Sidesplitters: “NEVER NOT FUNNY”‘s Matt Belknap on “PET SEMATARY” & Why “TRUE DETECTIVE” Counts as Horror
Horror and Comedy go together like masks and murderers, as both set out to evoke reactions from even the most immovable of audiences. Therefore, it’s no surprise that so many funnymen are ardent fright fans. In our new column, Sidesplitters, FANGORIA chats with comedians who love horror as much as they love humor. One of the more unfortunate problems in the lives of horror fans is balancing our fandom with life, especially as we age. Despite responsibilities and changes in lifestyle, the inner child’s voice will always remain, luring us back into the shadows time and time again. This is an experience known well by this week’s Sidesplitter participant, Matt Belknap, who has been the producer and co-host of the immensely popular NEVER NOT FUNNY comedy podcast (with the prolific comedian Jimmy Pardo) for over 8 years.
Giving a humorous take on aspects of life both personal and professional, it wasn’t until this writer noticed Belknap dropping several genre references that the “age vs. horror” conflict seemed alive and well in the podcaster. Speaking with FANGORIA, Belknap opened up on his long-running horror fandom, his scariest in-theater moment and why TRUE DETECTIVE qualifies as a horror series…
FANGORIA: What was your first experience with horror culture?
MATT BELKNAP: Well, I grew up in the ‘80s, which was the heydey of the video rental era. Probably around 6th grade, my friends and I started renting the FRIDAY THE 13TH movies and A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET movies. We branched out from there, but that was one of the most vivid memories: being at a friend’s house and watching movies I probably shouldn’t have been watching at the age of 12. We were seeing some horrible things but the fun was in being with a group of friends and being scared out of our minds. Also, seeing those movies now, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET was my favorite because it was scary but also slightly corny. That one was more fun instead of too traumatic. I might have been exposed to horror earlier but that’s what popped in my head.
FANG: Is there ever a certain film or subgenre in horror that you’ve championed?
BELKNAP: I’ve always been a fan of anthologies, and I especially loved TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE: THE MOVIE. I think there were a bunch of anthologies in the ‘80s like CREEPSHOW that I liked, but I don’t know why I latched onto TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE. Maybe it’s because I saw it in the theater and it just stuck with me. Each story is really cool and it had Debbie Harry in the wraparound segment. TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE: THE MOVIE is just really fun, and now that I think about it, I think it was the film that introduced me to the concept of anthologies. I hadn’t seen the other anthologies yet, and in seeing TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE, I thought, “Oh man, this is so cool. It has stories within a story.” That seemed really cool to me, and I thought that was a great structure for a horror film.
FANG: A lot of horror fans find that theatrical horror moviegoing is radically different than seeing any other film in the theater. Do you have any specific in-theater horror memories?
BELKNAP: Probably the most scared I’ve ever been in a theater in my entire life was when I saw PET SEMATARY in the theater. I was probably 13 or 14, and the completely unnecessary subplot about the sister who was kept in the basement because she had spinal meningitis freaked me out. It was so weird and I was at a spot in my life where I didn’t know that wasn’t what spinal meningitis was, but now it seems like such a random pull since they probably felt that kids would be watching the movie [laughs]. Doctors must have been watching that movie going, “Wait, what? That’s not what spinal meningitis does at all!” But essentially, it’s this girl in a basement who is withered and hunched-over with a spinal disease, and I remember she had a green complexion. But what scared me the most was the idea that this child was sick and the parent’s response to her being sick was to lock her in a basement.
That fucking terrified me, and I felt that I was too old to be that scared. I had already seen a bunch of horror films on video and had probably seen some in the theaters, so I probably thought I was at an age where I must have been passed getting scared. So going into PET SEMATARY, I thought that I’d be too old to wuss out, but that made me hunch down in my seat. I was basically trying to get away from the movie screen since I did not want to see that at all. I don’t think that’s happened to me since then, and that definitely never happened to me before. I’d been scared before in a fun way watching horror movies, but then that happened and my brain was just like, “I do not like this at all. I don’t like green women in the basement.”
FANG: Have their been any iconic or classic horror films that you’ve never gotten around to seeing?
BELKNAP: Oh yeah, I’m sure there are. I’ve never seen any of the SAW movies since they came around after I had gotten to a point in my life where I wasn’t actively going to horror films anymore. When I was younger, I used to go with my friends when my parents weren’t home, but now, I’m married and even though my wife likes horror to a certain extent, it came to a point where it was like, “Well, if we’re going to go see a movie, let’s see something we’ll both enjoy.” I wasn’t going to put her through SAW, so we missed out on those movies.
When I was in college, I went through a phase where I watched all the classic horror films I didn’t see when I was younger like THE EXORCIST, ROSEMARY’S BABY and THE OMEN. I actually have never seen NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, which is a huge gap in my horror history. I’ve seen the original DAWN OF THE DEAD, which I love, and I even loved the 2004 remake. But I’ve never been a big zombie guy so I never saw went back and saw the original first generation zombie movies.
I also have never seen POLTERGEIST, which was in my generational wheelhouse. From what I hear, it’s not even that hard of a horror film, so I probably could have seen it and handled it at 11 or 12. But I missed it, and now I’ll probably end up seeing the remake before I check it out [laughs].
FANG: Is there any convention or horror trope that you find especially endearing?
BELKNAP: This actually goes back to your first question, in a weird way. One of my first entry points to horror was Michael Jackson’s THRILLER music video, which I saw when I didn’t know too much about horror. I actually owned THE MAKING-OF THRILLER video tape documentary, where John Landis was there explaining everything. I remember it had clips from AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON in that, and where they were showing how the make-up was done in that film.
I always think that a practical transformation, especially in AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, is never the most realistic or convincing. But having seen how they accomplish it, I’ve always thought they were really cool in a way that CGI can’t compare as CGI is so boring and lifeless. Now, practical transformations are kind of quaint, but seeing the air packs bulging beneath the prosthetics is just great. So, yeah, I’ve always enjoyed seeing the moment where someone turns into a monster.
FANG: Is there ever a convention or trope that you find especially aggravating?
BELKNAP: Well, I feel that horror as a genre isn’t something that should be nitpicked critically. I feel that if you’re going to be nitpicky when it comes to horror, you probably shouldn’t watch the movies. You know what you’re getting into, so why not just go with it? That said, the beginning of the end of my active horror days, which I’ll get back to at some point in the future, was when THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT came out. I couldn’t get into the shaky-cam “found footage” trend. I don’t find them particularly interesting and having gone to film school, I aspire to make movies. So the idea that someone can do that feels kind of cheap to me, even though BLAIR WITCH was a cool idea and kind of exciting at the time, especially since it had some clever moments of suspense. But it’s always bothered me that they were taking this shortcut to making a horror video where you could just pick up a video camera and do something that doesn’t have to look good.
[Found footage horror] is overdone now. Maybe I’m the old man yelling at the kids on the lawn, but I’m an old school horror fan. And not just with horror, but with any movie, I like a real story in my films. In some of those classic horror films, there are some great stories and screenwriting. So I always hope for the best when I see new horror films and sometimes, they don’t live up to that but you know, sometimes they do.
FANG: Since you’ve gotten a bit away from horror recently, do you remember the most recent horror media that you’ve experienced?
BELKNAP: I don’t know if this counts as horror, but I just watched TRUE DETECTIVE and that definitely has horror/thriller elements in it. There are some SILENCE OF THE LAMBS moments in that, and I know people say that isn’t horror but it’s definitely horror; at least it is in my mind because it’s scary as shit [laughs]. It’s not a monster movie or supernatural but it is crazy. I don’t watch THE WALKING DEAD because my wife isn’t interested in watching it, so I veered away from that, but that is something I would be watching if not for the fact that I like to watch TV with my wife. But yeah, the last horror thing I’ve watched, sadly for a FANGORIA answer, is TRUE DETECTIVE.
FANG: I actually completely agree with you on TRUE DETECTIVE. I’ve told people that the showed essentially was sold as a procedural but also had some of the scariest television moments to date.
BELKNAP: Yeah! And one of the cool things about it is until the end of the season, you didn’t know if there was some supernatural element to it. In fact, you still don’t know if there’s something supernatural going on. It’s ambiguous and you can read it either way, but for most of the series I was waiting to see if there was going to be a supernatural twist to it. Was there a time loop happening? Was there a real-life monster? It could have gone in a lot of ways, which made the show so cool and suspenseful.
For a lot of TRUE DETECTIVE, I thought we were going to get a big reveal that would have undeniably proven the show to be horror. I don’t think it ever got to that, but it did at least get to the point of this regular human being doing monstrous things and that did scare the shit out of me. I remember there were many episodes where I was like, “I don’t want to go to sleep right now. That was freaky. I need to watch something light and funny to cleanse my palate.”
Matt Belknap cohosts the Earwolf podcast, NEVER NOT FUNNY, with comedian Jimmy Pardo, which drops every Thursday Morning on iTunes, Earwolf.com and any other podcast aggregating application. For more on NEVER NOT FUNNY, you can visit its official site here. You can follow Belknap on Twitter: @mattbelknap, and you can visit his alternative comedy website here.