Some films try to straddle the line between different genres, or blend the different emotional tones that are characteristic of these genres. In some cases, this effort has become a formula, and it become its own established genre, such as the “Romantic Comedy.” In many cases, this can lead to novel and moving films, but perhaps more often it seems that the efforts to move in one direction cancel out the efforts in another. Rather than allowing a filmmaker to achieve a harmonious counterpoint, there is often an unsuccessful result that causes the audience to ask, “what kind of movie was this supposed to be?” Not just anything can be tossed in a blender and come out appealing.
I recently rewatched Joe Dante’s 80’s Horror-Comedy film, Gremlins. I hadn’t seen it in perhaps decades, and I wanted to watch it with my teenage daughter. I found it held up as a very satisfying mix of spooks and laughs. I was a kid when this movie first arrived in theaters, and I did not see it at that time. I do recall friends telling me about the splatterfest kitchen scene, though, which indicated to my imagination that Gremlins was a pretty serious horror film. Viewed from my vantage point today, I see it much more as just a broad comedy with a few jumps and gross-out moments. Tellingly, perhaps, however, my daughter asked me if it was supposed to be funny (though all the while she was laughing at the absurd hijinks of the monsters on screen). Viewers unexperienced with this sort of mix might not be sure that they are getting the joke, but I think for a seasoned moviegoer, it is pretty clear, and pretty funny.
Of course, to those in the know, Dante telegraphed his intentions partly through a fairly gratuitous cameo by the great animation director Chuck Jones in the early scene in the bar. This cameo is a lot like the cameos of Stan Lee in all the current Marvel Comics movies. Dante is paying homage to the influential creator whose work is an inspiration to the film we are watching. It may seem strange to think that Jones, who is associated with the Roadrunner, Pepe le Pew, and many of the most famous Bugs and Daffy cartoons, might be the inspiration for a comedy in horror film trappings, but a closer look at his work might give some more clues to Dante’s sources of inspiration. In cartoons such as Hair-Raising Hare, Scaredy Cat, and its remake, Claws for Alarm, Jones mines a great deal of humor from the horror-genre settings of a haunted house and the castle of a mad scientist. Gremlins is effectively a live action cartoon in this tradition, filled with the sort of implausible action and laughable villains that might populate a Looney Tunes short.
Perhaps the most extreme way that a filmmaker might attempt to mix moods is by making a genre film that parodies the conventions in the genre, while simultaneously trying to be an exemplar of that very genre. This rarely works, as the filmmaker is basically trying to have his cake and eat it too. An example which I think does pull it off is Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz.
Every convention of the Buddy Cop film is skewered and exaggerated for comic effect, but at the same time, Hot Fuzz is a great action cop film. When Simon Pegg and Nick Frost’s characters have a movie marathon, dipping into an enormous video library of buddy cop movies, the audience is getting a knowing wink from the director that functions much like Chuck Jones’s cameo in Gremlins. By calling out the source material for the film, Wright is implicitly inviting comparison. In a parody, referencing the source material is an almost indispensable device for establishing the context of the humor, but in a straightforward genre movie an homage can backfire merely by reminding you of a much better film. So while it takes a degree of confidence to pull off any genre mixing, it takes even more skill to succeed in lampooning the very type of film you are celebrating. The type of self-aware storytelling that this involves can be condescending to the audience or induce them to start rolling their eyes. The frequent result is a jumble of emotional beats that undermines credibility and sincerity. However, in their playful mix of genre conventions, Hot Fuzz and Gremlins both trip along confidently, where other films might just trip and fall.