Those who read and watch enough in the horror genre know that there’s an odd, difficult to quantify, connection between the genres of comedy and horror.
This connection is what attracted me to horror in the first place several decades ago. I used to be the most sensitive child, who couldn’t even watch Day of the Triffids without being greatly upset and perhaps suffering nightmares. One day in my early teens, though, I decided to brave an episode of Tales From the Darkside. It was an episode about a woman and her lover, a plot to murder the woman’s husband, and a malevolent spirit who had the last laugh. And it was funny! That episode convinced me that there was more to the horror genre than ‘demented madmen running around in ski masks, hacking up young virgins!’
Why are horror and comedy so closely related? That’s a topic worthy of a detailed blog musing in itself, but let me just say I suspect it comes from the fact that one of the primary purposes of comedy is to help us overcome horrible events and images. We joke about the things that frighten us in order to make them less scary.
A number of visionary directors and writers have also realized this connection, and horror/comedy is its own hybrid style of cinema. These films merge, often seamlessly, scenes of outrageous humor with scenes of shocking horror and brutality. Since I have a penchant for making lists of things, here’s a list of some of my favorites, in no particular order (save the first). Some mild spoilers follow:
1. Evil Dead II (1987): The ultimate in horror/comedy. The original Evil Dead was conceived by a group of high school buddies, including director Sam Raimi and star Bruce Campbell, who used to film perfect remakes of Three Stooges shorts. When the original (serious) Evil Dead was a hit and a budget rolled in for a sequel, they opted to mix their loves: and the first slapstick horror film was born!
The story concerns, exactly like the first Evil Dead, some people who take a holiday in a small cabin in the woods, read the wrong demonic text, and wage a desperate fight for survival against the sinister forces awakened. A challenge: make it a drinking game! Take a shot every time Bruce Campbell (Ash) gets hit in the head – you’ll be unconscious halfway through. The greatest part of this film is Ash’s increasing attitude problem as the story progresses.
2. Army of Darkness (1992): The sequel to Evil Dead II! Ash continues his adventures in medieval Europe. His smart-ass attitude gets even worse, understandable considering the circumstances. This movie I consider one of the most quotable films of all time. It is also one of the rare films in which I prefer the theatrical ending over the director’s preferred ending. Sam Raimi’s original vision for the end of the film ends up turning the entire film into one extended setup for an ending punchline. The studio pushed him to make an ending which provides more closure, and I find the ‘studio’ ending absolutely hilarious! I suggest watching both, to see which suits your taste more.
I highly recommend Bruce Campbell’s autobiography, If Chins Could Kill. It is not only a hilarious look at the making of The Evil Dead films, it holds many fascinating ‘outsider’ insights into the Hollywood scene.
3. Fright Night (1985): “I have a vampire living next door to me. Will you help me kill it?” Poor Charlie Brewster does battle with the undead next door, and for the most part ends up getting his rear handed to him. He eventually enlists the aid of skeptical and completely cowardly washed up B-movie vampire hunter Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowell), who is not much more successful. Roddy’s performance, along with vampire Chris Sarandon, make this a magnificently funny horror film.
4. House (1986): Writer Roger Cobb (former Greatest American Hero William Katt) had his son mysteriously vanish while staying at his crazy aunt’s house. Years later, his aunt commits suicide, and Roger decides to write his Vietnam reminisces at the house. Strange and sinister (and silly) things begin to happen, and Roger becomes more obsessed with the house and its connection to his son’s disappearance.
This film has a nice understated sense of humor, the appearance of two classic sitcom stars in ‘serious’ roles, and the best use ever of the song “You’re no good”.
5. Tremors (1990): A small isolated desert town, with a population you can count on your fingers, comes under attack by mysterious underground creatures that seem smarter than the residents. The heroes of the story, Valentine (Kevin Bacon) and Earl (Fred Ward), have terrific hilarious chemistry. The show-stealer, however, is survivalist Burt (Michael Gross), and his unique method of problem solving. You’ll never look at a rec room the same way again.
6. The People Under the Stairs (1991): Wes Craven, better known for his directing of the Scream series and A Nightmare on Elm Street, here directs and writes a perversely funny film about a wealthy slumlord and his wife who are far, far more than they seem. A young inner city boy agrees to help some thugs rob the slumlord’s house in order to pay for his mother’s surgery, but he (and they) soon find the house is a deadly trap for intruders – with people under the stairs. Everett McGill and Wendy Robie (who also play an odd couple in Twin Peaks) have masterful performances as the very, very, very sick slumlord husband and wife team.
Wes Craven seems to have drawn some slapstick inspiration from Evil Dead II in this film. This isn’t surprising, since there’s been a good-natured ‘competition’ between Craven and Raimi pretty much ever since the two started making films. After Craven put a poster of Jaws in The Hills Have Eyes, as if saying, “My film is much scarier than this one,” Sam Raimi put a poster of The Hills Have Eyes in The Evil Dead. Craven got revenge in A Nightmare on Elm Street, putting in a poster of The Evil Dead…
Oddly enough, it’s worth mentioning that IMDB lists a People Under the Stairs 2 for release in 2008. I have no idea what that will mean…
7. American Werewolf in London (1981): If this doesn’t convince you of the link between comedy and horror, nothing will. Director John Landis (Animal House, The Blues Brothers) brings us a tale of two American tourists attacked by a werewolf in the English countryside. The survivor of the attack starts to suspect (through some very non-subtle hints) that he has inherited the curse of the werewolf.
8. Shaun of the Dead (2004): A magnificent zombie film written by Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg, the latter of whom also starts as the titular Shaun, an ordinary man turned into a hero in the wake of a London zombie apocalypse. This film is utterly brilliant and almost unclassifiable. It also answers questions about zombie films you may never have thought to ask, such as: how do zombies know you’re not one of the undead? It is filled with some of the funniest scenes in any film and also some of the most shocking horror.
George Romero, the director of Night of the Living Dead and the creator of the whole zombie genre, liked this film so much he put Wright and Pegg in his most recent film, Land of the Dead, with zombie cameos.
Mention should also be made of Wright and Pegg’s more recent film, Hot Fuzz, which probably deserves a spot on this list except that it is more of a comedy/crime movie than a comedy/horror movie (though tell that to the guy with the masonry sticking out of his head). It is brilliant, though.
9. Return of the Living Dead (1985): This is another twisted, funny take on the zombie movie subgenre. Bumbling warehouse employees accidentally bring the dead to life, which threatens to ruin the fun of a group of punk rockers partying at a local cemetery.
I’m not sure, but I suspect that every time you hear a zombie shout ‘brains!!!’ and lunge at someone, the scene owes a debt to this film.
10. Dead Alive (1992): When I heard that Peter Jackson would be directing the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, I was simultaneously thrilled and horrified — and both emotions came from remembering one of Jackson’s earliest efforts, Dead Alive (known as Braindead everywhere except the U.S.). Another ‘zombies gone wild’ storyline, this one concerns mamma’s-boy Lionel, whose mother gets bitten by a diseased rat monkey and becomes one of the living dead. Lionel does his best to care for zombie-mamma, but things quickly spiral out of control, climaxing in one of the grossest metaphors ever put to screen. The film definitely has a sick sense of humor, special mention going to the outing in the park (you’ll know it when you see it).
11. The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967): Roman Polanski, shortly before making the classic Rosemary’s Baby, made a horror film of a different sort. Polanski himself stars as the assistant to the bumbling Professor Abronsius, and the two of them have traveled to a snowy Transylvanian village in search of vampires to slay. A large part of the film is very subtle understated humor, which leaves you unprepared for the laugh-out-loud moments that come later in the film. Just as Shaun of the Dead makes you wonder, “Why didn’t I think of that before?” regarding zombie stories, The Fearless Vampire Killers adds a number of humorous wrinkles to the vampire story.
12. From Dusk Till Dawn (1996): When Robert Rodriguez directs a film scripted by Quentin Tarantino, you know you’re in for some hilarious and incredibly sick s#!t. The movie starts as a traditional Tarantino story of wisecracking and twisted career criminals (played by George Clooney and Quentin Tarantino himself), then abruptly metamorphosizes into ‘psycho killers vs. vampires’.
The transformation is so abrupt it makes for good fun with unsuspecting viewers. I first saw the film with my friend Jim, who was unaware of its horror film storyline. After about an hour of criminal hijinks, a stripper suddenly grows fangs and leaps onto Tarantino’s back. Jim sat silently for about twenty seconds, watching the screen. Finally, he said, “What?”
Carlos (Cheech Marin): So, what, were they psychos, or…
Seth (George Clooney): Did they look like psychos? Is that what they looked like? They were vampires. Psychos do not explode when sunlight hits them, I don’t give a fuck how crazy they are!
Any other suggestions of excellent horror/comedies? I leave out films which are really comedies with a horror theme (Ghostbusters, Scary Movie) and only include those which can’t get away with a PG rating. Another way to put it: they have to be films where you’re genuinely worried that some of the major characters are going to see their own intestines by the end.