Shock humor and its opposite at the European Union Film Festival

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An ominous shot from Ben Wheatleys Sightseers
  • An ominous shot from Ben Wheatley's Sightseers
Two of the more accomplished films screening this weekend at the European Union Film Festival—Radu Jude's Everybody in Our Family and Ben Wheatley's Sightseers—walk a thin line between black comedy and pure horror. If I prefer the former over the latter, it's because I find its lead characters more believable and find its nightmare scenario more affecting. But if you like to get a good jolt when you go to the movies, you should have a good time at both.

When Joe Dante introduced two of his films at the Music Box last August, he discussed this crucial link between horror and comedy, citing James Whale's The Invisible Man as a pioneering example. "You know, you see the Invisible Man playing pranks on people and knocking things over, which is pretty funny. But then, all of a sudden, he kills somebody, and you think, 'Hey, that isn't very funny!'" Laughter puts viewers at ease, but it also makes them vulnerable—which may explain why some of the low-level scares in Dante's films are so frightening in context.

Humor in horror is a common phenomenon—and perhaps a necessary one (I tend to get bored at horror films that are uniformly grim). But it may be more impressive when a filmmaker locates the common fears lurking beneath comic situations and drags them up to the surface. Dave Kehr liked to identify Vincente Minnelli's The Long, Long Trailer as a supreme example of this sort of filmmaking. Some of my favorites would include Elaine May's Mikey and Nicky, Jerzy Skolimowski's Deep End, Takashi Miike's Visitor Q, and numerous movies by Roman Polanski and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, which present modern life as an ongoing nightmare at which you have to laugh now and then to stay sane.

Everybody in Our Family is closer to this end of the horror-comedy spectrum, beginning as a hyperrealist comedy of family dysfunction, then slowly turning the screws until it becomes something terrifying. Jude risks complacency in the early passages, presenting scenes of everyday discomfort with handheld, documentary-style camera work familiar from The Office and other TV sitcoms. The original BBC Office felt like a minor breakthrough in its uneasy tone; its jokes about middle-class desperation were so acidic they could make you cry, and the intimate video photography (a sort of domesticated version of Dogme 95 movies like The Idiots and The Celebration) made them hit especially close to home. A decade later this approach has become a visual shorthand for evoking social anxiety, and it's typically applied to scenes that are merely embarrassing rather than devastating.

Jude's movie is devastating, climaxing with a scene of terror that I watched in openmouthed disbelief—not because I couldn't accept the character committing such an act but because the movie didn't provide any hint as to how I should respond. Wheatley's new film—much like his first, Down Terrace—prepares the viewer for violence early on, but complicates his response by humanizing the aggressors as the story develops. Sightseers establishes claustrophobic intimacy with its protagonists, but the effect feels more like a sick joke. Its theme can be summed up as, Imagine what serial killer's girlfriend problems might be like! I can imagine them, all right, but that's not the same thing as sympathy.

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