Shiva Baby mines the fine line between comedy and horror.
And by “fine”, I might mean “non-existent.”
Even a one-sentence synopsis makes clear how easily the story veers into both genres: an aim
lesssearching postgrad suffers through a quarter-life existential crisis in the epitome of a crisis-unfriendly environment — a shiva attended by every lightheartedly-gossipy, affectionately-abrasive member of the community that raised her.
Since the entire movie takes place in one location, unfolding mostly in real time, driven largely by dialogue, the criterati — you know, like literati, but critics (criterrati?) — have likened it to a play. But staging this script exactly as is would sap a lot of the comedy, due to a lack of the tonal juxtaposition with the horror elements.
Obviously live theater isn’t totally inhospitable to the horror genre, but Shiva Baby taps into the cinematic scare-tropes that audiences should be more than accustomed to by now. First, there’s the dissonant, string-plucking score, which sounds like it hails directly from A24’s “elevated” stable. Though the music could be replicated on stage, it wouldn’t be accompanied, complemented, and bolstered by the uncomfortably up-close-and-personal, stalking cinematography; the camera clings to her being, simultaneously charting her suffocating and suffocated psychological breakdown AND communicating the role that the familial claustrophobia of her nearest and dearest all around her plays in her collapse (2015’s Krisha is almost a companion piece in many of these respects).
Though this description might sound like the opposite of light, the darkness herein throws the depicted shenanigans into stark, absurdist relief. Anyone who’s ever gone through some shit around the most reckless and (erroneously?) informed shit-throwers — AKA, our relatives — can confirm how horrifying the experience can be. And yet, from an outsider’s view with the earned wisdom of an aged perspective, a quarter-life crisis at a shit-stirring shiva can be, well, hilarious.
This mishmashing of the two genres not only strengthens both in tandem, it also represents the interior-exterior incongruity of her confused state. The filmmaking evokes how she’s feeling on the inside, y capturing how she perceives her surroundings, while the screenplay remains firmly in comic territory; our somewhat detached-laughter (it’s anything but funny for her in the moment) is entangled with a recognition of the chilling life-and-death-seeming stakes of adolescence.
But more than just an aesthetic framework, this merging of comedy and horror also serves as a quasi-playbook for recovering from her dismal state. Sometimes, facing what we’d prefer to ignore requires the stars aligning in apparently all the wrong ways to even start to right ourselves again; if our lives are flailing around in suspended disarray, often being forced to bounce off rock bottom is the most effective means of altering our trajectory back to a healthy(ish) reality. Our existence becoming unraveled can be a scary procedure, but holding onto the ridiculousness of it all when everything’s laid out unraveled in front of us can allow us to see the humorous sides of our once-terrifying knots. Instead of trying to live solely in the comedy of it all, or the horror of it all, leaning into both can be a pathway to breaking through.
Is an existential crisis at a shiva a comedy or a horror? The scenario’s (and execution’s) equal-parts levity and frightfulness proves to be the equation that solves her problems.
It’s a comedy of horrors, baby.