Thursday, 30 June 2011

Open House Day 31 - Stephen Volk

I don’t only read horror. Far from it. In fact, I’ve just finished reading Steve Martin’s excellent memoir of the highs and lows of his stand-up career, Born Standing Up, and it gave me the idea for this blog, which is called


Let me count the ways. I don’t want to merely list here all the horror films that are laugh-out-loud, like Brain Dead, or laffers that have a dark side, like Jodie Foster’s The Beaver, so let’s start with...


I’ve mentioned this before (in the pages of Black Static magazine), but I attended the Q&A session after a performance of the mega-hit play Ghost Stories when one of the co-writers, Jeremy Dyson, was asked by a naive but eager creative writing student: “What advice would you give on writing horror?”. Dyson thought for a minute, then said, politely but firmly, there is no advice. You either find things scary, or you don’t. You can’t teach it. You can’t learn it. In the same way you can’t learn what’s funny. You either know or you don’t. He said, “People talk about having a funny bone, but there’s also a horror bone. It’s exactly the same thing.”


There’s undoubtedly rhythm in a joke. Listen to Jackie Mason. Listen to old Woody Allen recordings. Steve Martin talks about it being so predictable that in his early years he noticed some comedians got a laugh even when the punch line was mumbled. The audience didn’t hear it: they simply reacted to the musicality. Similarly, I think horror has a musicality too. A master director gets a sequence pitch-perfect, at the right tempo and emotional volume. It works. Also-ran practitioners get it wrong. The editing is clumsy, the pace leaden, the climax fumbled. The moment doesn’t hit the spot. You think, “Have they ever even seen a horror film?” and wonder how they got the gig in the first place.


Psychological studies of humour from Freud onwards say a joke is based on surprise. Tee-tum, tee-tum, tee-BANG! The outcome isn’t what you were led to expect. This is the currency of horror, too. Think of the so-called “bus moments” of Val Lewton, now painfully de rigeur in every scary movie of the present age (to the extent, nowadays, some producers of my direct experience ask for at least ten such “scares” per movie: caring less for any overarching unease or anxiety the film-maker might be aiming for). “Scare moments” (like the ending of Carrie or the “fish bucket” moment in Jaws) are in fact so often followed by a laugh, the requisite release of tension in the viewer, that they often are difficult to differentiate from actual jokes.


What makes one joke funny to one person and yet the person next to them remains stony faced? In the same way, why does a horror film scare one person, yet to another wash like water off a duck’s back? It’s a mystery. Because in both cases, it’s personal. Which is why we pay those singular individuals who come up with the universal joke (like Martin in his prime or, again, Woody Allen) or the universal monster (like Spielberg or Wes Craven) big bucks.


It’s a cliché, or truism, but comedians definitely have a dark side of their personality. Think of those grim BBC4 bio-pics about Frankie Howerd, Kenneth Williams, and Tony Hancock for a start. Paradoxically, if you want to have a laugh, don’t meet up with a bunch of comedy writers, go for a drink with a bunch of horror writers. They’re the nicest people you could ever hope to meet. And funny as hell. Yin and yang? Go figure.


Comedy does this, at its best. So does horror. As somebody once said, “News is something that someone doesn’t want to hear. The rest is advertising.”

7. THE “GAG”

When I’m in script meetings about horror films I’m working on, I often find myself talking about the “gag”. Not because the scene I’m discussing is funny, but because it’s a beat, a punctuation which needs skilful consideration to make work.


...As everyone who has listen to a pub bore telling a joke, compared to a genius like Tommy Cooper or George Burns telling a corny gag, knows. Similarly in horror, the voice (or hand) of the writer or film-maker is paramount. (Who’d think that a possessed car could be terrifying? But in the hands of Stephen King, it is.)


A joke either gets a laugh or it doesn’t. It’s blunt and merciless. It separates the men from the boys. Similarly, a horror film either horrifies or it doesn’t. The line between success and failure is absolute and palpable. Which is why this is no territory for namby-pambies. They can run off and play in the sand-pit marked “Worthy Drama” or “Social Realism”. While bad comedies and bad horror films get ripped new ones by the critics.


Which is, to my mind -- black comedy. (I refuse to bow to PC and call it “dark” comedy. Clearly I’m not talking about Will Smith here.) This is where funny and frightening meet as uneasy bedfellows and twins separated at birth. For me, this cross-bred genre is probably the platinum card of all genres in literature and film because -- as Billy Wilder knew, and as Wes D. Gehring, author of the highly recommended American Dark Comedy: Beyond Satire espouses -- black comedy is the most like our actual experience of actual life. Neither scary nor hilarious, but both. Sometimes at the same time. Think of the leg going in the wood chipper in Fargo. The cowboy riding the atom bomb in Dr Strangelove... Blood Simple, A Clockwork Orange, Chopper, Bronson, Natural Born Killers, Reservoir Dogs, Black Swan, the weird worlds of David Lynch, I could go on... But I won’t. We all have our favourites. The movies that make us laugh when we’re not sure we should, or scare us in a way that mixes with farce and makes us deeply uncomfortable in scenes we never forget...

Which brings me back to Steve Martin.

In Born Standing Up the most moving part is nothing to do with his stand-up career at all, but a description of himself at his physically abusive father, Glenn’s, death bed, and the awkward reconciliation with a dad who typically put down his son’s efforts in the entertainment business throughout his life.

Any comedy writer or horror writer could have tackled this archetypal subject, but in Martin’s sensitive hands, for me, it is just simply what we all aspire to -- good writing.

In describing death -- the most “uncomfortable truth” of all -- it portrays life.

Later on, Martin describes visiting his mother, who by then was falling “into a vacant mental decline”:

“She began to alternate between lucidity and confusion, creating moments of tenderness and painful hilarity. She told me Glenn had treated me unfairly, that she wished she had intervened. She said when I was a child, she hugged me and kissed me a lot, something I did not recollect. Then she took a long pause. She looked at me, quietly puzzled, and said, ‘How’s your mother?’”

Ba-boom tish.


STEPHEN VOLK was the creator and lead writer of ITV's award-winning paranormal drama series Afterlife and the notorious BBCTV "Halloween hoax" Ghostwatch.  His latest feature film, The Awakening (co-written by director Nick Murphy), is a period ghost story starring Rebecca Hall, Dominic West and Imelda Staunton, and will be released later in 2011.  His other movie credits include Ken Russell's Gothic starring Gabriel Byrne, Natasha Richardson and Timothy Spall, and The Guardian, co-written with director William Friedkin. He has also penned scripts for Channel Four's Shockers and BBC1's Ghosts, and won a BAFTA for his short film The Deadness of Dad starring Rhys Ifans. His first collection of short stories, Dark Corners, was published by Gray Friar Press in 2006 and, more recently, his novella Vardoger earned him a nomination for both a Shirley Jackson Award and a British Fantasy Award. He has new stories in the upcoming anthologies House of Fear (Solaris), The Unspoken, and Gutshot (PS Publishing), and two new TV series in development at the BBC.



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