When Comedy meets Horror
Before getting into the penultimate edition of when comedy meets horror, let’s get into the honourable mentions.
Treevenge is a Canadian short film about Christmas trees getting revenge that has an Evil Dead attitude to gore, from the director of Hobo with a Shotgun. Feast, a siege movie starring Henry Rollins as a group of drinkers are hit by mysterious monsters, the film also boats as referential pallet for video games. Dead & Breakfast, a comedy horror musical in which a night at a local bed and breakfast turns into a supernatural fight to the death. Blacula and Scream Blacula Scream could be included, because if we learned anything from Black Dynamite, it’s that all Blaxploitation films are ripe for parody. There are countless other films that could be included; this endeavour could easily stretch to around the 150 films mark. Until tomorrow, the last one is The Cottage, a gory cabin in the woods slasher featuring Andy Serkis and Reece Shearsmith.
Without further ado, here is part four of this running article.
James Gunn emerged through Troma, writing the impeccably titled Tromeo & Juliet. What truly made his name isn’t Scooby Doo, it was Slither. It would be all too easy to throw accusations of plagiarism at that film, but to do so would be missing the point. Slither is Gunn’s machinegun homage to the genre, with an immense level of affection and fun. In it, an alien life-form crash lands on earth, infecting Michael Rooker. This affection sees Rooker turn into a giant slug with the ability to infect the people in small town America in a selection of gruesome ways. Whether it’s turning a woman into a queen hive or using the resulting slugs to enter people’s mouths turning them into a symbiotic zombie race. All of this has to be fought by Nathan Fillion, Elizabeth Banks and the wry Gregg Harry to save the day, or at least escape with their lives. The moment when these few people are met by the queen hive is worth the price of admission. With plot points and references ranging from the creature feature and body horror to the zombie film, there’s plenty of splatter and slime to share around. The locals might be charactertures, but the way in which they struggle and fail to come to terms with the chaos unfolding around them brings up plenty of laughs. It’s also hilariously over the top in the gore stakes; when met with a colossal rotund woman exploding into a storm of slugs, the only way you can react is to laugh.
YouTube hit turned movie, Rare Exports is about a boy called Pietari who believes in the magic of Santa Claus. This isn’t the same jolly Santa who brings you presents, Pietari believes in the Finnish version. In Finnish folklore Santa does some brutal things to bad children, much worse than a lump of coal. Pietari keeps some grizzly picture books. Meanwhile up a nearby hill there is a camp of American workers digging up something big, This archaeologist is the first of many references to Raiders of the Lost Ark. His mission is to excavate the real Santa, turning Pietari’s issues with his father and the farming community having much of their reindeer stock turn up dead overnight, seem trivial. While not a comedy per se, the inclusion of Santa as a figure of horror provides memorable and most importantly droll dialogue. Turning what would be the nervous nerdy kid in its American cousins into a blazing hero and the manly father’s in the farming town into cowards is one of those warm and deeply funny character switches. It’s another example where the ludicrous is played straight, that alone provides some well-placed laughs. What’s more, few films have made a naked old man quite as fearsome.
Joe Dante is one of the kings of the comedy horror and horror movies for kids and in The ‘Burbs he ticked both boxes. The Burbs stars Tom Hanks at the peak of his comedy everyman phase, between Big and Turner and Hooch, and just before he evolved (or devolved depending on your opinion) into a serious actor. Like the change that would happen with his star, Dante is at his most accessible here. Hanks and his neighbours, Bruce Dern, Corey Feldman and Rick Ducommun feel queasy about their new neighbours, the European family who live in a dilapidated house across the street in which mysterious sounds happen every night. This isn’t helped by the local urban legend in the model of Dante’s “Why I hate Christmas” monologue, which has the group on edge. Even though Ray (Hanks) just wants to rest on his holiday, he can’t help but be caught up in the collective suspicions of his neighbourhood which bleeds into his dreams to create the more explicit horror sequences. Otherwise, it’s the comedy that marks this out as a mainstream Dante affair. Even if this means the comedy is pratfalls and the teenage Corey Feldman’s absolute amazement at everything, with his declarations of “I love this street”, the laughs are bountiful. It may not be as big or as clever, but it’s one of the more fun inclusions.
Night of the Comets is a 1980s movie with a capital MULLET, the style of this picture is defined by the style of that era, with a flamboyant synth pop score that saturates every frame. The basic set-up is that there is a comet heading for earth, the very same comet that wiped dinosaurs out millions of years ago. Just like the sky which is scarred red, anybody who has eye contact with the comet is turned to red dust and the people who are lucky enough to survive slowly dry out, with their body language and brain activity relegating them to zombies. As per the course for end of the world picture, the only survivors are the nastiest members of humanity, a secret society and our heroes. The two heroes are teenage girls who are completely unfazed by the doomsday, instead of worrying about the future or the well being of mankind they talk about boys, take over the local radio station and try on clothes at the shopping centre. As a genre antithesis this could be viewed as nothing other than an unlikely comedy. It’s not shot like a comedy or a horror, yet Night of the Comet is both. Director Thom E. Eberhardt had a history of social-issue documentaries. As such it is abundantly clear that he is being satirical by presenting a take on the apocalypse sub-genre with its adorably vacuous survivors.
In the world of versus, there are 666 portals that connect to hell. Somewhere in Japan is the 444th… the forest of resurrection. As a group of escaped prisoners meet, someone else is in the forest is manipulating the portal. From there on in, a battle between good and evil ensues. With the good being Tak Sakaguchi, making his debut, and the evil being zombies and their boss. Admittedly the story makes next to no sense, and there is an extended cut available which will inevitably add more plot detail and gore. It’s not the lack of coherence that makes versus a great cult oddity. Instead, with its Sam Raimi like camera work, Kitamura’s film is a uniquely Japanese entry into that eccentric group of films that successfully adopts gore as humour in its battle between man and zombie. There is a scene in which one of the undead bends his limbs out of shape to form spider legs only to have his limbs cut off while his torso continues to flops about on the floor. There’s also a sub-story with a local policeman which delivers comedy through much more traditional means. While more of a horror as a spectacle, Versus is over the top in that prototypically Japanese way.
Of all the sub-genre’s to scrutinise, the slasher comes to mind first, it’s also the genre with the largest percentage of genre deconstructions, few of which are as clever as Behind the Mask. While it could be debated theory overwhelms thrill, what Behind the Mask is attempting is ambitious. The film takes place in a world where Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers and Freddie Krueger are not the work of fiction, they are real. The first two acts follow a documentary format, whereby Leslie Vernon allows a film crew to follow him as he reveals the reality of the masked killer. He discusses the tricks of the trade and what is psychically and mentally required as well as introducing the veteran he idolises, Scott Wilson. The theory is sound, deconstructing the slasher providing humour by recalling Italian genre directors of the 70s and 80s who claimed their schlock was an exploration into the human psyche. While the theses have weight, it does have an air of delusional grandeurs. More directly, there are many memorable gags and one-liners, pointing out the predictability of the behaviour patterns of the slasher victims. Through this Leslie is humanized in an all-too rare way, before the film mutates into a straight if tame slasher for the final act.
On the face of it, Hot Fuzz is not a horror film. It’s in the details that Hot Fuzz becomes a suitable entrant to this list. Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg & Nick Frost satirise the American cop thriller in a distinctly British way. The crime of this piece is of a serial killer who murders the undesirables of the small countryside community. Surely no theorising is necessary to draw the serial killer to the slasher. Just in case any doubt is there, in Hot Fuzz we find a secret society, bloody murders (look no further than the local journalist and how Timothy Dalton is subdued). Furthermore someone is beheaded with garden shears. As far as the police thriller genre goes, this is as by the numbers as the American counterparts it draws from. It’s through the personal touches and comedy that the second entry into the Blood & Ice Cream trilogy excels. The laughs come from every direction, whether it is a massive trolley boy who can only say Yarp or Nick Frost’s childlike adulation of Pegg’s super cop. The tongue-in-cheek look at the British village is also generous. Failing there’s always something more violently slapstick, like watching an elderly shotgun wielding woman get drop-kicked in the face.
FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS (DANCE OF THE VAMPIRES)
When people think of Roman Polanski, they think of Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown or Repulsion and the multiple tragedies of his personal life of which this film counts as a chapter. The last thing they think of is Fearless Vampire Killers. For such a film to be disregarded by its director and history is dismaying. There is a lot of merit with its pale vistas, desolate landscapes and a unique take on the vampire iconography of Hammer Horror. In FVK, a professor and his dim-witted apprentice discover the inhabitants of a local house aren’t the innocent lords they appear to be, they also aren’t quite as fearless as the title suggests, giving the horror a relatable approach. While relatable, Fearless Vampire Killers is also absurd. One scene sees our vampire hunters’ try to use a crucifix on a vampire only for it not to work because said vampire is Jewish. Another finds the young vampire assistant played by Polanski, hounded by the counts gay son. Polanski and co-writer Gérard Brach take the vampire mythology which people have grown to expect through long established tropes and subverts them. This may not be achieved in the most progressive way, but it’s never anything less than funny.
Michael J. Foxx puts in a career high performance as the anti-hero of The Frighteners as Frank Bannister – a man who abuses his ability to see the dead to con people out of money with his impromptu “exorcisms”. That is until the mystery behind him being able to see ghosts comes back to haunt his life, liberally killing townspeople. The Frighteners is a comedy action just as much as it is a horror, with themes and motifs from the haunted house sitting alongside the mystery before finally evolving into a slasher with the final act. The Frighteners is made by two of its central performances. Michael J. Foxx is at his emotional best as the comedy everyman, the evolutionary end point of the archetype that made him a household name in Back to the Future. The real star however is Jeffrey Combs, who with his severely damaged FBI agent Milton Dammers shows that he is just as good playing it straight as he is playing eccentric, broad comedy creations. Jackson also employs computer animation, a component which has dated badly as one would expect with this being one of the earliest examples of CGI. The Frighteners should be remembered as another string to both Peter Jackson and Jeffrey Combs, both who have been lost in the mire of one kind or another.
The breakthrough for perennial cinema-nerd Jessie Eisenberg and director Ruben Fleischer is Zombieland. Merging together the road trip and the zombie film is another unique take on the zombie sub-genre. If anything has become apparent through writing this list, it’s the amount of comedy version of the zombie. While the film does nothing particular bold for a piece of genre cinema other than the inclusion of the brilliant Woody Harrelson and the inclusion of everybody’s least favourite zombies (the running ones). On the other hand, as a comedy it stands head and shoulders above the competition for three reasons. First, the running joke: “zombie kill of the week” (won by an elderly woman dropping a piano on a zombie). Second is Bill Murray, I don’t want to mention that any further for fear of running one of the great cameos of the 21st century. Lastly is the running gag of visualised rules to survive the zombie apocalypse. It might favour the comedy over the horror, but when there as many strong comedy threads at play, it’s easy to see why Zombieland such a firm fan favourite. The only issue is a fantastic viral campaign could have come from the zombie of the week premise.
Detention, even having seen the film, trying to define just what this film is, is difficult. The first 15 minutes are torturous playing out like a self-aware teen movie, complete with MTV style Day-Glo editing, talking to characters to camera, the belief that the “90’s are the new 80’s” and the dumb chirpy irony. It’s enough to test the patience of anyway. Stick with it and around the 15 minute mark is turns into something entirely unique and layered. The basic set-up (for what it’s worth) sees a high school hit by a copy-cat killer of recent cinema horror hit, CinderHella. From that is spins a web of references and tonal shifts, including plot devices from the slasher only to then include a time traveling bear, then it references Day of the Triffids with a brief appearance for a character with a Cronenbergian body horror affliction. Its ADHD film making never sits still for a moment. While it does all this it still manages to satirise the high school movie. While its restless sense of style is divisive, you will never have seen a film like Detention before.
Winning countless awards at the Edinburgh comedy festival before moving on to radio, the league of gentlemen is a BBC series based around the activities of the inhabitants of fictional Yorkshire town, Royston Vasey. Written and performed by the four man writing crew of Jeremy Dyson, Mark Gatiss, Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith, with each of them but Dyson acting in countless roles. There’s something of a Monty Python aura around the collective, even if they are much more morbidly inclined. The League of Gentlemen is fundamentally a horror soap opera sitcom, many of its characters are punch line based and ultimately aren’t that interesting. On the contrary the characters that are more relatable to horror cinema are the more horrific with their humour. There’s Edward & Tubbs the two proprietors of the ‘local shop for local people’, Papa Lazarou who kidnaps women forcing them to be his bride, with long black hair adorning his head and black and white minstrel make-up. Dr Chinnery, a vet who kills all animals in his care no matter what he does. Hilary Briss, butcher who has a special indigent in his meat and the Denton’s, a creepy couple who refuse to let their nephew leave town. Together, they make Royston Vasey a grotesquely funny town. Also, watch the “Halloween Special” for something more strictly horror than horror comedy.
Sans the few exceptions here and there, many comedy horror pieces are derived from the same components; they all have very similar tones and fixation with gore. Harold’s Going Stiff is different. Its title may suggest something more pornographic than horror, which is unfortunate. The film is has more in common with social realism than any of the other entries. Harold… a mock documentary about a disease called OCR which makes men’s joint stiffen to the point where they ostensibly become zombies, even if they are actually men with an illness. At its heart it’s a touching movie about the friendship between a nurse and her patient, the titular Harold. It’s also a very funny film, especially in the scenes where the cause of OCR is exposed. While clearly limited by its budget, at its most outward in the scenes with the violence as a group of vigilantes kill off the “zombies”. The emotional reactions to Harold’s Going Stiff are enough to outstretch any limitations. From laughing riotously at someone who likens sausages to cocaine and the emotional peak at the finale. Keith Wright’s film is a true original.
Another film where everything is in the title and contrary to what the title may suggest, Cockneys Vs. Zombies is truly a brilliant little comedy. In the East End of London, two brothers are on a mission to hold up a bank in order to prevent their granddad’s care home from being closed. As this is happening, the construction company building a new development that will consume the care home comes across a plague pit. Which is opened by two greedy builders hoping for an easy earner, what they find are two skeletal zombies who set about a zombie virus overwhelming East London. The first 40 minutes are dizzyingly funny, playing with cockney gangster archetypes, over the top gore and as well the character called Mental Mickey, an Iraq war veteran, who enjoys violence. The elderly cast is also given something to do, with Alan Ford a man who usually plays violent football thugs and gangster playing a version of his typecast dealing with the onset of old age. There’s also British TV legend Richard Briers in scene stealing form. Cockney vs. Zombies also has emotional story beats that are much more complicated than killing off characters, which is fortunate as the film considerably wimps out of killing anybody who matters. Still for such a silly conceit, CvZ treats the zombie movie and cockneys more maturely and more rewarding as a comedy than you might expect, if you ignore the on the nail rally to arms in the final minutes.
The Stuff aka Larry Cohen’s Alien Yoghurt Movie is another low-budget satire from the fan favourite director. In yoghurt in question comes from outer space, naturally the people who find decide to sell it as yoghurt and reap the rewards. What happens from there is the yoghurt slowly turns people into obedient zombies before exploding out of the person who ate it. The effects for this aren’t too strong, but like with any Larry Cohen film he is more of a conceptual director than one who is openly championing the gory and glorious potential of 1980s puppetry. The concept that has the director’s attention in the stuff is consumerism, taking a similar and equally humorous approach to advertising that Paul Verhoeven has in his sci-fi films. There’s also ‘Chocolate Chip’ Charlie Hobbs who brings a much more direct comedy to the film, besides a few names from Saturday Night Live.
Just like the stuff could be linked to Verhoeven, so to can Monster Squad. Its director, Fred Dekker had his career ruined after the one of the worst sequels in living memory, Robocop 3. Co-written by Shane Black, Monster Squad was basically a live action Scooby Doo movie if the mystery machine gang was a few years younger. In Dekker’s film, Dracula is alive and he plans to rule the world with the help of other legendary monsters. However, a bunch of kids regarded as losers uncover the plan and prepare for a counter strike. Watching these kids fight against classic movie monsters is great fun. More interesting than the comedy or horror is the films status as the front guard of 80s movies that were influenced heavily by horror whilst being aimed at kids, it never condescended to its audience. Films like this don’t exist now; sure there are animated films that are setting a precedent in Paranorman and Frankenweenie. If you’ve recently watched those films and want something else similar or your kids enjoyed those Laika and Tim Burton movies, Fred Dekker’s classic kids horror is the perfect next step.