Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Scary + Funny = Neither

I understand the desire to create a frightening film or piece of fiction that both startles viewers and makes them laugh. I just don't sympathize with the decision to go ahead and do it.

Working on my own fiction, I understand how difficult it is to create and sustain a mood. Especially when that mood is a growing sense of dread, or outright terror, or the understanding that the horrific can hide inside the everyday. It's not easy to scare people, particularly when everyone's seen everything and their buttons have all been pushed to death.

And so we take things further and further. If a splatter of blood is good buckets of it are better. Ten zombies beat one. Jumping out and yelling "Boo" trumps the creeping sense that someone or something is waiting for you in the shadows of the room you're sitting in right now, and soon you'll hear them speak your name and feel their cold hand caressing the side of your neck.

Unfortunately, going for broke usually has the effect of sending whatever we're working on into the realm of the ridiculous. But rather than taking a step back -- or several -- and figuring out where things went wrong and how they can be fixed, far too many of us make the decision to just go with it and call the finished piece a horror/comedy.

The result is Return of the Living Dead and Bubba Ho-Tep and Shaun of the Dead and Dead Alive and a list of movies that started coming out in the late eighties and have long since had their day in the sun. Films that, in my opinion, are the cinematic equivalent of something that's both a floor wax and a dessert topping, to steal from an old Saturday Night Live skit.

Now I know these films have their fans. But there's a big difference between them and something like Rosemary's Baby or Cloverfield.

The difference is, like God and the Devil, in the details. And finding that one detail -- or series of them -- that makes someone shudder instead of snicker takes time and care the sense that you're working on something that deserves both. Turning things up to 11 is easy. Creating the moment that follows someone home and makes it difficult to walk into a dark room and fumble for the light switch is a whole lot tougher.

But it's also a whole lot more satisfying.

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