Stuck in the Middle: Why It Sucks to Be a "Horror Comedy"

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Stuck in the Middle: Why It Sucks to Be a "Horror Comedy"

Horror comedies. We’ve all likely seen enough of them in the vein of Shaun of the Dead to at least have a good idea of what is intended when we read the term. They’re exactly as they sound, the meeting points between legitimate or “earnest” attempts at horror filmmaking and the black comedy inherent in watching gory, simulated deaths. To the cynical modern horror audience, it’s difficult to make a genre movie without at least some small degree of humor. After all, the harder it gets to legitimately scare people (the more genre savvy they become), the more difficult earnest horror becomes to create. It’s why horror purists hold films like The Witch or The Babadook aloft: They’re attempts to genuinely frighten or disturb, rather than elicit laughs, and are at least moderately successful in doing so.

Horror comedy, on the other hand, is never afforded such respect. Indeed, the more you look into the nuts and bolts of this sub-genre, the weirder it becomes. You begin to realize that it’s an awkward, thankless task to make horror comedies, because they have an inherently smaller audience than that of either mass-market horror or comedy on their own. The genre may occasionally produce great films, but it’s much harder for those films to reach their intended audiences. Here’s why:

Studios/distribution companies don’t know how to market horror comedies in wide release.

All too often, the biggest thing standing between a horror comedy and its correct audience is the studio itself, or the distribution company. In the minds of the distributors (let’s say Universal, or Lionsgate), that brand new horror comedy they’re sitting on is presumably perceived as dollars squandered, and often results in marketing that is clearly designed to abstract the “comedy” portion until it’s no longer obvious to potential audiences. Because “straight horror” films are seen as having a higher box office ceiling (more on this shortly), the result is trailers that downplay the film’s more clever or humorous qualities. This is especially true of 30-second TV spots, which have absolutely no shame in deceptively presenting the tone of a film to suit whatever the distributor thinks will appeal to the most lucrative audience. Look no further than an essay I recently wrote about the TV marketing of Nocturnal Animals, which tried to present a cerebral neo-noir as an action movie about lovers “torn apart by dangerous criminals.” Meanwhile, here are a few horror examples.

The Visit (2015)

Don’t blame M. Night Shyamalan—he made the campy, fairly entertaining horror comedy he wanted to make when he crafted The Visit in 2015. Blame Universal for misleadingly marketing the movie as a terrifying, legitimate horror film when the finished product is attempting to make you laugh just as often as it’s actually trying to scare you. The trailers for The Visit are a pretty classic misrepresentation of the final product: It seems as if Universal simply didn’t want a horror comedy, and were convinced that one from M. Night Shyamalan wasn’t going to sell. And so, they put out this trailer:

Spooky! Killer grandparents ahoy! The TV spot condenses the standard tropes even more efficiently to get the message across: “This is a scary movie. This is a “real” horror film.” They even darkened a few of the sequences from how they appear in the theatrical cut, to make them look “scarier” and more like other mass-market horror films.

Suffice it to say: The actual product is different as different can be, and I can understand why the audience score of the film on Rotten Tomatoes is an unusually low 51% for a “fresh”-rated movie—many of those low ratings are undoubtedly coming from first-weekend audiences who felt misled about the tone of the film by the trailers. Audiences don’t want to be tricked into seeing films that are a different genre than expected, whether it’s horror fans or comedy fans. If a film is a horror comedy, they want to know they’re going to see a horror comedy. The Visit made plenty at the box office, but its grosses were perhaps partly fueled by hiding that horror comedy label from the world.

The Cabin in the Woods (2012)

The Cabin in the Woods was complete by the end of 2009, but it wasn’t released until 2012 thanks to studio hijinks. It first languished at MGM, who weren’t sure how to promote it and eventually shelved it thanks to their own “financial woes.” Then it was picked up by Lionsgate, who pushed back its initial release, presumably while trying to figure out how to market it themselves. Unsurprisingly, the initial theatrical trailers emphasized the horror elements while minimizing the fact that the film is a comedy as much as they possibly could. Observe:

Granted, this trailer does do a fine job of hinting at the more science fiction-inflected nature of the story, and the fact that it’s more complex than your typical Camp Crystal Lake setting, but what it doesn’t suggest is comedy. There’s only one “joke” in the 2:30 trailer, and it’s framed in such a confusing, hazy way that it’s not even entirely clear this moment is an excellent punchline in the completed film. Instead of suggesting a sense of humor, the trailer is dominated by running, screaming and archetypal horror tropes such as the creepy gas station “harbinger.”

Of course, what I really wanted to insert here are a few of the TV spots that were aired in 2012, prior to the film’s release. There was a spate of them at the time that not only didn’t suggest any comedy, but didn’t provide any inkling into the film’s true nature at all, portraying it as exactly the type of “teens in the woods” horror film that it’s actually satirizing, in a deceptive effort to put mass-market horror consumer butts in the seats. Unfortunately, it would appear that these TV spots have since been scourged from the internet—the only ones that Lionsgate still has on their channels are commercials that more accurately represent the film. I can’t blame them for that; there’s no reason to leave deceptive marketing online once it’s served its function.

The same goes for other wide-release horror comedies in recent years. The trailers for Krampus by and large focused on the “scary” aspects of another horror comedy that didn’t try particularly hard to be genuinely frightening. The marketing for Crimson Peak did the same in another sub-genre, obfuscating the “gothic romance” that Guillermo Del Toro envisioned in order to sell the movie as a haunted house thriller. Others such as Warm Bodies or even Ghostbusters dabble with the horror genre, but don’t include enough actual “horror” to qualify—they’re other genres first and foremost, such as “teen romance” or just “comedy.”

The true venue of horror comedy, then, ends up being independent, lower budget or limited release films such as Tucker & Dale vs. Evil, The Final Girls and What We Do in the Shadows. All of them are well-executed, and they all have fans, but none got a wide release or made significant revenue as a result. Yes, there are occasional breakthrough successes such as Zombieland, but guess what—that was 8 years ago now, and there hasn’t been another true horror comedy since that made more at the box office than Zombieland, unless we count 2015’s Goosebumps, which is more of a kids’ adventure movie.

The studios are right: Horror comedies are simply less lucrative.

We have a tendency to look at genre crossovers and think, “Well this will double the potential audience size,” but in practice this simply isn’t what happens. Horror comedy is the perfect example, because all too often it falls into a nebulous middle zone where both horror fans and comedy fans are less interested in the end result. Horror fans are probably the primary audience of these two, but there’s certainly a camp of horror purists who disdain non-serious horror that isn’t at least making an attempt to frighten. And there are many comedy fans who want nothing to do with a horror premise of any kind. If box office is to be believed, this tends to equal lower grosses.

Case in point: Take a look at the box office history of horror since 1995. Since then, 22 years ago, there’s been exactly one year when the highest grossing “horror film” was a horror comedy, and that was the aforementioned Goosebumps. Same thing, when looking at the highest grossing comedies of each year since 1995—unless Ghostbusters actually counts, which I’d have trouble accepting. In my book, I’d say the 2016 Ghostbusters has about as much “horror” in it as Patrick Swayze’s Ghost.

Even horror comedies that you love probably made far less than you think they did. Shaun of the Dead is well-liked by everyone, including myself, to the point that I have it as the #6 zombie movie of all time in Paste’s list of the top 50, but that movie made only $30 million worldwide on a very tidy budget, and a mere $14 million in the U.S. Even universal acclaim and adoration from the intended fanbase doesn’t mean there’s a massive pay-off to be had in this genre, at least in most cases.

Is it any wonder, then, that studios and distributors choose to be deceptive when they’re rolling out the national release of a new horror comedy? And is it any wonder that the most well-liked examples of the genre are independent films almost every year?

It’s a genre where budget itself is a curse. Stay small, and not enough people see your film. Get a bigger budget and wide release, and the distributor cuts trailers that misrepresent the actual tone of your movie. You’re always stuck in the middle.


Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more film rambling.

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