The Improvised Horror Movie

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. Improvised Horror MovieJust 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.

Paranormal (In)Activity

Paranormal ActivityLet’s talk about Paranormal Activity for a minute. The latest installment of the franchise, Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension, opened this weekend in theaters. Yes, they’re still making these movies. Why? As a friend of mine that worked at Paramount once told a group of our way too cool for school friends who were giving him a hard time about Hollywood making crappy movies, “We’ll stop making them when you stop going to them.” Never was this missive more true than in the case of horror movies. Almost every horror movie makes money. This is mainly because we love to be scared. In fact, in a preview of next week’s article, the same feeling that draws us to fear also draws us to comedy, making the “horror comedy” genre pretty much the best thing ever. But I digress.

Horror movies scare us, which we like for some weird reason, and they’re usually cheap to make. You can literally buy a gallon of fake blood for about $10 at your local costume shop. So, they don’t have the same hurdles that many Hollywood movies have to achieve profitability. And thus, we are treated every year to another round of deranged individuals seeing just how far they can push us before we require psychiatric help. Eli Roth really set a new bar this year, for instance, with his film, The Green Inferno, which is just torture porn of the highest order.

Paranormal Activity, though, to me, is the worst (read: best) kind of horror. Cease your eye-rolling and let me explain.

These days, the found-footage horror movie is nearing cliche. It seems we get a new one every year that further dilutes the genre. Aliens on the dark side of the moon? Please. But, part of the reason we get so many of these movies now is precisely because of Paranormal Activity.

Mind you, I’m talking about the original film from 2007, before the however many sequels. Because, that’s what we do with horror. We take a genuinely scary movie and keep remaking it until it’s not scary anymore. We work through our demons by working through our demons, as it were.

But, the original film was scary. And, it was a big sensation. There was an entire mythology around it. It had debuted at a horror film festival, been bought up and then disappeared for years. In that time, all these stories popped up talking about how the film itself was haunted. There’s even a true story that when Steven Spielberg watched it at his home theater, the doors locked on their own. He brought the disc back to the studio in a trash bag. That story is true.

Finally, in the fall of 2007, the movie got a very limited release and immediately became a big deal. It’s one part the best marketing plan in the world, one part everyone likes to see scary movies in October, and one part genuinely good filmmaking. That’s right, I said it. That movie was made for $11,000, and it’s amazing. Take that, every guy with a Canon 5D.

So, I actually really don’t like scary movies. They - surprise - scare me. But, not like normal scare. They scare me to the point that I wrote an entire one-man show about my nightmares and trouble sleeping. Really.

But, the movie was a big deal, and I like movies. So, I went to see it. And, I was exactly as scared as I thought I would be. I usually sleep with a lamp on anyway, but for awhile after that, it was every light and the TV. I even put a crucifix up despite not being all that religious anymore.

But, tragedy + time = comedy, so now I can look back and give an honest review of the film that pokes at some of the holes within. Specifically, there is one really gigantic plot hole in Paranormal Activity. It’s a matter of timeline. Allow me to stretch my movie nerd muscles for a minute.

The basic plot of the movie is that Micah and Katie are a young married couple living in suburbia. There’s just one catch. Katie is seemingly pestered by some sort of unseen entity. Micah, being the loving and supportive husband he is, decides that the best way to deal with this is to turn on a camera and try to catch it all on film. From there, things predictably escalate. It’s actually a super simple concept made better by some truly creepy and creative haunting techniques. It definitely cashes in on the notion that what is unseen is often much scarier than what is seen.

Anyway, when the film starts, Katie is mildly annoyed at Micah’s camera solution. Mildly annoyed. And that makes sense. Most of the movie takes place at night in their bed and the first couple of things that happen are fairly mild, to the point that when you woke up in the morning, you might not even realize anything had happened. If that’s all that’s happening, maybe Micah’s not a total asshole for thinking that filming it would be a better idea than trying to seek out some sort of help. For real, though, Micah is a total asshole and deserves everything that happens to him.

But, there’s a problem with this. At some point in the movie, Katie mentions that this thing has been around since she was a kid. She’s now in her mid 20s. And, from the moment that Micah turns on the camera to the demonically possessed conclusion, it’s only about three weeks.

So, we have a timeline problem. Why the hell did this thing start haunting Katie when she was a kid, but not kick it into overdrive until she was an adult? I have a theory.

I think that Katie’s demon, when he first got the assignment to haunt and eventually possess her, was really excited. Like, Satan is going down the line of new demons and giving them people to possess.

“Mammon, you will possess Dick Cheney. Samael, you will possess Kim Jong….whichever one it is now. And Scott, you will possess Katie.”

That sounds lame, right? Wrong!

I think our demon was like, “Yes! This is my chance to really prove myself. Satan thinks I have potential, and that’s why he didn’t give me one of the easy ones. If I can do a good job with this little girl, he’ll notice, and I’ll get promoted. And eventually, I’ll work my way up to Head Demon and my demon parents will finally be proud of me!”

It’s like the American Dream, but for hell. So, pretty much still just like the American Dream.

And, when he starts, he’s really motivated and scares the crap out of her, but he’s never quite able to possess her. So, he works harder, but still no luck. And, after awhile, he starts to think, “Maybe I’m not really that good at this.” And his effort sinks. Eventually, he’s just punching the clock, going into work everyday but not really putting in any effort. His dream has died….Or so he thinks.

One night he walks in and what does he see but a camera! Realizing that this is probably his chance to finally get on Ghost Adventures, a major milestone for any good demon, he redoubles his efforts and finally is able to see his goal of possessing Katie through.

From the demon’s perspective, Paranormal Activity is really a heartwarming movie.

But, from the human perspective, the real demon in this story is Micah. He’s the worst.

That said, I still recommend the movie after all these eight years. Filmmaker Orin Pelli was incredibly inventive with his simple effects. Just think all the money Hollywood wastes on creature effects only to find out that the scariest thing is a girl being dragged out of her bed and down a dark hallway by absolutely nothing.

The ending is clunky, but who cares. You’ll already be so completely unnerved that you won’t care that Pelli drops the unseen tactic in the last seconds in order to elicit an unnecessary jump scare (that I’m pretty sure the studio ordered anyway. They shot like four endings to that movie. It’s the Lord of the Rings of horror movies.

Horror is naturally absurd though. As I’ll write next week, the line between humor and horror is perilously thin. So, here’s to our ability to give the things that scare us the most the Mystery Science Theater hindsight treatment. It may be the only way we ever sleep again. Or eat, in Eli Roth’s case.

As a parting shot, here’s a little list for you.

Kris’ Top 5 Comedy Horror Movies:

  • Shaun of the Dead
  • Cabin in the Woods
  • The Evil Dead Trilogy
  • Man Bites Dog
  • What We Do In The Shadows

Kris Noteboom is a Level 2 student at DCH. He is working on his PhD, with a focus comedy. He went on a mini tour this summer performing his comedic one-man show, And Then I Woke Up.

Web of Laughs: Ghostbusters

Ghostbusters If there’s a type of movie that blends together most of the things I’ve talked about in Web of Laughs thus far, it’s the horror-comedy. Maybe on a related note, if there’s a type of movie that combines most of my favorite things in film (or obsessions….whatever), it’s also the horror-comedy. As a self-proclaimed horror fanatic since the ripe age of six, when I accidentally changed the channel to Child’s Play and never turned it, there’s not a genre of movie I seek out more. I digress, though. I’m not here to ramble on about horror, instead I’m here to ramble on about comedies that crossover into the horror genre. It was difficult to choose a key film to focus on for horror-comedy, because while there are so many early prime examples such as Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein, The Little Shop of Horrors, and Spider Baby, there’s really not a more perfect example of a horror-comedy hybrid than Ghostbusters.

Ghostbusters, made in 1984, skillfully blurs the lines between horror and comedy so evenly that it really is impossible to classify it as one or the other. The story, as simple as three parapsychology professors who begin extinguishing ghosts, is one that on paper would seem to fall directly into the horror genre. The casting choices of primarily Bill Murray, Dan Akroyd, and Harold Ramis as the three Ghostbusters clearly meant that the plot wasn’t as clear cut as it seemed. The film intertwines classic horror situations with rapid-fire jokes, whether they’re delivered through dialogue or through a physical gag. In the scene where Bill Murray’s character, Peter Venkman, first discovers Susan Sarandon’s character, Dana, is possessed by Zuul is one of the prime examples of this dynamic. You have a possession similar to something you would see out of The Exorcist interlaced with casual quips from Murray asking if they’re still going out that night.

Horror-comedy takes elements from different comedy styles, most visibly dark comedy and parody. I think you could say that not all dark comedies are horror-comedy, but all horror-comedies use dark comedy as a device. The same goes with using parody in horror-comedies. Since they are playing around with the format of a typical horror movie by including elements of comedy, the comedic portion can be seen as a commentary on the original classic horror movies that have come before it. Ghostbusters, and other horror comedies, key in to two key human principles that are mostly true. People like to be scared, and they like to laugh. When you can combine those two things into one movie, the audience is able to combine the two most visceral reactions into one movie and into one entertaining experience.

Again, while Ghostbusters wasn’t the first of the horror-comedy kind, it was definitely the biggest mainstream hit up to that point. Ghostbusters and Gremlins came out the same year, pushing horror-comedy into the spotlight where it has stayed for a good period of time. The late 1980s and early 1990s saw a slew of horror-comedies with Beetlejuice, The ‘Burbs, Evil Dead II, and many more. Ghostbusters had slimed its way into audience’s hearts and proved that this type of film could be successful and not just an underground cult hit. Modern horror-comedy seems to be getting darker and darker. While Ghostbusters is fairly light-hearted and not really heavy on the scare tactics, newer films of the same type really play up the horror, as well. Films such as Cabin in the Woods, You’re Next, and Drag Me to Hell all played with the horror-comedy format, but ultimately fell more heavily into the horror category. It’s a balance that filmmakers seem to enjoy playing with, because it opens up a realm of absurdity for characters to play in, which makes it endless fun for the audience, whether you’re a horror fan or not.

Jessica Dorrell is a graduate of the DCH improv program, and is currently enrolled in the sketch writing program. Her one wish is that some day she can have a Mogwai as a pet. You can see her perform every Thursday at 9:30 p.m. in the current Ewing show.