I’m a big fan of comedic horror. I lean towards dark humor over slapstick antics, but have always felt that humor offers the perfect counterpoint to horror, the two going together like anchovies and parmesan cheese (or whatever flavor combination works for you).
Author Stuart West walks the tightrope between horror and dark comedy in his fiction, and was gracious enough to offer a list of his favorite comedic horror films to check out this Halloween.
He asks for recommendations at the end, so I’ll go ahead and give mine:
Man Bites Dog. A mockumentary about a film crew that follows a serial killer and becomes increasingly entangled in his horrific crimes. You’ll feel bad for laughing, which is what I love about it.
Now I’ll turn it over to Stuart, and his stellar list of humorous horror. Thanks for sharing, Stuart!
Hey, whaddaya know, another movie list. First, a couple disclaimers: this isn’t a definitive list. After all, it’s a subjective opinion and what do I know anyway? Plus, my lists tend to change like the wind, fickle cinephile that I am. Second, even though this is a post about (intentionally) amusing horror films, very few on the list are straight-up comedies. A very important distinction. While I think Young Frankenstein is a classic, it doesn’t belong on my list as the film’s first intent is to make audiences laugh.
As in my horror novels, a lot of humor sneaks into the books, just can’t be helped (shameless plug time: Demon with a Comb-Over; Zombie Rapture; Neighborhood Watch; Godland; The Killers Incorporated trilogy; lots more). Horror and humor’s a tricky balancing act, though, one that can easily teeter into stupid Scary Movie territory if not careful. Am I successful in my books? I dunno. You guys be the judge. But in my opinion, all of the movies on my list succeed quite well. Horror should always come first, humor a nice little accent. It’s hard for me—as a viewer or reader—to give a damn about the story if the story, first and foremost, doesn’t matter. There needs to be true matters at stake, real heart, consequences for better or worse (usually worse where horror’s involved).
Okay, enough pretentiousness! Let’s roll…
Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein. And, right off the bat, I’m negating my rule. This is a comedy. But one of the best things about it is the horror elements truly work. Lots of my love for this film is unabashed nostalgia as it was one of the first horror flicks I saw as a child. But it holds up. I broke my daughter in on it one Halloween night. Watching Lou, clueless and addled, freak out while the Frankenstein monster is unknowingly behind him is a great sequence, poised perfectly between hilarity and horror.
American Werewolf in London. Regardless of what I think of director John Landis as a human being (the Twilight Zone movie tragedy), he pulled off a remarkable feat with this feature. It’s an impressive cinematic accomplishment as Landis effortlessly segues between true horror, laugh-out loud humor and devastating pathos. Any of those genres are hard to singly pull off, let alone blend them together successfully. Landis tried to duplicate his success, but his other horror comedies failed to reach Werewolf’s heights. Plus Werewolf was one of the first flicks to utilize cool bladder/transformation effects, eat it CGI! (1981 was a stellar year for classic werewolf comedies; Joe Dante’s The Howling gets a close runner’s up.)
American Zombie. Here’s the dark horse on my list. No one’s seen it. Grace Lee (a documentary filmmaker) has accomplished something extraordinary with this film. The narrative unfolds as a documentary detailing the average-Joe lives of several zombies. I won’t belittle the movie by labeling it as a “mockumentary”; it’s too smart for that. But it skewers many current topics in its satirical aim and by corky, if it doesn’t get creepy by the end. (I’ve been trying to contact Grace Lee to interview her for my blog,–I’ve got a zillion questions to ask her–but she’s playing hard to get.)
Dead Alive. Before Peter Jackson became king of the Shire, he was making deeply personal, low-budgeted, highly irreverent horror comedies, Dead Alive his best, if for no other reason than the sheer blood-spattered insanity. Yes, it’s gory as all get out, but Jackson’s humor makes it highly palatable. It’s hard to forget the image of a guy lawn-mowing his way through a horde of the undead.
Basket Case. Oh, Frank Henenlotter, how I love your movies. Not really a good movie by any stretch, it’s still one of the most entertaining on the list. Poorly acted, darkly shot and completely unforgettable, Henenlotter’s tragedy of a pair of twins (one disturbed, the other deformed and disturbed) works on a purely visceral level. Remarkably, the film makes you care about the twins, sick humor and all. Henenlotter followed this with two inferior sequels (heavier on the in-your-face humor) and the equally as good Brain Damage. I’m still trying to figure out what I think of Henenlotter’s Bad Biology, though.
What We Do in the Shadows. Okay, again, this movie’s first and foremost a comedy. But it works. Another “documentary,” this time detailing the mundane lives of several vampires sharing an apartment. Probably the funniest film on the list, it has many laugh out loud moments, yet takes thoughtful care in the characterization of the leads. One of my favorite films of the year. Or any year, maybe.
Frenzy. Okay, it’s Hitchcock time! Is Frenzy a horror film? Maybe. Is it a comedy? Kinda. But, hey, for me it works as both. Hitchcock’s black humor (the best kind!) is in ample evidence. The scene where the killer’s in the back of a potato truck trying to retrieve a piece of incriminating evidence from his most recent victim is a stellar sequence poised between breathtaking suspense and dark comedy. And the long-suffering lead inspector’s meal-time nightmares with his culinary experimenting wife are superb.
Zombieland. A very well done horror film that never lets the often uproarious humor get in the way of its story. Well-acted, imaginative, inventive, it’s the perfect Halloween movie. I even got my wife to watch it and she hates horror. (She still hasn’t forgiven me for The Babadook. “Honey, it’s an art film…”). I was torn between giving Shaun of the Dead, another very funny and effective zombie tale, this spot. But Zombieland edged it out. Watch ‘em both.
Slither. I love this movie. In many ways, James Gunn’s opus is an old-fashioned, fright night thriller. Yet the humor is very modern. And the cast is awesome. Who doesn’t like Nathan Fillion? The movie isn’t afraid to splatter up the set, but Gunn balances it with nicely realized amusing moments.
Spider Baby. How in the world do you categorize this 1967 messterpiece? I know I can’t. David Lynch before David Lynch was cool, the outlandish tale about a family of lunatics unspools at a straight-faced, fast pace. Great character actor Sid Haig headlines and poor Lon Chaney, Jr. drunkenly warbles the theme song. For the time in which it was made, the movie takes a fascinatingly nonchalant attitude towards the casual violence, just another day in the life of the Merrye’s. It just rolls. Sublime.
There you go, gang. My current list. It’ll probably change tomorrow, it always does. SO many other films I can now think of belong on the list (hello, Evil Dead 2), but that’s for another time. Heck, I could really rip it out and have tons of fun with a list of my favorite UNintentionally hilarious horror films. What say you, Brian?
Thanks, Brian, for letting me blather on, a fitting topic for the scariest time of the year. While I’m at it, three of my horror novels just came out in paperback. Get ‘em all! Giggle uncomfortably while you hide from the mysterious, unnatural shadows! Hyperbole! Zombie Rapture; Neighborhood Watch; Godland.
Twisted Tales from Tornado Alley’s always open, too, for knee-jerk reactions, ludicrous screaming and horror and hugs. (By the way, my first horror short story collection will be out soon under the same name).
Think I’m done plugging now, Brian.
Anyone else have any movies to recommend that I haven’t seen?