All About Tone

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If there is one thing that has been driving me batty of late it’s tone, and how many people don’t understand how to use it. As I write this I am watching a ridiculous film called Satan’s Little Helper which is utterly atrocious but what gets me is that this is supposed to be a comic horror film, only, well, it ain’t funny. The story is silly yet the tone is so weird because you don’t want to laugh when the pregnant lady is hit with a shopping cart or the main character’s father is eviscerated in front of the family. I suppose the intent is comedy but, like I said, the tone is all wrong – it isn’t played broad enough to be funny. The thing with comedy in a horror film is you have pretty much two ways to play it – over the top, or hardline. Over the top you get into the realm of farce, which can be great if done well, or you can go hardline and go for black comedy – something dark but so ridiculous that you can laugh at it. Something like The Human Centipede is black comedy, even if they didn’t intend it, though it’s hard to think they didn’t. The film is play so straight, and so serious that it becomes absurd at times. The problem, and the boon of the film, is that it also works as a very creepy thriller. It’s crazy to me though how many filmmakers don’t get something as simple as tone right.

There is a weird resurgence of films aping the ’70s nasties that have become so beloved by horror fans. These are movies that brought a sense of reality to their stories and which reflected an age where free love was dead and war and fear ruled the airwaves. The films of the seventies were good because they were so different than what had come before. They brought a dark sense of realism to a genre that had too often played dumb. This resurgence though has bred some movies that like the nastiness of the old favorites but which add some unneeded humor to things. I have seen far too many rape/revenge movies of late (for those not in the know, this was a type of horror film which dealt with a woman being attacked then getting her revenge on the perpetrators at the end of the film) that try to be funny when, really, there isn’t a lot funny about the subject. It’s all the worse that the filmmakers mix a scene of hardcore violence with aspects of broad humor, thus creating something that is actually more unsettling than seeing the scene played straight.

Tone is everything. With the right tone you can frighten, amuse, pull at the heartstrings, or enlighten people but done poorly, you mock the very things you are trying to portray. Ugh. It drives me nutty. Maybe they just don’t get subtlety. Maybe they don’t. Maybe because some people actually enjoy junk like Satan’s Little Helper (and trust me, it looks like people not only like but love this horrible film), a film that is too darn dark to be as funny and clever as it thinks it is. All I know is that tone, like I said, is everything. Go into a haunted house and even if it is cheesy, if it is played straight, is played to scare you, with people who care working it – then it has a good chance of scaring you. Give the same attraction a lot of money, a lot of corny actors, and a lot of corny effects that are too over the top and you lose your audience and fail at the core thing you were trying to do.

You have to know what you are doing, what you are trying to convey, and what you want people to walk away with when it’s over. In the end, someone out there will get a kick out of, whatever it is, but if you end up betraying what you were intending to do in the process then what good is what you made? And if you lessen that work by misrepresenting it then, again, what was the point?

And trust me, I am asking that a lot these days.