Farce often operates best with the sword of horror hanging over its head, and horror can chill more deeply when spiked generously with humor. Martin and Lewis and Hope and Crosby and the Dead End Kids all braved haunted houses; half of the monsters on the Universal lot played straight man to Abbott and Costello; Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis witnessed the Saint Valentine's Day Massacre in Some Like It Hot; and Steve Martin has tangled with everything from a crazed sniper (The Jerk) to a serial-killing Merv Griffin (The Man With Two Brains).
Conversely, films from The Bride of Frankenstein to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre have shown how a dash of tongue-in-cheek comedy can heighten the horror. So, albeit in a different sense of the word "horror," does the current Trainspotting. Both sides of the principle are neatly illustrated by two current films, Roberto Benigni's The Monster and Peter Jackson's The Frighteners.
The former is a very broadly played slapstick farce and the latter is a supernatural shocker, but the heroes of both are small-time con men who run afoul, and are suspected, of serial murder. And the jolly, rollicking tone of both films is closer to Scooby-Doo than to Psycho.
The hero of The Monster (Il Monstro), played by co-writer/director Benigni, is Loris, a randy little schnook who gets through life on the short con, going to ludicrous lengths to get everything from his rent to his breakfast for free. Through a series of absurd coincidences, he is mistaken by the police for the mad killer of 18 women, and under their surveillance, his klutzy high jinks come across like perverted genius--he's dubbed the "Mozart of Vice."
A gorgeous undercover policewoman (Nicoletta Braschi) is sent into Loris' life with the mission of inflaming his sexual appetites to the point that he'll show his hand. Wackiness and more wackiness ensues, leading to a commedia dell'arte version of the chase near the end of Fritz Lang's great M.
That old-movie reference, and another to City Lights, isn't surprising--Benigni, the leading comedy star of the Italian cinema, works in a very old-fashioned style of movie comedy, reminiscent of the silent clowns, and Braschi (his real-life wife, which qualifies him as one of the luckier guys in Italy) has the sort of somber-faced loveliness that would have made her ideal as a leading lady to Chaplin or Keaton. Many of the running gags--the best involves handsome old Massimo Girotti as Loris' befuddled neighbor--have the feel of the preverbal comic cinema.
Whether you find Benigni a riot or a bit much will depend on your temperament, but he is more favorably showcased in The Monster than in his few American films, like Son of the Pink Panther or Jim Jarmusch's Down by Law. Under the eye of an American director, he seems to become coy and elfin and ickily adorable; under his own eye, he has a sort of schlumpy, unsavory quality that's far less cloying, far more appealing. I liked him here, and I like the stripped-for-combat simplicity of his direction. There isn't a gag in the film that you can't see coming a mile away, but that doesn't mean they aren't funny.
The Frighteners, on the other hand, is full of gags you don't see coming, and they're funny, too. Set in what is supposed to be small-town America--but is pretty clearly a coastal town in director Jackson's native New Zealand--the film concerns a phony psychic investigator (a well-cast Michael J. Fox). He's not a phony psychic, however; he really can perceive ghosts. Indeed, he's pals with three of them (Chi McBride, Jim Fyfe and John Astin), and they haunt houses and terrify the residents with poltergeist activity to set up the scam of him performing a "clearance," for a modest fee, of course. I wasn't clear on what the ghosts got out of the deal.
Trouble starts when a series of mysterious and apparently related deaths are linked to him. He soon realizes that he's being framed by a ghastly, cloaked spirit who's more powerful and malevolent than anything he and his ectoplasmic allies have anticipated.
Jackson is the mad genius who made Heavenly Creatures and Dead Alive. In spite of his usual dizzy, headlong pace, he's on much tamer ground here; The Frighteners has almost the feel of a kids' movie. There's no doubt, though, that Jackson is in control of the material--the script, which he wrote with Fran Walsh, dovetails perfectly, with every little twist falling into place before the end. The basic premise is one we haven't seen before, and there are other gags that feel like originals, like the FBI man (Jeffrey Combs) so overwound that he becomes violently ill whenever he hears a woman shout.
Under the end titles of The Frighteners is a blast of '70s nostalgia--Blue Oyster Cult's necromantic love song "Don't Fear the Reaper." That advice seems to be the spirit of both Jackson's film and The Monster. But the heroes of neither film are in any big hurry to make the Reaper's acquaintance.
--M. V. Moorhead
Directed by Peter Jackson; with Michael J. Fox, Trini Alvarado, Dee Wallace Stone, John Astin, Peter Dobson, Jeffrey Combs, Jake Busey, Chi McBride and Jim Fyfe.
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Directed by Roberto Benigni; with Roberto Benigni, Nicoletta Braschi, Franco Mescollini, Michel Blanc, Dominique Lavanant and Massimo Girotti.