(Contains spoilers for The Visit and Creep, a doi.)
Historically, horror and comedy have been diametrically opposed. Stephen Colbert has said, “you can’t laugh and be afraid at the same time.” In the Harry Potter universe, the only way to destroy the fearmongering boggart is to laugh at it. Laughter is, in many respects, an antidote to fear.
Of course, ever since the movie Scream, audiences have learned that there’s some crossover between these two genres. Unlike earlier horror-tinged comedies such as Young Frankenstein or Ghostbusters, Scream was not only funny but legitimately frightening at times (the famous opening scene is a good example of both tones). Scream spawned a bunch of sequels and imitators and cemented the horror comedy as its own bona fide genre. In the last two years, we’ve seen The Final Girls, Cooties, Scream Queens, What We Do In The Shadows, and Zombeavers, to name a few. But while these films may engender some scares, they’re mostly funny – you’d find them in the comedy section of the video store, if such a thing still existed.
The horror genre tends to be extremely self-referential. This is true in full-blown horror movies like Suspiria or The Descent that allude to past classics, but it’s particularly the case with horror comedies. Scream is premised on characters knowing they’re in a horror movie, after all, and Cabin In The Woods, Tucker And Dale Vs. Evil, The Final Girls, and Scream Queens are all deconstructions of the genre’s tropes. This tactic can be entertaining, but it inherently distances audiences from the characters they’re watching. Fear requires empathy, and movies like these don’t let you forget the artifice of the whole enterprise.
This is also true to an extent with funny horror movies like Sam Raimi’s Drag Me To Hell and the Evil Dead series. Here the humor comes largely from the extremity of the situation in which the protagonists find themselves. There are gross-out gags and brutal moments, but the hand of the filmmaker is always tangible.
Two recent films straddle the line between comedy and horror in a slightly different way: M. Night Shyamalan’s The Visit and Patrick Brice’s The Creep. The Visit tells the story of a sister and brother (Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould) who go on a weeklong trip to their grandparents’ house in Pennsylvania. Over the course of their visit, the siblings witness their Nana and Pop Pop engaging in increasingly unsettling behavior. Over Skype, their mom (Kathryn Hahn) assures them that old people sometimes just act strange. But as the mysteries pile up, the kids realize the truth: the man and woman they’ve been staying with are escapees from a mental institution posing as their grandparents. The siblings escape, but only barely.
Creep meanwhile centers on a videographer, Aaron (Brice), who’s hired by a man to record videos of him for his unborn son. Over the course of an evening, Aaron realizes that his employer, Josef (Mark Duplass), is lying to him and manipulating him. Aaron escapes but Josef sends him numerous video messages, both creepy and pathetic, that ultimately lure him to his death.
These movies have a lot in common. Both have small casts, both use a found footage conceit, both are about people who put too much trust in strangers in authority positions that turn out to be crazy. Both are also funny without ever making obvious allusions to the genre. And unlike other horror comedies, both are funny and scary simultaneously.
Interestingly, the purely comedic moments don’t always land. In The Visit, for instance, there’s a running joke that the younger brother says female musician names instead of swears – in my screening, at least, it was met with silence. By contrast, when the imposter grandmother (Deanna Dunagen) plays hide-and-seek/hunts Becca and Tyler under the house, her blithe puzzlement after the fact caused the audience to roar with laughter.
It’s these moments of bizarre behavior that are so effective. Helped along by their home video style, The Visit and Creep are small, intimate movies. They’re not built on scares from outside forces or traditional villains. The monsters in these movies don’t fully reveal their monstrosity until the end. Along the way, their behavior is pitched between eccentricity and insanity, continually edging up to and going just past what could be considered acceptable behavior. This uncertainly leads to a growing dread as we wait to see how disturbing things will get before our protagonists understand they’re in danger. There’s no bloodletting and few jump scares to alleviate tension – the only release is uneasy laughter as we try to make sense of what we’re seeing. When Aaron encounters Josef in the hallway wearing a wolf mask, we don’t know whether he’s facing a killer or a misguided oddball. Is he funny crazy or scary crazy?
This violation of the social contract places these movies alongside cringe-worthy shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm and Nathan For You, but by maintaining ambiguity and increasing danger, they mix in chills with their laughs instead of winces. It’s an unusual feeling, and one that not much media has attempted. While neither movie is completely successful, it’s hard not to admire and appreciate them. Creep shows a debut director with a bright future ahead, and The Visit marks a step up for a filmmaker in desperate need of a renaissance. Shyamalan and Brice have begun to shape a subgenre that will hopefully continue to expand – making us laugh and scream for a while to come.
Matt Crowley is a writer and comic living in LA.