Hollywood comedies have been undergoing a bizarre metamorphosis in the past few years: They are turning into horror films. You cannot watch them without, at some point, covering your eyes in anxiety and fear that the next image you see will upset, disgust, or terrify you. Right now, there are four such movies showing: Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me; South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut; Big Daddy; and American Pie. Each of them is punctuated by scenes that are purposefully, stomach-churningly repulsive, with imagery more akin to nightmares than comedies.

What can be said about a movie like Austin Powers, in which a man holds a beaker full of human feces and unknowingly drinks from it? Or one like American Pie, in which a teenage boy, again unknowingly, quaffs a beer laced with human semen? Or an animated feature about four little boys like South Park, in which Saddam Hussein sodomizes Satan?

The sounds audiences make as they sit through these scenes are indicative of how similar they are to the gross-out horror movies that were all the rage in the late 1970s and 1980s. As a scene builds and an audience realizes that something really repulsive is about to happen, the audience emits low moans, nervous titters, even an "Oh no" or two before the scene reaches its climax. The entire audience screams -- and then dissolves into relieved laughter.

That response -- terror followed by giggles -- is exactly the same sort of thing that happened to an audience when a shark slammed into Richard Dreyfuss's cage in Jaws, or when the masked boogeyman showed up behind a half-closed door in Halloween, or when Sissy Spacek's hand suddenly emerged from her grave to grab Amy Irving at the end of Carrie. The laughter that follows these shocks is involuntary, though it is accompanied by a rueful acknowledgment that you've been had. You laugh in part because you realize that you're only watching a movie; the terrifying things you're seeing aren't real. You're comforted by that knowledge, and you feel a little silly because you fell for it.

But in recent years, audience have come to mistake that horrified laughter for the delighted laughter that comes in response to genuine comic imagination of the sort on display in a magnificent new French farce called The Dinner Game. In The Dinner Game, an arrogant and intelligent publisher has his entire life destroyed and then put back together by a really stupid but well-meaning fellow, all in the course of a single evening. The humor grows entirely out of a brilliantly conceived situation that places unexpected obstacles in front of two flawed people and then follows them as they try to clean up the mess they are making.

The publisher wants to bring the stupid guy to a weekly dinner where he and some fellow Paris intellectuals compete to see who can bring the most laughable guest. The idiot's peculiar distinction is that he is obsessed with making models out of matchsticks, and can go on for hours about how it took 366,000 of them to make his version of the Eiffel Tower. To entice the idiot to dinner, the publisher says he wants to edit a book about the matchstick models. But the publisher throws his back out on the golf course and is immobile when the idiot comes to meet him at his fancy apartment. In the next few hours, the publisher learns his wife has left him and the idiot tries to help him get her back, with truly comic results.

Francis Veber, who wrote and directed The Dinner Game, understands the classic principle that comedy is about what human beings are like when they are at their worst. The movie has plenty of sport with the idiot, who is as dumb and boring as you could imagine, but it's the publisher's vanity and false sense of superiority that really get skewered. He's humiliated, but he deserves it.

Humiliation is the primary subject of most gross-out comedies, but all too often the characters who get humiliated don't deserve it. The central character in the witless teen comedy American Pie is a perfectly nice boy named Jim who is repeatedly, almost ritualistically, the subject of awful sexual humiliations every ten minutes. The movie invites the audience to take sadistic pleasure in Jim's brutalization. In The Dinner Game, you enjoy the publisher's humiliation because it seems like divine justice. But American Pie turns the audience into bullies who laugh as they beat up a weaker, defenseless kid and pull his pants down in front of the entire school.

The movie that inaugurated the new spate of gross-out comedies was last year's There's Something About Mary, which was remarkably disgusting but so clever and inventive that it seemed almost Rabelaisian. But its seemingly endless series of I-can't-believe-I'm-watching-this scenes have lowered the bar for the comedies that have followed it. A year before There's Something About Mary, Mike Myers's Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery poked gentle fun at the dated double entendres and supposedly risque sexual content of the spy movies of the 1960s. A year after There's Something About Mary, the sequel to Austin Powers shows coprophagy and makes jokes about child molestation.

By far the most appalling and outrageous of the new gross-out comedies is the movie version of the cartoon show South Park. Most of its gags and images cannot even be described without going beyond the bounds of civilized discourse. It's sexually explicit, blasphemous, and even has traces of anti-Semitism. The fact that two major motion picture studios thought it was acceptable for release -- and that its creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, have had the gall to complain about the film's R rating -- is a mark of astonishing social irresponsibility.

Yet honesty compels me to admit that South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut is uproarious. And that may be the most appalling fact of all. Parker and Stone are possessors of a genuine comic imagination. What they lack is any kind of elevating sensibility. Parker and Stone are like brilliantly funny four-year-olds. They can make you laugh effortlessly with their clowning. But vomit, excrement, and curse words are what really crack them up.

So here's where we are at the end of the millennium: American comedy is the province of a bunch of four-year-olds with tens of millions of dollars at their disposal. Now that's a horror show.

A contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD, John Podhoretz is editorial-page editor of the New York Post.

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