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Strange Bedfellows: Comedy Voices in Horror Movies



Strange Bedfellows: Comedy Voices in Horror Movies

It’s hard to imagine now, but when Jordan Peele announced his intentions to make a horror film, I questioned the fit. Peele was, at the time, best known as one half of comedy duo Key & Peele. In 2016 he wrote and produced Keanu, a starring vehicle for himself and partner Keegan-Michael Key. So when his next writing project was announced, Get Out, a film he’d also be directing, I for one was a little confused as to why we weren’t getting another comedy. Keanu was hilarious, and did an excellent job in translating Key & Peele’s temperament to the big screen.

Now, with hindsight being 20/20 and all that, I’m kicking myself for ever doubting Peele’s shift into horror auteur mode. With Get Out and its follow-up, Us, Peele gave us two distinct yet equally instantly-iconic horror masterpieces. He’d transitioned seamlessly. Here are eight other examples of comedic voices making the leap into horror movies!

David Gordon Green and Danny McBride:

Here’s another curveball that ended up being a complete home run. Way back in 2003, Danny McBride made his theatrical debut in a romantic drama directed by David Gordon Green. The film, called All the Real Girls, was Green’s second feature as director, and his first collaboration with McBride. Now, fast forward to 2008, when another McBride-Green collaboration, Pineapple Express became a box-office hit and a stoner comedy classic. This one again saw Green directing (from a script co-written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg), with McBride starring as shady drug dealer Red. The success of Pineapple Express led to the following year’s Your Highness, before the director/actor combo shifted to television with HBO’s “Eastbound and Down”. After another hit series on HBO, “Vice Principals” (where Godon Green served as Executive Producer), the two stunned fans by pivoting once more, this time taking their talents to the fictional Haddonfield, Illinois with 2018’s Halloween.

While their version of Halloween wasn’t without its controversies, it is insane how great of a fit Danny McBride and David Gordon Green were for the long-running franchise. By foregoing the mythology established within many of the franchise’s sequels, the pair (this time both writing, with Gordon Green again serving as director) brought the series back to the barebones essentials of John Carpenter’s 1978 original. Danny McBride and David Gordon Green showed they were the pair for the job with an adept, respectful script that utilized their backgrounds to create some masterfully tension-mediating comedic relief. Their Halloween was a box office phenomenon, raking in $255.5 dollars. It has since been announced that the pair will team up more to write two more sequels, with Halloween Kills and Halloween Ends to follow soon.

David Gordon Green and Danny McBride on Set of Halloween 2018

Chris Rock:

Despite the title of his semi-autobiographical series that aired on the CW, it seems like everybody loves Chris. And we have plenty of reasons to! Just look at the man’s résumé. He is a bonafide comedy icon. After gaining national exposure on Saturday Night Live, Chris Rock blessed the world with an unheard-of five legendary HBO specials, starting with 1994’s Big Ass Jokes, and culminating in 2008 with Kill the Messenger. In just fourteen years, Rock amassed three Emmys for his standup work alone. In addition, his “The Chris Rock Show” won the Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Variety or Music Program in 1999, AND he won Grammy Awards for Best Comedy Album in 1998, 2000, and 2006. The man was in Grown Ups 2 and somehow still came out smelling like roses. Chris Rock is unimpeachable.

How will the funniest man of all time (I said it, the gauntlet’s been thrown) fare in the world of big-budget horror? The world will get its answer when Rock stars in the upcoming Spiral: From the Book of Saw. In addition, not only will he be starring in the film, but Rock also serves as Executive Producer, for the movie based on his own idea! It was Rock himself who approached Lionsgate about another edition in the sometimes-stolid series. With co-star Samuel L. Jackson in tow, fingers are crossed and clues are pointing towards what will hopefully become a fresh perspective on the 16-year-running franchise.

Spiral: From the Book of Saw Chris Rock

Judy Greer:

Judy Greer needs to be commended for the multiple renaissances housed within her filmography. Romantic comedy fans of the 2000’s will doubtlessly recognize her in countless “best friend”/supporting actress-type roles. The list is long, but it includes The Wedding Planner, 13 Going on 30, Elizabethtown, and 27 Dresses. If you were the protagonist in a romantic comedy between 2000 and 2008, Judy Greer was there to support you, persuade you, and step up as your bridesmaid. She was the go-to gal pal for years, and fit the role naturally.

Somehow, between all the dress-fittings and lunchdates, Greer was able to fit into her calendar two key appearances that would change her career. From 2003-2005, Greer co-starred as Kitty Sanchez in Fox’s then-little-appreciated “Arrested Development”. The role not only brought her career more exposure, but it also allowed her to play against type, as the zany, unstable personal assistant/mistress to the show’s patriarch George Bluth. In 2004, Greer made her genre-fare debut in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village. The oft-belittled, the movie allowed Greer to appear in a horror movie for the first time. Greer was given a much larger role in the poorly-received 2013 remake of Carrie, where she played Ms. Desjardin, a PE teacher who grows increasingly sympathetic towards the titular pubescent character.

Now, it’s 2018, and fans of Judy Greer and horror movies are praying for a role of some substance in a critically-acclaimed genre film. And what does Ms. Greer serve us? Why, she comes out the gate swinging in the aforementioned Halloween as Karen Nelson, daughter to the one-and-only absolute legend Laurie f’n Strode! Greer dials back her comedic instincts here and maintains her composure in the face of a history of trauma as the daughter of one of horror’s best final girls. Laurie Strode has lived a life of doomsday preparation for the night The Shape comes home again. However, Greer, as Laurie’s daughter Karen, has lived in denial, frequently downplaying her mother’s past until it’s too late. Best yet? Greer will return as Karen in the upcoming Halloween Kills.

halloween 2018 karen

William Jackson Harper:

With “The Good Place”, creator/executive producer Michael Schure captured lightning in a bottle for the fourth time. His stellar run of NBC sitcoms also included “The Office”, “Parks and Recreation”, and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” (ok, Nine-Nine was a Fox show, but then NBC rescued it!). Many feel like “The Good Place” was Schure at his emotional storytelling best. One of the reasons his shows are able to pack so many feelings into their runtime is Schure’s adeptness at putting together ensemble casts.

Enter Jackson Harper. On “The Good Place”, he plays Chidi Anagonye, a pitch-perfect foil for the series’ main character, Kristen Bell’s Eleanor Shellstrop. Eleanor’s shenanigans are only as crazy as Chidi’s demeanor is grounded. As Chidi, Jackson Harper adds gravitas to every scene where his character’s background as an ethics professor has everyone questioning their own morality. It is a testament to Jackson Harper’s skills as an actor that he can be both believably serious and explosively frustrated as Eleanor’s soulmate in “The Good Place”.

It is another testament to Jackson Harper’s skills as an actor that he is almost unrecognizable in his role as Josh in Ari Aster’s Midsommar. Take off Chidi’s glasses, and there is a young graduate student looking forward to finishing a thesis and having some fun in Sweden. Jackson Harper lends some of the same seriousness he displayed in “The Good Place” as Josh, again grounding the cast of characters around him. Josh is the most studious in the bunch, and the one most forthright in his wishes to study the culture that will eventually be the group’s doom. I’ve got my fingers crossed that we might see William Jackson Harper in more horror movies in the future. He nearly quit acting prior to being cast in “The Good Place”, so hopefully Midsommar is just the beginning of his genre filmography.

William Jackson Harper Midsommar

Lil Rel Howery:

Rel made more than a big splash with his feature film debut. As airport security guard Rod Williams, Lil Rel Howery launched himself to instant horror icon status in 2017’s Get Out. And Rod wasn’t just comedic relief, he was a whole Greek chorus, an investigator and the eventual saving grace for our protagonist. Rod subverted decades-old horror tropes by swooping in at the nick of time, saving our main character Chris from repeating the fate of Ben from Night of the Living Dead.

While Get Out may’ve been Howery’s first movie, comedy fans may recognize the acclaimed standup from NBC’s “Last Comic Standing”. He parlayed this exposure into a position as cast member on the shortl-ived revival of “In Living Color”, where the sketch comedy chops he honed led to another gig as writer/producer/actor on truTV’s “Friends of the People”. From there, Howery went on to co-star in “The Carmichael Show” before landing his first solo standup special on Netflix, Kevin Hart Presents: Lil Rel: RELevent. In the wake of Get Out, Howery created and starred in his own sitcom Rel (gifting us all with a Sinbad comeback vehicle), and has acted in a bunch more movies (Free Guy, Dark Water, Bad Trip). Here’s hoping that, going forward, Rel doesn’t forget his horror roots, and we get to see him breaking up some scares with more laughter soon!

Get Out Rod Williams

Rose Byrne:

Rose Byrne is an Australian actress who studied at the Atlantic Theater Company. This serious thespian background brings a real gravity to Byrne’s every role, as best illustrated by her Emmy-nominated performance as Ellen Parsons in FX’s “Damages”. This role, along with parts in Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones and Troy brought Byrne acclaim and recognizability enviable to any actor.

However, Byrne is now perhaps best known for her hilarious roles in comedy flicks like Neighbors and Like a Boss. Comedy fans are sure to remember Byrne from 2010’s Get Him to the Greek, where she played Russell Brand’s popstar ex-partner Jackie Q, or from Bridesmaids, where she portrayed the stuck-up villain Helen Harris. But, sandwiched between these two films is a key (though not the Last Key, in which she’d appear through archival footage in 2018) into Byrne’s versatility, when we were treated to her role as heroine Renai Lambert in 2010’s Insidious. Her dramatic background lent a serious emotional weight to this one. As Renai, Byrne was the movie’s heart and soul; we believed her as the terrified mom when young Dalton becomes a vessel for ghosts in the astral plane. Her facility for genre greatness was glimpsed years earlier when she starred as Scarlet in the 2007 sequel 28 Weeks Later.

Rose Byrne 28 Weeks Later

Tim Heidecker:

It’s no surprise that Jordan Peele is great at handpicking comedians for his horror projects. What is surprising, however, is how perfect Tim Heidecker is as the smarmy Josh Tyler, and his “tethered” Tex, in 2019’s Us.

Just like Peele, Heidecker was once best known as one half of a comedy duo. He and Eric Wareheim, together known as “Tim & Eric,” have built a huge fanbase with their very specific brand of comedy seen on Cartoon Network’s late night block, Adult Swim. The pair have a sensibility that is hard to describe succinctly, but words like “surreal” and “absurdist” might do the best job at pointing toward the truth. Frequently, their sketches escalate in jarring and uncomfortable ways, sometimes even bordering on terrifying. It is this quality in Heidecker’s work that perhaps makes him such a great choice for horror.

In Us, Heidecker plays two distinct characters. As Josh, he’s pretty much the same harmless, rich asshole he played as the groom-to-be in Bridesmaids. But, Heidecker really shines later in the movie as Tex, Josh’s evil doppelganger. He really ups the creep factor in Tex’s grunts and screams. The way he communicates with the other tethered suggests a whole lived-in world. Even his walk is distinctive and menacing. I know I’m not alone in hoping we see some more horror work for Tim Heidecker in the future.

Tex Us 2019

Bill Hader:

Last but not least, what may possibly go down as the single most riveting performance from a comedic actor in a modern horror movie. Bill Hader surprised us all as the perfect choice to play Richie Tozier in IT: Chapter 2. Or, maybe he didn’t surprise us at all. Maybe everything in Hader’s entire career was leading to this point. Every impression on SNL made him an outstanding pick as the grown-up version of Finn Wolfhard’s joke-a-minute prankster. And his Emmy Award-winning work on HBO’s “Barry” made him a shoe-in to shoulder the brunt of some of the IT saga’s most dramatic beats.

What surprised me most of all about Hader’s performance was how measured it felt. Sure, the Richie Tozier character gives Hader plenty of time to ham it up, with lots of cheesy jokes and brutal insults that show this is an older version of the same person we met in Chapter 1. But when it comes time for the more serious elements of the story, Hader truly shines. During the Ritual of Chud, when the typically motor-mouthed Richie goes completely slack-jawed under the power of Pennywise’s deadlights, we buy it. There are these super-nuanced moments when we learn of Richie’s unrequited love for childhood pal Eddie Kaspbrak. If not for Hader’s strengths as an actor, the subtleties of this doomed same-sex pairing may’ve been lost completely.

Bill Hader IT Chapter Two