets itself up as a master of the parody of the horror genre, saluting Romero and his famous undead in passing. With its palette of grotesque characters (from the young woman in distress to the virile bad-boy, passing by the doctor and the sadistic nurse), all the attributes of the thriller are diverted there.
The parody of the horror genre obeys a pure and hard reversal of the stigma. The comedy duo Shaun of the Dead (2004) understood this well: it ignores the zombies that attack them by continuing their daily activities, as if nothing had happened. In this sense, the parody of the horror film makes fun of the viewer’s cowardice by bringing it to the screen in a roundabout way.