When Comedy meets Horror
Continuing on from part one, when comedy meets horror is an attempt to track the most interesting examples of films that mix comedy and horror together. As a genre, its possibly the one that can be pinpointed as the biggest perpetrator for bad horror movies. For example, Scary Movie is the film that comes to mind with people who have a less specialist interest in cinema. Just before we get into part 2, I can safely report that the aforementioned franchise won’t be getting its mits anywhere near these articles. Also, another worthy note of mention – look forward to part 5 in which the entries will be “the greatest horror comedies ever made”. Until then, we are just warming up.
SAVE THE GREEN PLANET
Save the Green Planet is quite the Korean eccentricity. Mixing together torture, slapstick comedy, highly stylised fight scenes, police procedural and sci-fi results in a concoction that defies definition. It’s all the above and none of them. The horror is exclusively present in the torture scenes and there are a lot of them. Take away Lee Byeong-Gu’s (Ha-Kyun Shin) motivation of finding the Andromedian prince before the eclipse and this is just like any other mean spirited torture piece. The reason it rises above those films is that Save The Green Planet has heart and warmth. We follow the lead character through thick and thin, through gore and stylised fight sequences, and through it all the endeavour to save the world and protect his family prevail. It’s a bizarre and violent film that becomes easier to watch thanks to the optimism of the lead, as well as the comedy interludes. A film which has a bald police investigator – who solves crimes through his sense of smell – shooting bees is fun in my book.
Fujio (Tadanobu Asano) and Mitsuo (Sho Aikawa) spend their free time practicing Aikido. During one of their training sessions the boss interrupts and starts yelling at them before inexplicably dying from a heart attack. They choose to dump his body on Black Fuji, a mountain that contains everything from everyday trash to bodies. In an inspired moment of nonsensical horror logic, the chemicals in the mountain cause the dead to rise, meaning Tokyo is now faced with almost certain doom. Fujio and Mitsuo decide to relocate to Russia, to learn the true beauty of wrestling. Although it has zombies, this is far more of a comedy than horror. Much of the comedy comes from the father/son relationship between the two men and the absolute obliviousness to the gravity of their situation. Include into that a brilliant J-Rock soundtrack, Tadanobu Asano with an afro wrestling zombies for money and a general aura of wacked out Japanese silliness. It doesn’t pop as much when Aikawa isn’t on screen, but the good work or the first half and the comedy genius of the closing twist ensures its easy status as a comedy horror. Did I mention Asano has an afro?
Thanks to Nightmare on Elm Street, The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes, Wes Craven was once a king of Horror. Those films where classics that helped establish many tropes for the horror genre, by the time the 1990s came around those rules had decayed to breaking point. Enter Scream, the perfect rebuttal. In the film, a killer known as “ghost face” begins killing off teenagers, and as the body count begins rising, one girl and her friends contemplate the “Rules” of horror films as they face oblivion and death at the hand of the masked killer. While not an overtly jokey film, the laughs come from the situations which lovingly recreate genre clichés, pointing out how stupid such films are whilst falling into same pitfalls. This may have subsequently ruined many films, but the thing which elevated Scream above the chaff is how successful it was as a genre piece that satirised itself. The fourth wall might have been shattered but the house still stands strong, sadly with each sequel the foundations started falling in on themselves, until we get the horrible fourth film. Now all that is left is the remnants of a once strong concept.
JUAN OF THE DEAD
Juan of the Dead, you might also recognise it through its marketing patter – Cuba’s first zombie movie. Unlike the suggestion of the title, this is not another film trading on the success of Shaun on the Dead; on the contrary this is a uniquely Cuban zombie film. For some unknown reason Cuba is besieged by zombies or according to the local news, “US dissidents”. After many people are killed and countless more join the undead, Juan and his best friend come up with the idea of “Juan of the dead, we kill your loved ones for one” – murdering zombified family members for people. They are also joined by family, a giant wrestler figure who passes out at the sight of blood and a transvestite. As with any one joke film its legs only hold out so far. Thankfully there are many other jokes to keep the pace up, the best of which is the fast/slow zombie gag and the way the characters behave before the outbreak of mass violence and hysteria. Not too violent or bleak, Juan of the Dead has a Hispanic vigour and charm that makes it an accessible entry into this desperately overpopulated genre.
DRAG ME TO HELL
After Army of Darkness, Sam Raimi was one of the genre directors who was taken away from us (same argument can be made for Peter Jackson), with Spiderman 2 he recaptured some of the bravura camera work and invention and he came home with Drag Me To Hell. Now most of his horror output is done as producer through his Ghost House Pictures production company, sans Drag Me to Hell. In Raimi’s return to horror it saw Alison Lohman as a bank clerk who denied a loan extension for a little old lady, a gesture which was returned with the Lamia’s curse. The Lamia is a demon who enjoys torturing its victims before dragging them to hell, this equates to projectile vomiting, being haunted by mysterious spectres, visions and straight up possession. At its best, Drag Me to Hell evokes the demonic acrobatics of Evil Dead 2, especially in the sequence with a possessed goat. At its worst, Raimi takes absolute glee in seeing his heroine covered in slime and muck. The film isn’t classic Raimi but it did more than enough to remind his legions of fans he can still bring his splatstick horror to the party.
SOME GUY WHO KILLS PEOPLE
Some Guy Who Kills People has far more to report upon than its schlocky self-aware title may suggest. In this John Landis produced horror-comedy, Kevin Corrigan stars as Ken, someone fresh out of a sanatorium trying to get his life back on track despite his life being a difficult one. He also has to contend with a daughter he never knew he had landing on his doorstep without so much of a word of warning. Ken is also disappearing into the night to murder the people who tortured him, putting him on his rocky road through life. These sections are replayed every so often and provide the horror content beside the slasher infected moments where Ken picks off his victims. To call it a horror comedy would be a stretch, it’s more of a drama that includes comedy and horror in its vernacular. Comedy wise, it all comes from the town sheriff played by Barry Bostwick who plays the classic idiot who is more astute than he appears. Maybe it could be argued that he along with Karen Black (Ken’s mother) are hunting for laughs, which is a little cynical. Ultimately meaning it doesn’t bounce with the same effervescent glee that a comedy horror usually would, instead it’s a little more sedate and knowing.
Now for a triple bill from the man some claim to be the king of the 1980s comedy horror, Frank Henenlotter. Personally I find his Brain Damage to be his best. In which, A New Yorker becomes dependent on an evil, disembodied brain that goes by the name Elmer. The brain feeds a narcotic substance in exchange for his unwilling assistance in obtaining the brains of innocent victims for sustenance. Elmer is a unique creation inspired by the necessity of a low budget. The way in which he kills people is through something that is clearly designed as a phallic object, forcing it into people’s mouths. Henenlotter’s films are never pleasant, but always inventive, even when the drug subtext is as heavy handed as it is here. Comedy wise much of the humour comes from Elmer, he is the kind of creation who is disgusting in design and inspiration and clearly enjoys torturing and consuming people, through his hallucinogenic manipulation. Brain Damage is both creepy and funny, like Elmer.
This next Henenlotter film is part Frankenstein part Re-animator and 100% characteristic perversion from the cult director. You could probably throw a healthy dose of Weird Science into that equation. In Frankenhooker, a medical school dropout sees his fiancée die in a tragic lawnmower incident, as is often the case in horror; he decides to bring her back. Unfortunately he only manages so save her head, so like any normal crazy guy of horror, he heads into the red light prostitute so he can get parts to build his girlfriend. In Frankenhooker, Jeffrey Franken is responsible for all manner of monsters. He makes prostitutes explode into a bloody mess, and at one point a monster made of all the parts that weren’t good enough for his creation escapes into the world. All of which has that idiosyncratic Henenlotter sense of humour and absolutely gleeful use of gore and violence, as well as an aggressive sexuality that comes with making your monster girlfriend from the body parts of prostitute.
Basket Case is the perfect example of an incredibly low-budget horror film that works despite its limitations. In Henenlotter’s debut we meet Duane, a young man carrying a wicker basket containing his deformed Siamese-twin brother, Belial, who looks like nothing more than a ball of flesh with a face. The two were separated against their wishes, after the successful operation the “basket case” was not considered to be human. Duane wants to live a normal life, while Belial wants revenge on the doctors who caused him to be what he is. Even with a miniscule budget, Henenlotter still manages to create some inventive set-pieces complete with audacious gore and his early fascination with eccentrics.
On Halloween Eve in Brooklyn, Chris finds an invitation to a costume party or a Murder Party. Arriving at the “party”, Chris discovers he’s fallen prey to the lethal trap set by disturbed artists hoping to be awarded grant money for their sinister arts. As the night goes on rivalries arise, the body count rise and Chris has to take advantage of the chaos to survive. As the above picture shows, Chris is in a terrible robot outfit and all the other people at the party are dressed in an array of outfits from Daryl Hannah’s Blade Runner replicant to a zombie cheerleader. The film itself shares a plot with Scorsese’s After Hours. The two films couldn’t be more different, whether it’s absolute ineptitude of the would-be murderers or the general aura of weirdness that comes from the artist collective. While it would have benefitted hugely from an increased budget, in its bare bones there’s enough in Murder Party as a Halloween themed comedy horror to have a broad appeal.
Picture the scene, its Middle America in the 1950’s and every family has their own zombie as a slave thanks to a collar that suppresses their primal urges. Now add to that picture, Timmy a boy who treats his zombie like a pet dog. Naturally it all goes wrong, which sees the town consume itself in a hell fire of zombies on free-reign. Fido incorporates elements of Sci-Fi satire like Mike Judge’s Idiocracy, only implying a greater issue of the time regarding the civil rights movement. It also manages to tick that ever so divisive box of whimsical, quirky humour. Personally it’s not to my taste, but even without that, there is enough in the broad general humour that most people could find something in. Imagine Romero was more interested in flights of fancy and broad humour than scathing satire and uncomfortably bleak atmosphere, and you’ll be somewhere near Fido.
Tim Burton is something to everyone; with Beetlejuice he found his ability to do a comedy with his black pantomime Beetlejuice. The vision of the afterlife is an inventive and quintessentially Burton world, with twisted faces, and more grotesques than normal people. It’s a small miracle it doesn’t feature Johnny Depp, that man has made a career from playing the types of characters that freely populate this world. Instead it’s all comes down to the everymen of Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis and how they deal with the maelstrom of mischief and menace that is the bio-exorcist Beetlejuice as played Michael Keaton. There’s also a basic joy to the film, where Baldwin and Davis attempt to scare off the pretentious occupants of their house, with an array of plastic-faced pranks. A word also has to be said for the twisted and imaginative stop-motion animation on display, which the desert snake is a particularly favourite.
Michele Soavi’s Dellamorte Dellamore, better known as The Cemetery Man could only have come from Italy. It’s a zombie film, where Rupert Everett has to stop the corpses escaping the cemetery every night. While this is happening he is trying to keep up a relationship with his beautiful girlfriend. Dellamorte Dellamore has all the sex and gore you might expect from a 1970s-80s genre film, a case in point this film is counted as one of the last greats of that iconic era. As an icon of that age it can be filed next to the likes of the Evil Dead films and Dead Alive, as it’s a film that has both comedy and horror present at every level, which by all means should be at odds with the themes musing in some way upon loneliness as well as the more obvious ones on life and death. If it wasn’t for such an unlikely plot development in the third act, The Cemetery Man would be much better known. Then again it is Italian, horror films from that country are better known for their style than their logic.
The first Chinese entry onto the list is Mr. Vampire, and like its western cousins it too inspired countless sequels. The general essence of the film can be related to any number of Jackie Chan or Sammo Hung films, in that it features, in this case, two people who get involved in something far beyond their comprehension. Typically this type of film would have the half-wit heroes go through some existential crisis forcing them to master some obscure form of kung fu. Not here, they are both as stupid as each other. China and Hong Kong is much more simplistic with its comedy, but that isn’t a complaint. Mr Vampire is the kind of comedy that can easily have its viewers with tears rolling down their cheeks with laughter, as we watch its characters stumble from one outlandish and farcical situation to the next. Comedies of this ilk, whether they have someone constant dancing to avoid turning into a vampire, or feature a love affair with a ghost with a detachable head are always imbued with a unique energy and for my money they are among the great pleasures of cinema. Speaking as a huge fan of martial arts cinema.
From the makers of League of Gentlemen the TV series comes Psychoville. Where their first series had the darkness of horror infecting its comedy, Psychoville is wired differently. It has comedy that operates on the same level as its horror. The basic set up sees a group of seemingly unrelated characters get a letter in the post saying “I know what you did”. I’ll refrain from commenting too much on the plot as it unfolds like a mystery. Like its fore-bearer, Psychoville is made by its characters that operate on a plane of existence that reeks of the adulation the writing and performing collective have for horror movies. Here are two characters worthy of mention; one is a midwife who uses a practices doll as if it is her real child, which echoed with pitch black comedy of one of Chris Morris’ more oblique series (JAM, which could equally feature on this list). The second character is Mr Jelly, a one handed clown, who has a role similar to Papa Lazarou in The League of Gentlemen, and like that iconic character Mr Jelly is someone to come to with fresh eyes.