Killer Comedy: The Mismatched Appeal of Comedians in Horror

As someone who became an avid follower of the Saw franchise during its reign as kings of horror in the mid-to-late 2000s, there was a little mental whiplash at the news of Spiral, the latest entry in the ever-expanding world of the Jigsaw killer, casting two A-list names to lead the charge. One of those names is not only an active executive producer of the film in his own right, but his rise to fame came through establishing himself as one of the world’s most successful and popular comedians.

That man is Chris Rock, one of the undisputed kings of comedy who made a name for himself not just with his HBO specials, but through his work in film, namely the Madagascar franchise. Known for his iconic energy and recognizable high-pitched voice aggressively commanding the audience to pay attention to his every word, Rock is just about the last person I would expect to not only headline but produce an entry into Saw, mostly known for its elaborate, blood-soaked traps perpetrated by an unknown assailant communicating through a clown-faced doll.

It’s a decision that has been met with some skepticism online, questioning how an actor primarily known for comedy could believably lead an entry in the Saw universe without bringing attention to it. Truthfully, there’s no real way to avoid it in Rock’s case. Whenever people see Chris Rock, comedy comes into mind and it’s almost impossible to not have that in mind while watching Spiral. But within the doubt of Rock proving his worth in horror is a trend bewildering yet intriguing enough to warrant a discussion of the genre’s capabilities. 

The trend is the very idea of comedians in horror in the first place. Horror is a genre that has defined itself as a place for audiences to confront their worst fears or even to ponder questions we might have deeply suppressed in an attempt to protect our idealistic existence. The best horror challenges our preconceived notions on a variety of personal and world topics, having the ability to also take an extra step by playing around with film techniques to achieve this goal. 

The best horror can also transcend genre to become a unique entity that manages to unnerve us no matter how much we try to understand it. It’s why projects like Hereditary, Audition, Scream, The Exorcist, and countless other horror titles have stood the test of time. In a sense, these movies do not restrict themselves to being “just” a horror movie. The genre is at its most visceral when it invades an aspect of our lives that we didn’t believe could be tainted by a type of horror we’ve tried protecting ourselves from. 

Audition and Scream have extra relevance in this particular conversation for their ability to mix a lighter tone with a dark underbelly that helps them carve their respective spots in the genre. Scream is a horror movie for armchair horror fans, playing on slasher tropes and containing next-level self-awareness on the genre’s inner workings, making us feel closer to the protagonists than we would with a by-the-books slasher. It’s that strengthened bond that makes their eventual deaths feel all the more painful to witness; it’s as if we’re watching one of our movie night buddies get slaughtered in cold blood.

Audition subverts in a different way, playing with the set-up of an emotional romantic drama and then flipping everything on its head when the love interest is actually a stone-cold killer. Time is spent developing a widow who has grown lonely and a single father’s attempt to get back in the dating game through an act of deceit masked as an audition for a fake movie. The set-up implies a quirky romance dramedy before hitting us with a harrowing tale of abuse and its far-reaching effects into adulthood. 

These two examples extend horror beyond its genre trappings to capture a new sense of fear and dread that we wouldn’t feel in a set-up that “prepares” for us to experience a horror story. Accessible as these films may be, there’s a healthy dose of taboo in crafting horror around concepts that we wouldn’t want horror to have anything to do with. Once it enters territory we deem “too much” for horror, an opportunity is presented to create something truly horrifying.

Now let’s talk about comedy.

Jim Carrey in ‘The Number 23’

Comedy, much like horror, is far more versatile than we give it credit for. It’s often seen as the type of art armed with the sole purpose of making the consumer laugh at a joke, humorous observation of life, etc. It’s what we look for in stand-up comedy, right? Comedians stand on stage and riff on a variety of topics, sometimes inching close to home for us, and we form a bond – an idea of our preferred comedian providing a safe haven for us.

It’s primarily why comedians straying away from that safe haven and stepping outside of their – and by extension, our – comfort zone can sometimes be met with a mixed reception. Audiences generally have a rough time accepting a face of comedy being lit in an unfavorable or grim light. Drama is slightly more palatable on account of the stories being grounded in a firm place in reality for the most part. But a shift to horror can be overwhelming for audiences hesitant to make the jump.

Chris Rock’s decision to lead Spiral is only the latest example of this trend, one that has been around since the usually comedic Tim Curry opted to sit in a make-up chair and transform into the infamous killer clown Pennywise for the It miniseries in 1990. Curry’s legendary performance helped establish him as one of the most frightening, yet engaging actors of his time and it all came with a performance that was still considered somewhat against-type for him.

The concept of a comedic actor playing a demented clown may not sound like a huge leap for audiences to comprehend, but the terror of a dancing clown secretly being a child murderer – raising a direct comparison to John Wayne Gacy – plays into the idea of horror thriving in the world of taboo. Casting a comedic actor for this only adds an extra layer of realism that digs into our psyche whether we like it or not.

Comedians like Jim Carrey and Robin Williams have often been praised for the smiles they’ve put on our faces over the years, so seeing them take up roles that veer closer to horror and psychological thrillers just feels…off. Carrey’s frenetic comedy style is an ace in the hole for strict comedies, but that same style can turn around and make us feel uncomfortable in something like The Cable Guy. We see Jim Carrey the way we normally see him, but the context now switches to his behavior being indicative of a larger personal problem that can become deadly before we realize it.

The late Robin Williams was no stranger to serious roles even in the late 80s and 90s, going back-and-forth between his fast-paced improvisational style and a sweet sincerity that garnered him millions of fans around the world. When we see that same man stalk a family in One Hour Photo, the level of terror exceeds the same idea if it were performed by an actor we are used to seeing in these roles. Against-type casting has been a thing in Hollywood for ages, but a comedian switching gears in this manner always feels as though we’re seeing it for the first time.

But however odd it may be, this trend manages to succeed in its job of surprising audiences more often than not. Even critically mixed performances such as Vince Vaughn in Psycho ’98 or Jim Carrey dabbling in horror a decade after The Cable Guy with The Number 23 feel like spirited attempts at playing with the minds of the audience in a horror setting. We may not hold all of these performances in equally high regard, but their mere existence still work as good jumping-off points for times when horror tried to get under our skin through the art of against-type casting.

We have even seen a prominent example of this win an Oscar in the case of Jordan Peele’s creation of Get Out. We had long known Peele as the comedic actor from madTV who rose to prominence with Keegan Michael-Key in Key & Peele. So a genuine horror effort felt off-putting, especially with a trailer that seemed to imply a healthy mix of horror and comedy. Peele does provide a handful of laughs here, but the comfort we got from his work in sketch comedy was replaced with a scathing horror satire that felt as though it came out of nowhere.

But it didn’t. The point is that none of this pops up out of nowhere. Comedians surprising audiences with darker and dramatic roles isn’t a new phenomenon by any means and Chris Rock’s contribution to the Saw series isn’t breaking new ground. But it’s still noteworthy enough to make headlines whenever it does happen. Skepticism aside, there is excitement to be had over what Chris Rock could potentially bring to a serious horror franchise.

Furthermore, comedians dabbling in horror may never feel commonplace in mainstream horror, but the shock factor in seeing them step into new territory is a cursed blessing. Horror has already been labeled as an outcast of Hollywood in spite of its immense profit margins, but witnessing the unlikeliest of celebrities embracing the genre is the inclusive spirit that comes (or rather should come) with such a twisted world. 

Robin Williams in ‘One Hour Photo’