Laughing With a Mouth of Blood: The Danger of Watching Movies Ironically

the brood

Several years ago I attended a midnight screening of one of my favorite horror movies, David Cronenberg’s “The Brood”, a film I’ve always regarded as deeply affecting and scary. I don’t know exactly how I was expecting a rowdy group of twentysomethings to react to a relatively low-budget Canadian horror film from the late 1970s at midnight on a Saturday night—the kind of reverence and awe with which I’d long treated the film were probably too much to expect even in more somber circumstances—but I do know that the reaction the film provoked that night took me by surprise. The reaction was laughter. Within seconds of the film beginning, it became obvious that people had come to laugh at what they assumed going in was to be nothing more than a cheesy, stupid old horror movie, some hammy B-picture with stylized acting and dated effects. The constant ridicule which followed seemed only to confirm the assumption: “The Brood” was a film better watched ironically than in earnest.

It’s easy to laugh at something when you’ve decided in advance that it’s going to be funny. It’s even easier when a room full of people are laughing along with you. I’ve seen a person laugh at a new release horror film so loudly that you could almost feel the tension and dread in the room dissipating, as if the disruption had set a precedent for all who heard it that what followed was funny rather than scary, causing laughter to spread through the crowd. I’ve seen crowds whoop and holler through “Eraserhead” as if it were “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”. I’ve seen boorish teenagers yell out insults at Shelley Duvall throughout Halloween screenings of “The Shining”. I’ve even seen a classroom full of Film Studies undergraduates laugh through George Romero’s original “Night of the Living Dead”, practically bursting into applause when Duane Jones slaps Judith O’Dea across the face. There is no limit to how a room full of people will react while sitting through a movie they have decided not to take seriously.

In each of these cases, I left the theater feeling annoyed with what I felt were disrespectful audiences. And yet despite my personal affection for the films in question, it’s hard to begrudge someone their idea of entertainment even if it fails to align with your own. If that midnight audience had a good time laughing it up through “The Brood”, who am I to say that they are doing something wrong or misunderstanding the point? Furthermore, who’s to say that my perception of the film extends to anybody else, or that my perception of the film as genuinely terrifying is any more valid than their perception of the film as genuinely hilarious? People ought to be free to like or dislike whatever they want about a given film, even if receiving the conventions of horror as (unintentionally) comic requires some rather conspicuous interpretive contortions on the part of the reader. Imposing one’s own idea of how to watch a film upon an audience with ideas of their own smacks of elitism, and I well know that I am not the only person qualified to determine what parts of “Eraserhead” or “The Shining” are funny and what parts are deadly serious.

The problem is that imposition runs both ways. It may be elitist to suggest that somebody watching “The Brood” ironically is somehow watching it ‘the wrong way’, but in a public space that ironic enjoyment precludes the possibility of others taking an earnest approach. It would have been next to impossible for someone to attend that midnight screening of “The Brood” and be surprised to find themselves genuinely affected by it, because taking a horror film seriously becomes next to impossible in the context of vocal laughter and an atmosphere of mockery. There’s pleasure to be had in laughing at an old horror movie, sure, but by setting out to do so an audience is effectively denying everyone in the room the chance to have it any other way.

I’m sure that the crowd for “The Brood” that night enjoyed themselves. But when I think of how much there is to admire about “The Brood”—how serious its themes are, how real the anxieties it articulates—I can’t help but feel that they missed out on something better, that a deep and maybe even meaningful experience was replaced with a shallow and superficial one. The pleasures to be found in something “so-bad-it’s-good” are necessarily wafer-thin: there isn’t much to do besides mock the same qualities over and over again, chuckling over stilted dialogue and rolling your eyes at fake-looking special effects, and in the end the only thing gained is two hours of mild amusement and a feeling of superiority for having recognized a film’s flagrant faults.

Obviously not every obscure 70s horror film houses the wealth of straightforward pleasures offered by watching “The Brood” in earnest, and in some cases it seems apparent that a movie has nothing going for it beyond the extremity of its badness. The point isn’t that “Troll 2” or “The Room” should be taken more seriously. The problem is that the “so-bad-it’s-good” mentality of watching movies ironically is too often a self-fulfilling prophecy: much like happened with “The Brood”, the assumption that a movie has nothing to offer except accidental humor is easy to confirm if that’s all you’re looking for. (It’s even gotten to the point now where some movies, like Syfy’s recent “Sharknado”, are awful by design, inviting audiences to watch and mock without even the vaguest hope of earnest enjoyment.) It’s a given that an old genre movie will look dated even ten or twenty years on—that’s the nature of special effects. Why is a date effect inherently funny? Because we recognize that it’s fake? We know that horror movie effects are fake. But it’s responsibility, as intelligent and savvy viewers, to at least try to suspend our disbelief and look for something more.