As we continue to Get Grisly for the month of Halloween, Krista Bonello Rutter Giappone delves into the horrific-but-hilarious world of ‘splatstick’. Think Looney Tunes, with an extra topping of exposed viscera.
I’ve always felt there are very strong grounds for intersections between horror and comedy – both flirt with the ‘subversive’, both stretch their bounds in exaggeration and excess, and both share a disregard for ‘decorum’. I’ve been interested in one particular instance of this intersection – ‘splatstick’ – for a while.
For a description of ‘slapstick’ in comedy, we could return to Henri Bergson, and his description of laughter as arising from the interaction between the ‘mechanical’ and the ‘natural’ – when the mechanical encounters its limits, and proves inflexible in adapting to any new situation, trying to maintain its customary momentum – the ‘too serious’ commuter in a suit, on his way to work, flailing about as s/he slips on the proverbial banana-peel. The comedy also arises however from the rebounding – the commuter rising up, perhaps brushing her/himself off, pretending nothing has happened – opening up the possibility for repetition and its interruption, again and again.
Comic effect is often derived from some sort of ‘incongruity’ or incongruous juxtaposition. I will refer here to a novel, which outstandingly achieves precisely this kind of effect – Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho (1991). There is the excessive self-consciousness, straitjacketed and intensified by awareness of image and banal superficiality of the social circles within which Patrick Bateman moves, where ‘individuals’ are interchangeable automatons; there are seemingly endless lists – relentless repetitiveness that uses boredom as a device. Interrupted by eruptions of extreme violence, slipped in amongst the itemisations of clothing, brands, etc. There is something very funny in all this.
Though the first-person point-of-view sustains ambiguity in American Psycho, subtlety is not generally a characteristic of this mode. In splatstick, there doesn’t seem to be an equivalent ‘immortality’, as there is in slapstick, granted the characters in a particular situation – although the horror-film convention of the ‘baddie who won’t stay dead’ comes close. But these series of false ‘deaths’ may provide the crescendo to an all-the-more explosive death – while the convention, still underlying, leaves open the promise of a sequel. There’s something cartoonish in this durability of the villain – like Coyote, stubbornly persevering beyond each ‘tragic’ end, extending into the ridiculous.
Indeed, gory splatstick does seem to be particularly at home in cartoons (‘adult’ cartoons, such as Harmon and Roiland’s Rick and Morty (2013-), though ‘children’s’ cartoons like Invader Zim (2001-3) show evidence of a struggle against – and inventive evasion of – gore-restrictions) and videogames. Indeed, Viscera Cleanup Detail (2014) takes all that gore left in the wake of a rampaging hero’s path, and arms the player with a mop and bucket. Repetitive janitorial tedium meets excessive gore – punishingly hilarious parody. There is of course the possibility of initial clumsiness at the controls, getting it wrong, fumbling a few body-parts. A couple of games, including the Shadow Warrior reboot (2013), already way over-the-top in katana-slicing splatter action, have received their very own Viscera Cleanup Details, as an ‘excessive’ (deliberately) addition to the game.
In splatstick, there is an enthusiastic willingness to splatter the screen in gore – I’m thinking of H.G. Lewis’s films, and his penchant for cheerfully and colourfully splattered guts and tableaux of gore (quite literally gore-paintings, in Color Me Blood Red, 1965); I’m thinking too of some of Troma’s outings, and Peter Jackson’s Bad Taste (1987) and Braindead (1992), which deliver unequalled over-the-top viscera-vistas. There isn’t therefore quite the same rebounding, but each sequence stretches it farther – testing the elasticity of the formula, till it erupts in g[l]orious colour.
As a specific genre-style in horror, ‘gore’ tends to suggests gratuity and excess anyway – too much blood, too much gore – throwing out any suspicion of realism, and often involving more than the inadequate bodily frame could even contain (think of the volcanic-proportions of the erupting fountain of blood from the bed in Depp’s character’s death-scene, in Craven’s Nightmare on Elm Street (1984); more recently, Milo the colon-monster (Bad Milo!, 2013), painfully climbing through the constrictions of its ‘parent’ anus). I see this tendency towards the violently ridiculous through excessive gore as a re-emerging trend – James Gunn’s comedy-horror Slither (2006) may be an obvious example, what with Gunn’s Troma-apprenticeship (‘all I need to know about film-making I learned from The Toxic Avenger’). The noughties’ ‘splatpack’ brought gore to the forefront, but tended to take a rather more earnest approach to it, as does some so-called ‘torture porn’.
More recently, Adam Wingard’s You’re Next (2011) feels like a ‘genre’ version of Home Alone (1990), with the latter’s milking of cartoonish violence and non-fatal slapstick for comic effect. The characters in Wingard’s ‘home invasion’ film – and not just the villains – have superhuman durability (one scene in particular springs to mind), which allows the violence to be pushed further and further, extending the sequence. As in slapstick comedy, repetition defuses the threat, yet also heightens the effect, with comedy and violence converging. The violence in splatstick can never be ‘adequate’, and yet is always already ‘gratuitous’.
For something to count as ‘splatstick’ in my view, the comedy would have to be played up/embraced. Splatstick would also foreground gore, resulting in a blend of comedy and gore (‘goremedy’?). It’s a rather specific form of violence – one where the stakes may be high – but the delight ‘springs’ from the struggle against/blasting of restraint. Rebounding is a kind of mechanical spring, a triumph of formula – and in this sense, splatstick does return to its own ‘formula’ of excess – its build-up depends on repetition, after all. But the elasticity is tested, till a break does occur – the eruption of laughter.