When American Horror Story debuted last month, not a few people noticed that the supposed "horror" tale trafficked in about as much camp as it did scares. But then again, horror and comedy have always been inextricably linked: Both inspire instinctual, gut-level reactions that don't particularly stand up to intellectual scrutiny, and really shouldn't have to. Screams and laughter are both necessary forms of emotional release, after all. But whereas American Horror Story presents horror to often comedic effect, Adult Swim's newest live-action series The Heart, She Holler presents the opposite: Comedy that's just straight-up frightening. But assuming you can get past this show's surface-level repulsiveness, it's actually kind of amazing.
The Heart, She Holler is essentially a nightmarish poison-Valentine to the deep South, a faux soap opera somewhere in the nexus between The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Dallas. In an unusual move, Adult Swim is airing all six episodes this week on consecutive nights (Part 3 airs tonight; if you have cable, you can watch Parts 1 and 2 via Adult Swim's HBOGO-like "Gold Episodes" streaming service here). The premise centers on three inbred siblings (Patton Oswalt, Kristen Schaal, and Heather Lawless) who fight over their late father's estate, which essentially comprises the entire hick town in which they reside, Heartshe Holler. Oswalt plays Hurval, an intensely mentally handicapped man who grew up feral in a sealed cave and who gets reintroduced to society just in time to inherit his eccentric father's "fortunes." Schaal plays his trampy sister Hurshe, in makeup and costumes that rival Jerri Blank's for sheer visual audacity. Best of all, Lawless plays Hambrosia, a frightening, telekinetic weirdo with the mannerisms of an even less socialized Carrie White. To say these characters are off-putting would be putting it mildly, but it's never less than entertaining to see the depths to which these actors are willing to go for the sake of weirdness.
Series creators Vernon Chatman and John Lee have been exploring the far reaches of their respective comedic ids for years now, having previously wrought Wonder Showzen, Xavier: Renegade Angel, and Delocated onto unsuspecting stoner insomniacs. The Heart, She Holler is actually a bit of a kissin' cousin to an infamous Season 2 Wonder Showzen episode, "Horse Apples," in which Lawless, David Cross and Zach Galifianakis portrayed the most ludicrous and disturbing version of a deep South comedy show possible. The Heart, She Holler stretches that tone into more of a telenovela style, yet continues to effortlessly offend with its dozens of incest jokes, casual violence, and absolutely stomach-churning visuals. Or, take the scene involving the comedian Godfrey dressed as a gold-painted street performer "robot" who answers to the acronym "NWORD." I like to think I've become pretty immune to shock-humor, but this show's energetic pursuit of making me uncomfortable is almost charming in how shameless it is. Mission accomplished, guys!
Don't get me wrong, there's a ton of genuinely hilarious stuff. The wigs alone ensure a more conventionally sketch-y comedy sensibility, and and there are some visual jokes reminiscent of some of Monty Python's more joyful moments. Also, this recurring joke about extras reacting to off-screen violence made me laugh out loud every time:
But for every harmless throwaway gag, there are at least five can't-unsee moments. For some reason I was rattled by this scene, in which Hambrosia performs a sonogram on the demon-eyed fetus inside her skull:
Spoiler alert? Just kidding, very few things make any kind of coherent sense in The Heart, She Holler, so I could essentially tell you everything that happens and you'd still have a uniquely disturbed viewing experience. "All right, who slipped LSD into my Squeez-It?" you will ask.
So what, then, is the value of a comedy that would mostly prefer to give you nightmares? It's hard for me to intelligently explain why anybody should watch something as intentionally unpleasant as The Heart, She Holler, in the same way I probably shouldn't try to explain why I find certain jokes funnier than others, or certain horror scenes scarier than others. More than any show I've seen recently, The Heart, She Holler is an insanely objective experience, a PoMo comedy Rorschach onto which a person could project basically any meaning or takeaway value. I know that much of it disturbed or repulsed me, but I also know that I found it exhilarating and original. It's as though the creators distilled every horrible thing they could imagine into 11 minutes of occasionally hilarious nightmare fodder, and maybe that's a healthy thing? Like how we'll purposely inoculate ourselves with a small dose of virus in order to gird ourselves against something far worse. The Heart, She Holler might be terrifying, but I'll take its terrors over the real world's any day of the week.
Anybody else been watching this thing? What do YOU think so far?