The American horror movie. What cinematic legacy can claim special effects mastery, emotional poignancy, and raw camp in the same breath? Scary movies have done so much good for cinema that it’s sickening. And now that we’re in the season (oh goodness HALLOWEEN I’m excited are you excited I love Halloween like no lie it’s my favorite holiday and I’ve been planning my costume for MONTHS) – Ahem. Sorry about that. As I was saying, now that we’re in season – eeek – the Dallas Comedy House (DCH) has started a month-long series of holiday-appropriate shows. As is tradition, it opened the first weekend of October with a premier of the Improvised Horror Movie. Though the show stands as a tribute to the horror genre, it also exists in memorial to Del Close, creator of the format, and Jason Chin, former director at iO Chicago who perfected the show. DCH runs the Improvised Horror Movie through the month of October as a dedication to their work. Just like its parent genre, the Improvised Horror Movie takes a couple different forms – forms, mind you, not scripts, because then it wouldn’t be improv, duh. Each form spins off of a particular type of horror movie. The version I had the pleasure of viewing was based off of one of my favorites: the "Slasher," wherein innocent, dumb kids fall prey to a psycho killing machine. Now that’s what I call comedy! Hooray!
The way the shindig worked in practice seemed pretty simple: At the top of the show, the audience assigned each cast member a role, all inspired by classic horror tropes. There’s a jock, a nerd, a goth, a stoner, a popular chick, and the surviving girl who will, in the end, determine who the killer is. (Spoiler alert, most of the archetypical characters die in a spectacularly funny fashion.)
Even though the roles are pre-determined and assigned at the beginning of the show, this doesn’t make things easier for the players. If anything, this is crazy hard. “Here’s a point of view, now understand it, adopt it as your own, and think up stuff to say from that point of view on the fly in front of strangers. Oh, and by the end of the show most of you have to have died and you have to be funny in the meantime.” Like, what even!?! That’s hard enough for me to do on a good day.
“Emily, you’re dumb. Those roles are pretty much stereotypes, and aren’t those at the antithesis of what good character work should be?”
Um, first, how dare you, I’m hella smart. Second, no. Just because the role’s been given to you, there’s still tons of flexibility as to what constitutes that role. Sporty jocks don’t have to be bullies, and the brainiac doesn't have to be socially awkward. For instance, the stoner in the last show (played by David Allison) was far away from being dumb and slow – instead, he was an energetic conspiracy theorist who suspected who the murderer was the whole time. (He felt the perpetrator was George W. Bush, but whether he was right or not is hardly the point here.) The popular girl (played by Maggie Rieth Austin) was ditzy, peppy, and fun – not a sexualized antithesis to the surviving girl the character is usually reduced to. Thinking with that kind of originality takes skill and quick thinking that isn’t often matched.
“Well, OK, fine, so the characters are diverse despite being typified. You still can’t bridge the gap between cinema and stage acting!”
Au contraire! You forget that critical element of improv – scene painting! It’s a heavy and, in this case, a critical show component. We already know what will happen at the end of our “movie” – the audience sticks around for the journey to that conclusion. Performers primarily conduct scene painting through a series of different “camera angles,” wherein they call out cinematic direction you’d normally only read in a script. These camera angles double as edits and is what give the audience a cinematic effect, if an imaginary one. Cast members are given close-ups, split-screens, and even aerial shots that they have to make work and incorporate seamlessly into the ongoing scene. Half of the fun lies in players giving each other impossible views to pull off. (Have you ever seen a dead man fly in circles around two women standing horizontally? Well, I did! You might see it, too, if you buy a ticket). It’s a brain and body workout, to be sure, not to mention the lighting and sound tricks that the techs execute on the fly. (Props to Raye Maddox - you done good, kiddo.)
Boy. What a ride. In short, this show is a keeper. It’s one of those shows at DCH that’s a must see. You won’t get spooked, but you’ll certainly laugh, and any student or fan of improv will also get a great lesson by simply watching the cast. Oh, before I forget – that cast includes David Allison, Amanda Austin, Sallie Bowen, Noa Gavin, Jason Hackett, Tabitha Parker, Ben Pfeiffer, Maggie Rieth Austin, and Nick Scott. The whole shebang is tech'ed by Jua Holt (Raye Maddox was the technical director for the show I saw). They all deserve a big ol’ basket of treats minus tricks, allergens, and razors. For tickets, please visit www.dallascomedyhouse.com.
Emily Baudot is a DCH graduate and sketch student. When she isn’t at the theater, she’s drinking at one of the bars down the street and trying to justify ordering dessert for dinner. Or, she’s on her computer pretending she’s a banished orc maiden, whichever one sounds healthier to you. If her crippling addiction to sugar and caffeine doesn’t kill her, she can be seen on stage with the soon to be world famous Wild Strawberry and the already-Internet famous Wiki-Tikki-Tabby (just kidding, they do go online a lot though). She’s also a Pisces because that means something.