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  • Horrific Humor and the Moment of Droll Grimness in Cinema: Sidesplitting sLaughter ed. by John A. Dowell and Cynthia J. Miller
  • David Gillota (bio)
Horrific Humor and the Moment of Droll Grimness in Cinema: Sidesplitting sLaughter. Edited By John A. Dowell and Cynthia J. Miller. Lexington Books, 2018. 167 pp.

Horror and comedy, as broad film genres, have a lot in common. By generating laughter and/or terror, both genres provoke involuntary and often physical reactions from audiences. Both are often viewed by critics as lowbrow and dispensable cultural products, and both often revel in abject bodies or seek ways [End Page 194] to supposedly gross out audience members through depictions of blood or excrement. Considering these overlaps, it is no surprise that many horror movies are quite funny, and many comic films can be horrifying. Horrific Humor and the Moment of Droll Grimness in Cinema is thus a welcome addition to the small body of critical literature exploring the overlaps between horror and humor.

This essay collection marks coeditor Cynthia J. Miller's second foray into the humor/horror hybrid. Her earlier collection, The Laughing Dead: The Horror-Comedy Film from Bride of Frankenstein to Zombieland (coedited with A. Bowdoin Van Riper in 2015), is firmly rooted in analysis of the overlap between horror and comedy films, and the essays therein discuss a broad swath of classics from this mixed genre. The current collection also features considerations of important horror comedies (Tucker and Dale vs. Evil [2010], Parents [1989], Dead Snow [2009]), but its overall selection is much more eclectic, including a few films that most would not consider horror or comedy, such as Django Unchained (2012), The Dark Knight (2008), Fight Club (1999), and—perhaps most surprisingly—various cinematic representations of the Titanic disaster. On the one hand, this eclecticism is a strength of the collection, and readers can find unexpected analysis of comically horrific (or horrifically comic) moments in otherwise so-called straight movies. On the other hand, those readers who would be drawn to a collection like this might not be as interested in discussions of films that are, strictly speaking, neither horror nor comedy. Those readers would be better served looking instead at Miller's first coedited collection.

The introduction, primarily written by John A. Dowell, provides an overview of not only the book's structure but also its key theoretical term: "sLaughter." Dowell explains that the word "is a neologism describing a moment, perhaps only lasting a few seconds, in which a human being experiences an event as simultaneously horrifying and funny." Dowell goes on to explain that sLaughter "is not perceived as one and then the other, though the occurrence may be at a rate of dyssynchronous fibrillation so fast the two cannot easily be distinguished" (xviii). In a manner that feels somewhat forced—as though it was an editorial mandate to the authors—every essay in the collection goes on to use this neologism at least once although not always in precisely the same way that Dowell defines it. The term is a little too cute for my taste, but more importantly, the editors and authors could [End Page 195] do more to explain its necessity and to differentiate it from other descriptors (like dark comedy, black humor, or cringe comedy) that critics have been using for decades.

The body of the book is divided into three sections. The first section, "The Aesthetics and Mechanics of sLaughter," features four essays that explore the formal aspects of horrific humor. Iain J. W. Ellis offers a consideration of the punk aesthetic in low-budget horror comedies like The Toxic Avenger (1984) and Tromeo and Juliet (1996) produced by Troma Studios. Don Tresca looks at postmodern genre play in two important twenty-first-century horror comedies, The Cabin in the Woods (2011) and Tucker and Dale vs. Evil. Moritz Fink uses Bakhtin's work on the carnivalesque to consider the evil clown—such as Stephen King's Pennywise or Batman's nemesis, the Joker—as both a "trope of horror and a satiric device" (30). The section is rounded out by Colin Yeo's essay, which considers the ways in which repetition destabilizes...