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When to start laughing: Homicidal hillbillies and absurd horror-comedies

alex macfadyen
Posted May 3, 2012

Sometimes life is uncooperative. The consequences extend from our highest functions to the lowest corners of the cultural gutter. Here, friends, is the result of my non-compliant life situation: a list of things that make me think of other things, loosely organized around the theme of absurd horror-comedies! I’ll start with Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, the movie that started this chain of thought by making me laugh so hard my abs hurt, and move on through a strange and wondrous list of parodies, oddities, and the assorted flotsam that floated to the surface of my mind like the ever-useful “Better not tell you now” message in a Magic 8 Ball. All hail stream of consciousness!

1. Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, dir. Eli Craig, Canada/USA, 2010

When I took a road trip to visit Gutter Comics editor Carol Borden, she informed me that I was required to watch Tucker and Dale vs. Evil. It’s a clever, well-crafted horror parody in which a bunch of preppy college kids rent a cabin in the Virginia backwoods and get the idea that Tucker and Dale, who are on vacation, are homicidal hillbillies out to kill them. Wackiness ensues. The spoof and silliness is smart, not just a bunch of cheap gags, and the film has an engaging narrative that works independent of the parodic elements. The point at which Tucker is trying to explain to Dale why the police won’t believe that the college kids are killing themselves in classic horror movie fashion all over his property is when I fell down laughing and had to pause the video.

It’s the best movie I’ve seen this year.

2. Twilight of the Ice Nymphs, dir. Guy Maddin, Canada, 1998.

There was a tipping point at which I realized this was supposed to be funny. When I first moved to Toronto, a friend told me her cousin would “show me around.” One of the first things we did was see this movie, and afterwards I think she figured I might never call her again. We’ve been friends for 15 years now, but she’ll still apologize if I mention Twilight of the Ice Nymphs. It’s an almost incomprehensibly absurd and kaleidoscopically colorful Canadian art film. I’d relate the plot to y’all, if only I had any idea what on earth it was. I know it involved wood nymphs and an ostrich farm, but that’s about it. What I do remember is that one of the characters buries a hatchet in someone’s head and they keep wandering around and talking, like a consumptive opera heroine delivering arias, wholly unimpeded by the constraints of reality. That’s when I started to laugh.

3. The Happiness of the Katakuris, dir. Takashi Miike, Japan, 2001

This reminds me of what Twilight of the Ice Nymphs might have been if were a Japanese parody instead of a Canadian art film. The Happiness of the Katakuris is a musical horror-comedy involving a Sumo wrestler, a backyard full of corpses, a police chase and an erupting volcano. The Katakuri family opens an inn, but each of their guests dies somehow during the night and they decide the best course of action to preserve their reputation is to bury the bodies and pretend nothing strange is happening. Intersperse that with peppy musical numbers and interpretive dance, including a sequence reminiscent of The Sound of Music, and you have a very odd and entertaining film.

4. The Magic Flute (Trollflöjten), dir. Ingmar Bergman, Sweden, 1975

Growing up in Calgary, I spent many hours in the cushy red seats of the Plaza theatre, a fantastic old rep cinema in Kensington. On Boxing Day, the Plaza screened Ingmar Bergman’s staging of Mozart’s Magic Flute, and my family of esoteric opera lovers were among the few audience members. His adaptation combines a genuine reverence for Mozart’s music with a quirky, self-reflexive theatricality that highlights the humor of the libretto. When Tamino plays his magic flute, actors dressed like animal mascots and muppets appear from all angles to listen, and during the intermission you see the actors backstage with animals roaming around and the Queen of the Night crankily smoking a cigarette while Tamino and Pamina play chess. Ah, artifice! How would I know who I am without you?

5. Delicatessen, dir. Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro, France, 1992

Delicatessen is another absurdist arthouse film that blurs the lines between horror and comedy. Set in a dystopian future where food is scarce, a Sweeney Todd-type butcher/landlord barters choice cuts of human being with his tenants, while his daughter attempts to keep him from killing his new maintenance man, a former circus clown who has fallen in love with her. The story is basically a scaffold for fantastic cinematography, imaginative character vignettes, and assorted tangents of weirdness. Slapstick gags and gross-out visuals coexist with intricate, nuanced humor and almost tender portraits of human eccentricity. I think the scene that best captures what I enjoyed about Delicatessen is one in which the maintenance man is trying to fix a squeaky bedspring for the butcher’s mistress. They sit side by side on the bed, bouncing together in rhythm to an old timey song that’s playing on the television, leaning at exactly the same angles as if it’s a synchronized dance.

6. Shaun of the Dead, dir. Edgar Wright, UK, 2004

In case you somehow haven’t seen it, the intro where Simon Pegg goes through his morning routine without noticing that everyone around him is a zombie is brilliant. The humor comes from watching regular, none-too-competent people use information they’ve gained from zombie movies to deal believably but hilariously with very slow zombies. Shaun of the Dead is another parody that works exceptionally well because it’s not only clever and funny in sending up the zombie genre, it’s also a well written and neatly structured comedy-action movie in its own right. Which brings us full circle back to Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, the best movie I’ve seen so far this year.

~~~

Assuming a philosophy that life is desperate but never serious, alex MacFadyen asks: isn’t laughter the appropriate response? Signs point to yes.

Comments

5 Responses to “When to start laughing: Homicidal hillbillies and absurd horror-comedies”

  1. Carol Borden
    May 5th, 2012 @ 9:41 pm

    The Queen of the Night’s aria is stuck in my head and mixing strangely with Tucker and Dale vs. Evil.

    I thought I’d also point out that I bet you were also half-thinking of the “White Lines” scene in Shaun of the Dead, as you transition from The Magic Flute and the squeaking bed spring.

    I also like how your sleepy subconscious lined up the Katakuris with James’ Julie Andrews thumbnail for “Revealed by the Twentieth Repetition.”

  2. alex MacFadyen
    May 6th, 2012 @ 9:25 am

    Go sleepy subconscious!

    And yes, the White Lines scene does fit perfectly with Delicatessan and the Magic Flute:

  3. NefariousDro
    May 8th, 2012 @ 9:52 pm

    I heard you guys laughing and laughing and laughing, and eventually Carol took pity on me and explained what was going on. By then it was too late for me to join in. Probably just as well, I’d most likely have died in some tragic horror-cliche fashion and ruined the whole evening!

  4. Chris Szego
    May 10th, 2012 @ 4:39 pm

    I loved DELICATESSEN. It was my introduction to Jean-Pierre Jeunet, whom I continue to enjoy.

    And SHAUN OF THE DEAD was highly watchable, even for total chickens like me. Having been way too scared to watch other zombie movies, I’m sure I missed a lot of the in-jokes… but it didn’t matter. That’s what I call inclusive.

  5. WHEN TO START LAUGHING: HOMICIDAL HILLBILLIES AND ABSURD HORROR-COMEDIES | Mysterious Order of the Skeleton Suit
    May 29th, 2012 @ 2:29 pm

    […] FULL ARTICLE This entry was posted in Reviews and tagged Homicidal Hillbillies. Bookmark the permalink. ← Becoming Human […]

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