The release of Adam Sandler’s ‘Hotel Transylvania’ and Tim Burton’s ‘Frankenweenie’ marks a new chapter in the history of comedy horror; time will tell whether these contemporary movies represent the spark of life or the kiss of death for the flaccid corpse of this well-worn genre. But the very nature of comedy horror clashes with any notion of progress; no other genre is so obsessed with continually revisiting and regurgitating its origins, repeating itself to the point of redundancy and beyond. While other films seek new and unexpected subject matter, comedy horror movies stick to a consistent repertoire of iconic plots, jokes and monsters, which if anything seems to grow more reductive and simplistic as the years go by. This is born out in spectacular fashion by the parade of well-worn names featured in the trailer for ‘Hotel Transylvania’. The film promises to feature Dracula, Frankenstein, Bigfoot and the mummy, all reunited like the members of an aging rock band for one last gig.
Or so the audience members might hope. However, given their entrenched position as the greatest clichés ever conceived by popular culture, chances are these monsters will continue to haunt us for many years to come. Indeed, it is hard to even conceive of characters like Dracula and Frankenstein as separate from comedy horror. Comedy has claimed them once and for all; with a bit of time, repetition and persistence, a motley crew of filmmakers have managed to transform gore and bloodshed into good, wholesome family fun.
But there was a time in the not so distant past when the genre was as much about the horror as the comedy. Early hits like ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ go out of their way to distance themselves from anything that could possibly be conceived of as family fun. If anything, they are even more subversive than actual horror movies, since their caustic, ironic humor dares the audience to laugh at images of gore and violence. By the time Tim Burton made ‘Beetlejuice’ in 1988, the genre had softened up considerably, but the satire still retained something of the horror movie edge. Adults might chuckle and shake their heads at Beetlejuice’s zany antics, but deep down they know that he isn’t the sort of man they would want around their kids. When Mel Brooks ventured into the realm of comic horror with the 1975 classic ‘Young Frankenstein’ and the 1995 classic flop ‘Dracula: Dead and Loving it’, he too directed his efforts at the adult film market. Although the jokes are all good hearted slapstick and absurdity, with none of Tim Burton’s undercurrent of barely suppressed creepiness, most are liable to make younger audience members cringe in the presence of their parents.
Tim Burton’s 1993 ‘Nightmare Before Christmas’ stands at the point of transition between adult darkness and childish humour. The film has neither the horror movie’s desire to shock and terrify, nor the family comedy’s wish to warm the heart and strengthen the moral character; it is simply an utterly hedonistic, gleeful celebration of the characters and stories that give colour and life to our holidays. As such, it probably comes closer than any other film to capturing the true spirit of Halloween, the combination of mischief, excitement and irreverence that captivates each new generation of young trick-or-treaters. One only has to look at the trailer for ‘Frankenweenie’ to see how much comedy horror has changed since then. The animated characters with their vast, circular eyes and spindly limbs might bear a superficial resemblance to the skeletal spectres of the ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’, but the plot and tone of the two movies could not be more different. ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ was a surreal, madcap take upon the traditions of Halloween, starring an eyeless skeleton whose actions were morally questionable at best; ‘Frankenweenie’ is the heartwarming tale of a young boy trying to bring his dog back to life. Tim Burton may have plausibly stitched together the horror themes of the past, but beneath the gristly scars their ghoulish spirits have utterly disappeared.