“A four-hour-long nightmare comedy”: why Ari Aster can perfect cinema’s most misused genre

The 'Hereditary' director is taking a crack at the horror comedy – can he show everyone how it's done?

Comedy horror. The phrase sends a chill down your spine for all the wrong reasons. Is there a messier, more imperfect genre in movie history? All those slapstick beheadings, camera-mugging zombies and surprise 18-wheelers suddenly appearing on an otherwise silent country road to crush the first kid to come dancing out of the cavern full of man-eating imps shouting ‘we made it!’. It’s a genre that, historically, sacrifices genuinely unsettling atmosphere and believable shocks in the name of vaguely amusing self-parody. Who could, or would want to, save it now?

Midsommar
Jack Reynor and Florence Pugh in ‘Midsommar’. Credit: A24

Well, rumours are that Ari Aster might be having a crack. The acclaimed director of game-changing horror movies Hereditary and Midsommar recently described his next film as a “four hours long… nightmare comedy”. That sounds to us more like the sort of catalogue of traumatic/comedic misfortunes that befell Griffin Dunne in Martin Scorsese’s After Hours or John Cleese in Clockwise – particularly since Aster has said he’d likely return to horror after his film. But the word “nightmare” has naturally raised expectations that Aster is out to finally perfect the cinematic blend of terror and wit.

It’s quite the challenge. Decades of attempts have largely shown us that, on the big screen, laughs and scares tend to cancel each other out. The entire genre has largely relied on satirising or exaggerating horror and B-movie tropes to mock the sheer ridiculousness of horror cinema. Witness the cartoonish ultra-slasher violence of The Evil Dead series and its many straight-to-video imitators; the gormless, unthreatening comedy zombies shuffling through Jim Jarmusch’s awful The Dead Don’t Die; such corny modern creature feature fare as Sharknado and killer livestock flick Black Sheep; or, if we must, the execrable Scary Movie franchise.

The Dead Don't Die
Jim Jarmusch’s ‘The Dead Don’t Die’ didn’t meet the expectations of many critics. Credit: Alamy

It’s a tradition that goes back to the stormy night in 1948 that Abbott and Costello met Frankenstein and continued through Mel Brooks’ tribute movie Young Frankenstein to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, The Little Shop Of Horrors and recent apocalypse comedy This Is The End, and it’s rarely done very well. Few are the films that smartly and successfully satirise the horror genre (Cabin In The Woods is a fine recent exception) and its rarer still for them to be genuinely scary while they’re at it; for that we must look to the Scream series or, at a push, its recent teen-flick homage Happy Death Day.

The likes of Shaun Of The Dead and What We Do In The Shadows are brilliant comedy films merely set in a horror context (likewise light family fare like Gremlins and Ghostbusters), but are rarely interested in delivering any serious frights. The classic films that have managed to strike an even balance between gags and gore, scares and cackles have, instead, tended towards a twisted, knowing and very individual brand of dark humour to avoid this most glaring of genre-clashes; humour that doesn’t mock its source material but relishes its grave-rotted embrace. The camp extremism of Drag Me To Hell. The AOR sadism of American Psycho. The coldly comic body horror of Severance. The chatty corpses of An American Werewolf In London.

Ari Aster
On the set of ‘Hereditary’ with Milly Shapiro. Credit: Alamy

And to that short list we can now add Midsommar. As disturbing as Aster’s hallucinogenic bad trip inside a Scandinavian death cult is, it’s woven with a subtle and sophisticated dark humour that makes him seem the ideal director to drag horror comedy out of the realm of lazy pastiche. He’s already proved himself very capable of overturning tropes and manipulating an audience’s expectations within horror; most of the terror of Midsommar occurs in blazing sunlight and Hereditary put paid to the age-old ‘cursed child’ cliché half an hour in, with the help of a cunningly placed telegraph pole.

He’s also proved that horror cinema can benefit from the two-and-a-half hour slowburn rather than the standard 90 minutes of set-up tension and half hour of blood-stained women squeak-weeping in cupboards that we generally get – the director’s cut of Midsommar stretched to almost three hours. So Aster’s idea of a four-hour comedy – the other film genre usually kept beneath 90 minutes – would probably involve a brooding gallows humour bubbling to a believably hilarious climax, rather than the usual comedy horror methodology of gradually ramping up the ridiculousness from knowing genre gags at the start to a climax involving a 100ft CGI devil prat-falling around Manhattan. Having managed to refresh the tired and predictable horror genre by sparking a discussion about “elevated horror”, it seems entirely within his powers and remit to elevate its even lazier comic counterpart. We can’t wait to be giggling between our fingers.

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