“What a bloody silly way to die” is perhaps one of the best closing lines of a horror story (short or novel) and comes of course, from the Daphne Du Maurier short story Don’t Look Now. It is fairly likely that people reading this are perhaps more familiar with Roeg’s film version – a film I consider a classic in terms of supernatural horror. Some find the film’s climax in which Sutherland’s character John is cleavered in the throat my a malicious dwarf to be a highly unsettling, disturbing sequence and others…others laugh out loud at it. The film, as classic as it is, doesn’t allow for the gallows humour of the book, which almost encourages the reader to laugh at John’s fate by virtue of his own awareness that as horrible as his demise is…it is still rather silly. At odds with the seriousness of the rest of the film in which a young girl dies and her grief-stricken parents retreat to an unusual setting in order to gather themselves and rekindle their marriage, a menacing dwarf with a cleaver seems to be completely out of left field.
The scene itself and the chase around Venice that preceeds it has found a place in at least two comedy shows that I can call to mind instantly. The first is an early work of The League of Gentlemen and their use of the reference really isn’t surprising considering their homages to 1970s horror, but a direct playing out of the scene in Highgate House of Horror demonstrates that there is comparatively very little to change about that scene in order to factor it into a comedy setting. You can watch Highgate House of Horror in 3 parts, starting here.
So while its no surprise to see a reference like that turn up in something like The League, which wears its horror fandom on its sleeve, it is somewhat more unusual when a similar scene occurs in Absolutely Fabulous. However, Jennifer Saunders has always utilised film parodies in her work with Dawn French and also in Absolutely Fabulous (probably the only mainstream comedy I’ve ever seen reference Repulsion for example) and she uses it to great comic effect when her dreams of chasing her daughter’s soon-to-be born child around her house is revealed as Janette Krankie, later cameoing as possibly the least supportive midwife ever committed to screen.
It is interesting how horror and comedy are seemingly so intrinsically linked and equally how the most serious situations can be adapted to win a laugh. These two examples however do show that there are usually two camps in referencing films – one which uses it just as a reference and another which readjusts it to fit into that particular world. Ab Fab’s Eddie is experiencing dreams about what she terms as a “Daphne Du Maurier midget” due to her stress surrounding Saffy’s baby and her small in stature but loud in voice midwife. On the other hand, the League is relying on a horror fan’s ability to recognise what they are doing and enjoy it based on that, even when they are echoing the inherent silliness of it. Of course, allowances must be made
During the festival season there were two films that could both be termed as horror-comedies. Well, more than that, but only two I want to mention as what I’ve heard about them since is sort of at the heart of how sometimes a mix of horror and comedy, if not well balanced enough can cause difficulty in audience reception. The first film is Housebound, a New Zealand film that crosses sub genres and maintains a good balance between laughter and fear. Part of this, I’d suggest is that it treats everything seriously and the humour almost becomes incidental, despite being laugh-out-loud hilarious. On the other hand, Kevin Smith’s Tusk has been pissing people off due to the fact that the concept is perhaps too silly to be a regular horror, but also the execution makes it too dark to be a comedy. If an audience can’t find their footing between those two elements then, it can only lead to disappointment.
The problem is, there’s nothing that will kill a film more quickly than something meant to be terrifying ending up inadvertently hilarious, which is probably why the tactic employed by Housebound is to be admired. By creating a slightly off-kilter environment it allows for an easy bridge between the funny and the creepy. By contrast, Tusk fails for many people (not me, I should add, I rather enjoyed it), simply because the level of cruelty and the disturbing nature of it leaves no room for laughs, no matter how zany the concept.
To sum up then, there is a difficult relationship between comedy and horror in which both have to be treated with equal respect in order to make both aspects feel successful within one film. In addition Housebound is probably one of the few I’ve seen that manages to maintain being a horror comedy throughout, without lapsing into all horror or all comedy at any point, which is quite an achievement. The horror and comedy pairing is a lasting one, and for good reason – both seek to elicit a response from their audience that is in some way uncontrollable. In the same way that you don’t think about something is funny before you laugh, you also don’t think about why something is scary when you jump or hide behind something – both reactions have happened by the time you’ve had time to rationalise them – and that is perhaps why scenes like the climax of Don’t Look Now appear to find their way into comedy – your instant reaction is a laugh…or fear.