In William Friedkin's Killer Joe, Gina Gershon's character Sharla is forced to give head to a chicken leg, a penis stand-in held at the crotch of Matthew McConaughey's anti-hero Killer Joe Cooper. Like the peeing scene in Last House on the Left, the marathon gang rape of I Spit on Your Grave, the wire torture that caps Audition and the turtle (and everything else) in Cannibal Holocaust, it is one of those scenes – a bit of celluloid that will define the film's legacy. The image of Gershon's bee-stung lips wrapped around a chicken leg is not something you see everyday or any other day, for that matter, and if you remove yourself from any emotional connection, you can appreciate this as a minor innovation in the catalog of things movies have done to freak people out, a stand-out in the canon of cinematic depravity.
With that depravity comes a heaping side of hilarity — it's not present in this particular moment, but it abounds in Killer Joe, which bridges its genres with the deftness of the most accomplished horror-comedies. This relationship has always made sense on a fundamental level, since even in more standard horror, nervous laughter can be heard preceding and accompanying gasps and screams. Emotional response from horror is rarely straightforward.
And for that reason, it's not hard to watch Gershon's brutal scene from a removed vantage point. Killer Joe has what it would call "K Fried C buckets" of contempt for its characters, the least despicable of whom is Dottie, a Southern fried womanchild riff on Kelly Bundy. She is innocent because she is a simpleton foolish enough to believe in "pure love" in a world where her family conspires to kill her mother and offers her/her body up as a "retainer" to the hired assassin, Joe. But even Dottie sucks – when she learns of the plan hatched by her brother Chris (Emile Hirsch), which is all predicated on getting their mother's life insurance payout, she gives the thumbs-up: "I heard y'all talking about killing Mama. I think it's a good idea."
Killer Joe is the darkest of comedies of errors. McConaughey's Joe glides through the bumbling of his would-be employers – his performance his perfectly still with nary a blink. This artful intensity provides a wonderful counterpoint to his co-stars, just as the film's violent outbursts keep you understanding just how grim all the giggle-provoking moral bankruptcy actually is.
The scene that precedes the chicken head it is a masterwork of mounting tension set around a dinner table where Joe and married Texas dumbfucks Sharla and Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) fall into smooth maniac Joe's clutches. Sharla attempts to talk herself out of one revealing gaffe and then another, repeating and sputtering. Though her smeared eye makeup initially looks glamorous, Gershon's performance is vanity-free even before she gets down on her knees. The period of time between fertility and grandmotherhood is rough on actresses, but Gershon goes for broke to such an extent that she owns her humiliation before it can own her. She's a superhero, simultaneously as removed as we are and astoundingly invested. McConaughey's getting a bunch of deserved glory for this, but Gershon deserves even more.
Killer Joe's poster telegraphs its chicken-bone-in-cheek tone, blazing the tagline "A totally twisted deep-fried Texas redneck trailer park murder story." It's a wise beat to play. Aside from the occasional flash of brilliance, the horror genre is dead in 2012 (Paranormal Activity is the only worthwhile and viable franchise left standing). Comedy is the new horror for its current squirminess, extremity and depictions of transgressions that would destroy the lives and spirits of people if they actually experienced them (The Hangover movies and Bridesmaids immediately come to mind).
But while Killer Joe is a comedy masquerading as a horror film, Mikkel Nørgaard's Danish import Klown is a series of atrocities masquerading as a comedy. Buddies Frank (Frank Hvam) and Casper (Casper Christensen) set out on a canoeing trip frequently referred to as "Tour de Pussy," chosen specifically because Casper's girlfriend hates canoeing and he wants to get laid. Meanwhile, in an attempt to prove his father potential to his doubtful, pregnant girlfriend, Frank kidnaps her 12-year-old nephew Bo (Marcuz Jess Petersen) and exposes him to all manner of things that would have Child Protective Services shutting down production immediately.
Much like Killer Joe, Klown goes there and it culls its considerable hilarity from audacity that would never fly on U.S. shores (its forthcoming, Danny McBride-starring, Todd Phillips-produced remake will almost certainly be watered down). The size of Bo's young penis provides a key plot point – Frank repeatedly examines it, shows other people pictures of it and pulls down the pants of another boy for mocking it. Much like the cast of Killer Joe and/or those of dumb comedies fueled by their characters unspecific idiocy (like Step Brothers), Frank is a dolt. In this case, though, he is controlled by his sharper, pathological liar of a friend, who forces him into situations that humiliate him for Casper's gain.
Frank regularly faces the consequences of his and his friend's wild behavior. On the other hand, Casper, whose sociopathology is revealed over time, regularly skirts accountability. He gets it in the end, though (in a few ways, actually) – just as in Killer Joe, dick pics play a prominent role in Klown (although you'd get arrested for owning a few of those in the latter).
So does abuse. By the climax of Killer Joe, it is clear that everyone except the titular mastermind has been taken advantage of in some detrimental way, whether or not he or she made stupid decisions that led to it. To a lesser extent, Klown shares this subtext, although it's ultimately laughed and shrugged off. This added layer does nothing to reduce the comedy or horror, but it gives both of these movies an uncommon weight, as well as a sense of responsibility their characters would never accept.