When Comedy Meets Horror
Last year, just before Halloween, I wrote a list titled the Greatest Comedy Horrors. There were many omissions, oversights and even more films that I just hadn’t heard of before as recommended by you, the reader. Last time it was about the greatest, no such ambition is being upheld this time, a lot of these films barely scrape into the good category. Their appearance is merely on how successfully they merge the two genres. This year, I will be posting a list of movies, broke into five separate articles. This is the first.
There is a very narrow line that divides finding something the scary and the funny. No greater example of this are the league of horror films that try to scare but only evoke laughter. With more intentional comedy, there are two ways you can address this cross pollination. The first and the much more popular route is comedy about horror, these films rarely attempt to attain any qualities other than a comedic crack at the genre – Young Frankenstein. The second approach is more keeping to the genre’s intentions; films that work within the framework of the genre whilst being funny too. An example is the action packed, blood splattered Cabin in the Woods.
I would say the prerequisite for these films is for them to be as funny as they are scary, but as any genre buff will attest, there are more ways for a horror film to be effective than through fear alone. I would also say that these films are the perfect entry points for people new to horror, but some of these titles are explicitly violent and gory. Enough of the preamble, here is the first entry of films into the occasions comedy met horror.
In Critters, a Kansas farm is attacked by a hoard of hungry flesh-eating aliens with razor sharp teeth and an attitude to match. Who crash by farm, the family of which must seek the help of a local drunk and his bounty hunting friends to save the day. These rotund balls with teeth view everything with new eyes which results in the aliens offing themselves in varied ways, the real comedy, however, comes from their design and how they navigate the environment. The critters bounce around like the huge balls they are, an interesting juxtaposition when you consider these harmless looking balls of hair want to eat everything, houses and people alike. Also, the intergalactic bounty hunters searching for the critters blow everything up with their huge cannons like a Terminator which an even thinner grasp on reality. It has 3 sequels, which is more than you need to know. The first film has an energetic zest for wanton destruction, which makes Critters a joyous little movie, even if it isn’t very good.
I’ll come right out and say it; I preferred the remake. While more of a straight horror than its parent, it was impossible not to be won over by Colin Farrell’s manipulative and animalistic vampire. Nevertheless the 1985 is a vital entry of the comedy/horror hybrid genre. A point that deserves mentioning about fright night is just how of its time it is; Tom Holland’s movie is one of the most quintessentially 1980s movies you could ever hope to see. It is a decade where things that play with popular culture date the least kindly. As a film though, Holland paid homage to one of the greatest suspense films of all time in Rear Window, only with added vampires and a hearty amount of camp excess. Much of the comedy comes from the suggestively titled Evil Ed, Stephen Geoffreys, who came with a wild energy unique to the 1980s comedy horror. More memorable than any of this is the most enduring image of my childhood, that iconic vampire smile. An image which draws attention to the consciously schlocky and poor practical effects, a consciously bad homage to Hammer Horror.
It is almost like DeadHeads is happening around a clichéd zombie movie. Except this isn’t the zombie apocalypse, in fact it really isn’t anything, it’s just a bit of something going on in the background of a small town. Life goes on, except for the people in one cabin in the woods and one bar who are attacked by a zombie horde. The Pierce Brothers movie, DeadHeads, is a road trip movie about new friends Mike and Brent. Mike has woke up, he’s dead and he has an engagement ring in his pocket, determined to follow this up he takes Brent and his pet zombie Cheese – equal parts Bub (Day of the Dead) and Sloth (The Goonies) – with him. There’s a bountiful love of 80s cinema in DeadHeads. The ending goes in a strange, not entirely welcome direction for a horror film valuing the road trip over the zombie story, which is debatably the much less interesting part of DeadHeads. While not consistent, it is funny and best of all it is a sweet zombie movie, a statement that hasn’t been uttered too often.
THE CAT AND THE CANARY (1938)
The term remake is more commonly associated with the current void of imagination in Hollywood than any other historical point. Yet in 1938, this Bob Hope fronted comedy was a remake of a 1927 film of the same name. This isn’t as degenerative a statement as it is to modern audiences. The story sees protecting an heiress who must spend the night in the haunted mansion of her late, eccentric, millionaire uncle in order to inherit his fortune, in which all manner of spooky things occur. Comedy wise it all hangs from Hope as one would expect from such an American comedy giant. His jokey demeanour as “the original flutterbrain” plays well alongside the increasingly terrified Paulette Goddard. However much like anything Bob Hope did in his prime, it’s very much set within the confines of his rigid formula and character. If you’re unfamiliar or dislike Hope’s comedy stylings, the cat in the canary won’t do much for you.
THE HAPPINESS OF THE KATAKURI’S
Takashi Miike is one of the strangest and most prolific Japanese auteurs working today, no film attests to his eccentricity greater than The Happiness Of the Katakuri’s, a remake (of sorts) of Kim Jee-Woon’s directorial debut the Quiet Family. The premise for that film followed a family moving to the countryside, away from the bustle of the big city to run a hotel only for the customers to die in a range of ways. Miike has taken that concept and turned into a musical with zombies, Claymation and deaths that tread closer to slapstick than anything. A sumo wrestler and his young girlfriend visit the hotel, the pair is having sex only for him to have a heart attack and die suffocating his girlfriend underneath. Far more comedy than horror, Happiness of the Katakuri’s twists an array of horror iconography with Gone with the Wind. It might be the most playful entry into it the list, but when it’s one of Miike’s strangest films, not much more needs to be said.
Neil Marshall is one of the select few British directors who has made horror films that are worthy of your time, the other being the magnificent (the) Descent. Dog Soldiers follows a troop of soldiers who are on training movements through woods in deepest darkest Scotland only for them to be set upon by wolves. They take refuge in a nearby house, only to be overwhelmed in the night by scores of werewolves. Admittedly the werewolves do look ropey, but the concept and the set-pieces are all nervy, jumpy and relatable to the iconic archetypes of the genre. The humour is always organic and straight. The actors aren’t playing for laughs; the dialogue is natural and sardonic which allows for some dark moments of comic relief and self-deprecation.
Bold film-making from Jack Hill in the late 60s, not only does it include a family of mentally damaged adults there are also lines to be drawn between this and Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre. In Spider Baby, three damaged adults behave like children and have murderous tendencies are looked after by Lon Chaney Jr. (Bruno). Their childlike behaviour makes for some sweet moments and there’s a nice recurring sight gag that develops a darker edge. Spider Baby presents a unique play on the popular horror trope of paedophobia, young adults with the behaviour pattern of small children seeking to kill their house guests. The meaning behind the name provides some great horror shenanigans too. It would be all too easy for such a premise to be bitter and angry, Jack Hill is better than that, whether he is making a Corman financed sexploitation film or this, he always instils a sense of humour
If you grew up in the 1980s or 1990s, Ghostbusters will have been an indelible fixture. A film with Dan Aykroyd and Bill Murray as paranormal investigators or ‘Ghostbusters’ was always going to be funny, and that is the very reason that the film has become such an enduring cult hit. The mix of practical effects, wordplay and straight up slapstick stands strong today. One point of contention however, watching this back as an adult, the implication of religion as a bad guy is a weak element of the script. Even with that being the case, Ghostbusters is constant fun. The horror permeates throughout, whether it’s the demonic imagery of the evil the Ghostbusters are trying to quell or the sequence in the library. Comedy and Horror are in perfect unison here, what’s more it’s of a legacy of films from the 1980s which were clearly inflected with horror iconography and tropes yet could be fully embraced and loved by children. They don’t make films like this anymore.
Black Sheep is a film that could only work in its native New Zealand, a country where sheep outnumber people. In it there is an experiment in genetic engineering on sheep, the test subject of which comes to bare the biological hallmarks of a zombie, or zombie sheep. The subject breaks free and soon all the sheep become flesh-eating monsters. Not only that, humans that are bit by these sheep mutate into were-sheep. All of this is brought to life by WETA, Peter Jackson’s effects company. Using robotics, puppetry and good old fashioned practical effects this nightmare scenario is into glorious Technicolor. The comedy is less positive, in that its all toilet humour which is always down to the eye of the beholder.
The carry on series is one of the most lucrative British exports alongside James Bond, and with Carry on Screaming these largely interchangeable franchise films hit their peak. Here the plot can be compared to the 1953 House of Wax, let’s forget the 2005 remake exists. The sinister Dr Watt (Kenneth Williams) is plotting an evil scheme. He’s kidnapping beautiful young women and turning them into mannequins to sell. For a series that is infatuated with playground humour this is dark territory, at least on paper. As ever it operates through the same sense of humour, which has a basic pleasure with it being both rude and accessible for the whole family, only this time framed through the old gothic mores of Hammer.
Hausu is just about the craziest film you are likely to see. Instead of analysing the ins and outs in relation to this list, allow me to describe some of the things that happen in what should be a relatively simple – beautiful girls go into a mysterious house only to be killed off systematically – premise. These would be spoilers traditionally, but largely this film has to be seen to be believed. Scene 1: a character tries to retrieve a watermelon from a well only to find one of her friends severed heads, which proceeds to fly through the air biting her on the bum. Scene 2: Another character is playing piano to keep her friends’ spirits up, only to hear one of their friends singing upstairs. Two of the survivors go upstairs to investigate, in doing so the girl who is playing the piano has her fingers bitten off by the piano and eaten whole soon after. Scene 3: A character tries to kick a possessed light fixture; the light eats her whole with only her legs escaping. The escaped legs attack a painting on the wall, after which the portrait spurts blood everywhere causing the room to flood. Need I say any more?
Grabbers has been compared to Tremors and that alone is enough to warrant its inclusion. Digging a little deeper than a reference, Grabbers sees a small Irish town invaded by unknown monsters, which the only way to survive is to get drunk. It places together a self-destructive alcoholic and a straight-edge woman who has never been drunk in the path of the invaders. In this, there is a nice chemistry between the characters on top of the films ability to work as a monster movie. It might not be overly bloody, but that along with the self-effacing humour give the comparison to Tremors weight. Being a low budget film, it allows the characters to take front and centre, building with characterisation and only showing the monster when absolutely necessary. This is the best way, there’s nothing worse than a film that tries to be ambitious but clearly hasn’t the means to pull it off, especially in horror. It doesn’t do anything particularly different, but the originality of the films concept and the absolute bloody mindedness in the way the film is contrary to modern opinions of alcohol consumption is enough to keep it fresh, and very funny.
ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN
In 1940s America, Abbott and Costello were huge comedy icons and they had a decent number of films where they met horror icons. In …Frankenstein they met the titular monster as well as Dracula as played by Bela Lugosi and the Wolfman played by Lon Chaney. The involvement of such legendary actors gave the film an authenticity to the set up and the world the two comedians find themselves in. Such is the professionalism of these icons they never turn up for the pay check; this is true in even in the light of the farcical and slapstick comedy. While it would be fruitless to comment on the nature of the horror, classic universal era horror operates on an entirely different plane of rules and existence to that which we know now. Which largely means that it is better. Comedy wise, Abbott and Costello are of a similar era of comedians to the Marx brothers and evoke a similar level of hi-jinx and fun. It might not be fashionable to admit, but such innocence and exuberance never stops being fun.
DANCE OF THE DEAD
This film was made in the wrong decade; all of its ideas feel like they would be at home more in the 1980s than the present day. A similar riff on the high school zombie film was made with Night of the creeps. In Dance of the Dead, its prom night and somewhere in town a zombie virus is spreading and making its way to the school. As is usually the case with these films, it’s up to the guys who didn’t get a date – the geeks – to save the day. In its build up, it would be forgivable if one came to the conclusion that this was homage to John Hughes and to an extent it is. This is especially true with the sentiments that high school is the most important time in your life and the changes in emotion characters go through. After which the zombies arrive and it becomes a gory splatter action film with the heroes offing the undead in hyper stylised ways. A real over the top celebration of violence, which can be as awkward as it is fun. As both a film about gore and high school, there is an audience that dance of the dead will resonate more strongly for than others.
Stitches is a film most effective for those who suffer Coulrophobia or the fear of clowns. Stitches sees a clown accidently killed at a kids party and brought back to life by a coven of black magic clowns to enact revenge. The man who plays stitches the clown is Ross Noble, an extremely energetic and surreal stand-up English comedian. There couldn’t be a better fit for this character, except maybe Mr Jelly from TV’s Psychoville. With that not being the case, the best has to be done with what’s available and like many horrors before and after, films such as this use the catalogue of tricks and clown gags to kill off its characters. Unlike many other films that use Stitches’ formula of killing people of with the tools of the clowning trade; here it is extremely violent with exploding heads and copious amounts of blood and gore. Stitches isn’t quite the film it could be, but as a bloody comic clown movie expectations have to be tempered.