Yesterday’s Monsters Are Today’s Punchlines

10/28/2009 4:00 AM |

Scream of Fear (1961) and Theater of Blood (1973)
Directed by Seth Holt, Douglas Hickox
October 30-Novemver 5 at Film Forum

Like pain and pleasure, horror and comedy are two sides of the same emotional coin: either one can make you piss your pants. So it’s no surprise that, in the movies, comedy has long been a part of horror. In the 30s, Frankenstein frightened audiences still acclimating to a relatively new visual medium; by the 40s, the bolt-necked monster made them slap their knees in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.

Part of the reason is that each generation considers itself more sophisticated than the last: yesterday’s bugbears are today’s punchlines, if only for practical reasons: we need to destroy our monsters before they destroy us. And nothing vanquishes fear quite like laughter. But how to stimulate those giggles?

Saturation plays a role: how scary can monsters be when they’re not only the stuff of nightmares but of billboards and breakfast cereals? Freddy Kruger didn’t deliver bons mots to his victims in the original A Nightmare on Elm Street; he didn’t start double duty as a comic until he’d become such a familiar cultural presence that he couldn’t possibly haunt your dreams anymore than Count Chocula.

Culturally, we continue to scramble to come up with new things to be afraid of, and later in the day a homemade YouTube clip, or later in the week an SNL skit, tries to transform it into an object of mockery. How long did it take before all the Blair Witch send-ups made it impossible to see that booger-nosed crybaby on the DVD cover without snickering? 

Some of us thrive off feeling afraid; others, off of conquering their fears, usually through snide dismissal. (Others can’t confront them at all.) The conflict between intentional risibility and sincere frightmongering continues right up to this time of writing: at the box office this Halloween, you could choose the genuine jolts of Paranormal Activity or the (attempted) jokes of Stan Helsing, the latest spoof from one of the producers of the original Scary Movie. (Presuming the latter is still playing next week.)

Or, you could catch the double feature-a recession-era bargain!-playing at Film Forum from the 30th through November 5th, which features two revived footnotes from either strand’s archives: Hammer Studio’s straight-faced, psychological ghost story Scream of Fear (1961), and the deliciously campy Vincent Price vehicle, Theater of Blood (1973). Price was his generation’s Boris Karloff, a ubiquitous presence in countless horror vehicles of the 50s and 60s. By 1973, after that kind of saturation, who could take him seriously as a legitimate bugaboo?