I don’t have to tell you how serious horror is right now. Just look at all the words I’ve used to describe the latest trends, from prestige to elevated. Which is great for us fans who’ve been waiting for horror to finally get the industry respect it deserves.
But let’s face it, what made so many of us embrace this kind of film and television series is because, through all the blood red gore, we could find ourselves laughing. In this current cultural climate, though, there doesn’t seem to be much room for prestige horror-comedy, as sardonic as that phrase sounds. But there is room. It’s just been hiding in the late night programming of Adult Swim.
Back in 2014, their disquietingly silly show Infomercials made waves with Caspar Kelly‘s surreal Too Many Cooks. Apart from the catchy theme, bright colors, and increasing absurdity, what struck me the most about the short was how haunting and nightmarish it becomes. It effectively conveys an extreme sense of unease that was wholly unexpected but utterly perfect for late night television. Since Too Many Cooks, Adult Swim has continued this twisted tradition on Infomercials with the mental mindfuck of Unedited Footage of a Bear and the unnerving dread of This House Has People In It. This style of post-modern comedy-horror, exploding from the Dada-esque meme-able humor of the Internet Age, has never felt more fully realized than in Vernon Chatman’s upcoming series The Shivering Truth.
Directed by Chatman (Wonder Showzen) and Cat Solen (Take My Wife), the stop-motion animated anthology series is simply best described in the creator’s own words:
The Shivering Truth is a delicately crafted, darkly surreal anthology comedy, a miniature propulsive omnibus clusterbomb of painfully riotous daymares all dripping with the orange goo of dream logic. A series of loosely-linked emotional parables about stories within tales that crawled out of the deepest caverns of your unconscious mind and became lovingly animated in breath-slapping stop motion – in other words, it is the TRUTH.
Just. Wow. The series’ main cast will be voiced by Chatman, Jonah Hill, Michael Cera, and Starlee Kine (Mystery Show, Search Party). Here’s a trrailer:
Chatman’s brand of humor has been carefully refined over the years with the artist collective he co-founded, PFFR. While the adult kids’ show Wonder Showzen made him a more familiar name, along with voicing the pot smoking Towelie on South Park, his first real foray into intentional horror-comedy was The Heart, She Holler.
A strange mashup of genres that push together late night soaps like Dynasty and the backwoods horror of Deliverance and Motel Hell, the series followed feuding siblings vying for control of a town after the familial patriarch dies. But they have to contend with their matriarch, who holds an age-old curse over the town. Seriously, Meemaw is terrifying.
Blithely hilarious, while maintaining a mask of grotesquerie, the show too shared the same quality of The Shivering Truth and Infomercials, a fatalistic queasiness you feel through all the laughter. And it’s that feeling, that clashing of visceral emotions, that makes what Adult Swim is doing so important. Because they are actively creating something different.
Don’t get me wrong, we’ve had great horror comedies in the past decade from Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil and Jennifer’s Body to What We Do In The Shadows, but the general mix of genres has never felt particularly reinventive. What Adult Swim has done by cultivating this type of short-form creative programming is offered artistic freedom that’s relatively low risk and high reward.
And the reward of that low risk is experimentation that is rethinking how comedy works with horror. That perhaps the feeling of terror itself can become part of the joke. Taking a note from the Dadaists, it’s like a darkly comic coping mechanism for the world’s ugly truths.
While An American Werewolf in London is generally considered the greatest blending of horror and comedy, the two elements don’t intertwine in the same way as Adult Swim’s content. Sure, there is an ironic dissonance in seeing a decomposing Griffin Dunne cracking jokes, but the character is not meant to cause malaise in anyone but David Naughton.
Yet with shows like The Heart, She Holler, the unease is exactly the point of the joke. As is the rising tension, dread, and nervous giggles as we wait for the bottom to drop out in Unedited Footage of a Bear. The increasing despair of the family on Too Many Cooks is what makes the comedy work. And once the killer emerges from the background and becomes the final piece in this nightmarish fever dream, we’ve set sail. Maybe it’s best described as anti-comedy horror. It may sound hyperbolic, but this is the type of boundary-pushing programming art needs. Creating work that completely makes us re-think a subgenre of storytelling.
Something that I think writer Sean T. Collins hit the nail on the head back in 2014 about Adult Swim’s brand of surrealistic horror comedy is that, unlike most of modern horror cinema, these shows almost purport themselves to be real. More so than any found footage film, these Adult Swim shows feel more like a living breathing CreepyPasta. As if tomorrow you will wake up and discover that no one else remembers that weird 15 minutes you caught at 4 AM the night before. Its existence only living within your consciousness, with fear that at every change of the channel, the killer could be there.
That’s a type of psychological irreverence we are not familiar with in horror-comedy. But it may be the exact thing the subgenre needs to compete with its progressive, and serious, cinematic cousins.