A good horror movie protagonist has to be able to do two things. They have to be likable enough that you actually care about them when they’re put in danger by whatever horrific threat they’re facing down, and they have to project enough vulnerability that you really believe they might not come out of the other end of the story all in one piece. Being a great protagonist in a horror comedy is a little bit more complicated of a job though. Not only do horror comedy heroes have to accomplish both of those tasks, but they also have to be funny, and they have to be able to make the transitions in tone from scary to funny without having the change feel jarring to the audience or without making it feel like these two different aspects of the film are at odds with each other. Horror comedies need a talented actor. A talented actor like, say, an Anton Yelchin.
Yelchin proved that he was likable in his first big break starring role, Charlie Bartlett, he proved that he could project vulnerability in his attempt at a romantic drama, Like Crazy, and he even showed that he could mix everything together and be a relatable anchor for a horror comedy in the Fright Night remake he starred in for Craig Gillespie. If there’s one thing that remake did well (and there was), it was casting Yelchin as its protagonist. When you break down the film as a whole though, the Fright Night remake wasn’t anything special, and it failed to improve on the original in any significant way. So, given the potential that Yelchin was able to show while starring in a mediocre product, it’s exciting to hear the new news that he’s going to get another crack at the genre while being paired up with a legendary director who’s a true master of the form.
The story here was first broke by The Wrap, who confirmed that Joe Dante has received funding to make a new horror comedy called Burying the Ex, and that he has Yelchin and Twilight actress Ashley Greene signed up to be his stars. Dante is a filmmaker who got his first few chances to sit in the director’s chair from helming creature features like Piranha and The Howling, but he really became one of the few directors to be considered a true horror master when he took the subversive undertones of those films and ramped them up to the point of pure comedy in classic efforts like Gremlins, The Burbs, and even the largely underrated Matinee. Throw in his more sci-fi-related films like Innerspace and Small Soldiers, and there’s no question why Dante is seen as being one of the preeminent directors of fun genre-themed movies that give you warm fuzzy feelings. This creep puts so much weird stuff in his light-hearted romps that it’s pretty impossible not to love him.
In recent years we haven’t been getting nearly enough Dante material on the big screen though. After Small Soldiers earned something of a cult following in 1998, his output at that point gets pretty sparse, with the Looney Tunes movie he made in 2003 and the long-shelved The Hole—which finally got a US release in 2012—being the highlights. Despite the fact that they had their own charms, Looney Tunes: Back in Action and The Hole weren’t quite what we think of when we picture the best of Joe Dante’s work though. They were a little bit too family friendly and they never really rode that “should we be letting the kids watch this?” line that made something like Gremlins so great. At this point, the anticipation to see Dante tackle something a little bit more adult is kind of at a fever pitch.
Which, again, is why his new project sounds so enticing. According to The Wrap’s report, Burying the Ex will see Yelchin playing a hen-pecked boyfriend whose domineering girlfriend (Greene) dies in a freak accident, but then comes back to life and attempts to turn him into a fellow member of the undead once she gets wind of the fact that he’s attempting to move on and start a relationship with another, decidedly more living girl (Alexandra Daddario). Not only does this sort of melding of macabre elements with the drama inherent in toxic relationships sound like it’s going to be the sort of thing that will lend itself well to the skewering satire and twisted worldview of a director like Dante, but it also sounds like it’s the perfect role for an actor who is as intrinsically likable and vulnerable as Yelchin. Can you imagine not rooting for this guy when he’s being stalked by a psycho ex who smells like rotting flesh?
Dante’s best stuff has come from stories that focused on a relatable everyman. Think Zach Galligan in Gremlins and Tom Hanks in The Burbs. Yelchin is an actor who is cute enough that girls like him, but not so handsome that guys resent him, he’s slight enough that he’ll never be mistaken for an action hero, and he’s the sort of performer who has a knack for comedic timing, but who never forgets to deliver his material with a straight face and some weight behind it, so that the films he’s acting in don’t cross over into being farcical. It’s possible that he could be the prototype for the perfect Joe Dante leading man.
And it’s possible that this evil ex-girlfriend/zombie story could be the perfect vehicle to turn both of these talents loose and let them do what they do best. Which would be super cool. As much as the world needs another great Joe Dante movie, it could probably use another director/actor pairing that produces magical chemistry just as much. Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio can only accomplish so much, after all. This Burying the Ex announcement has visions of a world where Joe Dante regularly pits Anton Yelchin up against a horde of mortifying, murderous movie monsters dancing through my head, and that sounds like a world I wouldn’t mind living in at all.