When Comedy meets Horror

The prior four articles of the good and ugly in comedy horror, all of it was in the run down to this final part. We’ve looked at Frank Henenlotter, Joe Dante, and an unfathomable number of pratfalls, puns, sarcastic one liners and gore, gore, gore. If you’re favourite comedy horror hasn’t appeared, tell us what it is in the comments section below. Maybe a variation on this article will appear in 12 months with some of those omissions included.

Now to the meat of the matter, what are the greatest films that combine both comedy and horror?

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WALLACE & GROMIT AND THE CURSE OF THE WERE-RABBIT
wallace & gromit: curse of the were-rabbit

Wallace & Gromit made their debut feature length with one of best horror homages in many a year. Maybe that’s a biased viewpoint as a Brit, Wallace and his pet dog can do no wrong on these shores. However its success is made stranger by their status as something warm, gentle and evocative of the simpler bygone times in Yorkshire. The resulting Curse of the Were-Rabbit is the accumulation of a love for all things horror. The basic set-up has a large monster running around a small village, devouring all vegetables in the run up to the annual giant vegetable competition. Intrinsically a film for all the family, it’s the details that really stand out. With strong homages and plot details that pull influence from sources as diverse as the universal monster movies, hammer horror, mad scientists and even some lesser entrants onto this list. In many ways, Curse of the Were-Rabbit is the perfect entry point into horror. It’s perfect entertainment for all the family, it’s not scary or bloody, but the jokes are rapid and littered everywhere through mise-en-scene like the spoof classic Airplane… only more British.

 

BATTLE ROYALE
Battle Royale

In Battle Royale, a class of Japanese high school students are kidnapped and forced to kill each other as part of the BR act. A government programme initiated to keep control of the younger generations in this dystopian vision of Japan under control. Based on the manga by Koushun Takami and illustrated by Masayuki Taguchi, the graphic novel series is tantamount to hentai, especially in the backstory of Mitsuko. It’s a small miracle that Japanese master Kinji Fukasaku, managed to make such a brilliantly anarchic film when scenes like the aforementioned were commonplace. As a concept Battle Royale cannot be viewed as anything other than a horror movie, more specifically it’s a slasher where the rules of stalker and victim no longer belong. Although firmly using the same CG gore that a lot of Japanese films of the late 90s, early 00s had, it still has some nasty violence. A severed head has a grenade put in it as is thrown at the heroes, at one point. Which in itself is blackly comic, a theme continued throughout by the deadpan superstar Takeshi ‘Beat’ Kitano.  This film is at its funniest during the BR act instructional video and Kitano’s responses to it and his ludicrously wonderful final scene. Battle Royale is a true one off in exploitation cinema.

 

ENCOUNTERS OF A SPOOKY KIND
Encounters of a Spooky Kind
The tour de force that is Sammo Hung Kam-Bo, stars in, co-wrote and directed the film that gave birth to the supernatural kung-fu sub-genre. Encounters of a Spooky Kind starts with Sammo, playing the suggestive named Bold Cheung, having a nightmare about ghosts. After which he is challenged to peel an apple in front of a mirror, if he breaks the skin something bad will happen, his friends play a trick and while Hung is scolding his friends a ghost appear, kidnapping one of Cheung’s friend. In Encounters… zombies appear, and Sammo attempts to get his friend back despite being a coward. Just like his friends and ‘brothers’ from Peking opera, Jackie Chan and Yuen Biao, Sammo is a wonderfully charismatic and acrobatic performer and to see him fly in fear is fantastically funny, especially with a man his size. While the film does have misogynistic tendencies, this is Sammo on fine form. The standout sequence is set up with several minutes of absolute stillness as a zombie hunts Cheung in an ominously lit, dusty temple followed by a superb fight sequence, one of Hung’s best. There’s also a running gag about eggs having a powerful effect on the undead. Comedy, Kung-Fu and Horror are combined to make of the stand out kung fu movies of the 1980s, one which can be accredited with starting a genre from scratch – a rare honour.

 

TREMORS
Tremors

Tremors is one of those films that is perfect for late night entertainment, it’s short, easy to watch, funny, quotable and fun. Take the style and mood of any number of 1950s American creature features and their face off between nature and men, and place in that a great screen partnership of Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward. The messed up nature the people of the secluded town have to deal with is a giant worm creature, dubbed the ‘graboid’. True to the films its homages, the effects aren’t great but like any great film maker knows, it’s not what your monster looks like, it’s how you use it. You don’t see them for long stretches but the threat of their presence is always there, destroying the town bit by bit. It’s a hopeless situation for these people, one made worse by them being surrounded by sand, the very environment that the graboid dominates at the top of the food chain. When the monsters are skulking in the periphery, it gives Ward and Bacon the chance to goad, tease and challenge each other despite the fact that the graboids are never far away, making for some ludicrously stupid scenarios. Like most horror sequels, it does become a state of ever diminishing returns, by making lead characters out of the gun wielding couple (Burt & Heather), far from a good move.

 

NIGHT OF THE CREEPS
night of the creepsAn argument could be made that Slither is a remake of Fred Dekker’s debut film Night of The Creeps, only turned up to 11. James Gunn paid homage by having slug aliens diving down people’s throats to infect them with a zombie-state; they also both have a massive affection for the genre. Ray Cameron, Sergeant Raimi, Detective Landis, J.C. Hooper, Chris Romero, Cynthia Cronenberg, all named after horror icons. The first infected man, who has been kept in cryogenic sleep since 1959, breaks free thanks to two nerdy students trying to impress a frat house which is in turn to impress a beautiful girl on campus. From this we are led into a zombie film turned slasher and back into a invasion thriller, all with a liberal application of exploding heads. Admittedly the practical effects have dated, especially with infected animals. It might have always been the intention to make people laugh at this zombified dog, if that is the case the aging of these scenes means the comedy value has raised exponentially. There is also a brilliant script, with dialogue that allows for a tender and sweet friendship between Jason Lively and Steve Marshall as well as plenty of laughs and jump scares. Its films like this that made the 1980s the golden era for comedy horror hybrids and helped establish Tom Atkins with his peerless delivery, “The good news is your dates are here. The bad news is… they’re dead.” Nobody does it like Atkins.

 

BUBBA HO-TEP
bubba ho tep

Don Coscarelli introduced himself to a whole new generation of genre fans with his adaptation of Joe R. Lansdale’s short story Bubba Ho-Tep. Bubba is quite the unique proposition. Picture the scene: the Elvis who died wasn’t Elvis but a lookalike with a striking resemblance who the real king of rock n’ roll, they exchanged places as the real thing was fatigued by fame.  Also JFK is still alive but because of some convoluted political reason, his skin was dyed black and he went into hiding. Picture these roles were filled by Bruce Campbell and Ossie Davis and both these iconic figures of American history are in the same retirement home and that very same home is besieged by a mummy feeding on the life force of the elderly. The very conceit would be enough to quality this as a comedy horror. Nevertheless there’s more to this than the outlandishness of the premise, there is a tenderness and nostalgia to Campbell’s Elvis, as a man who is coming to terms with his mistakes.  The dark and desolate halls of the retirement home builds up a presence of malice and dread heightened through the scarcity of Bubba’s appearances. The conceit, the camera work, dialogue and juvenile hieroglyphic graffiti make Bubba Ho-Tep more than just another witty and dark horror comedy.

 

THE RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD
The Return of the Living Dead

Written and Directed by Dan O’Bannon, the scriptwriter behind the legendary sci-fi/horror film Alien is the first in a franchise of punk rock zombie films, The Return of the Living Dead. Taking place in an around a cemetery, we see the zombies unleashed onto the world by a boss showing off, releasing a gas that turns all who come into contact with it into the living dead. That’s everything that comes into contact with it, there’s a severed dog brought back to life and Tar-Man in the basement. The question that O’Bannon asks is: how do you kill that which isn’t alive? According to Return of the Living Dead, you can’t. You can destroy the brain; cut off all their limbs, anything, whatever you do to them they will always draw breath. This is displayed brilliantly by the limbless zombie the survivor’s question. That’s right these zombies talk and retain their intelligence, they are just consumed by pain, feasting on brains makes the pain desist. The assortment of inventive ways that the zombie horde sucker people in is hilarious. Whether they dress up and set the scene for the authorities before jumping them or simply stating “send more paramedics” down an intercom. As funny as the film is, it’s never anything less than a grimy zombie picture, right down to the token bleak ending.

 

THE HOST
The Host

This is a monster movie from the other side. Instead of following the path of carnage, it follows the story of a family of outcasts as they cope with the kidnap of their youngest Hyeon-So. One of the great unknown actors of world cinema, Kang Ho Song, plays the father who has to deal with his loss as well as the horror of coming face-to-face with the strange beast. The Host recalls what made the monster movie a staple of genre cinema. It’s not the chaos and destruction that made these films; it was the horror of man and the burning satire. The horror that man can be openly responsible for, in which the conclusion of Gang-Doo’s (Kang) captivity is as strong as the film gets. Whenever a lobotomy is used as a source of horror, the result is always horrific. Still under this there is a scathing satire of Korean politics and culture and a consistent flow of slapstick gags in moments of respite. Joon Ho-Bong’s The Host is a classic box ticker: it’s exciting, funny, emotionally involving and a scary condemnation of human nature.

 

GREMLINS & GREMLINS 2
gremlins

Joe Dante is the king of horror for kids and there is no greater example in his excellent body of work than Gremlins. The 1984 original sees the adorable mogwai, Gizmo, fed after midnight and come into contact with water, the two things you should never do. Spitting out of Gizmo’s back come some nasty little monsters that destroy the town in sea of violence and chaos. This is a film that follows the most celebrated ideal of its not what you see but what you can imagine via these monsters scurrying around town, all you can hear is there manic laughter. It’s one of the only entries on this list where the balance between horror and comedy is about perfect, for every scene of manic energy there is a scene whose sole intention is to unsettle. Take the scene that scared me most as a child, Stripe jumps into the local public swimming pool, playing opposite to that is the scene where all the gremlins watch Snow White. Following that in 1990 is Gremlins 2, while not as good as its progenitor, it is one of the strangest studio movies ever made. It’s almost as if Joe Dante used this as an opportunity to do all the things he wanted to do but never had the money.

 

ATTACK THE BLOCK
attack the block

Director Joe Cornish stated in the press interviews for Attack the Block that his debut film is a love letter to all the films that he wasn’t old enough to see at the cinemas. Shame then that it’s a divisive film in its own country; many people hate the fact that a gang of violent knife wielding teenagers should be the stars of a film, classism at its inane best. The film itself is something of a gem. An inner London block of flats is attacked by what looks like a cross between a gorilla and a dog with fur blacker than the nights sky and teeth that glow blue. It’s an inspired monster design that fits the architecture of the British inner city perfectly. The script is equal parts natural (thanks to the director getting assistance from the young actors, so the dialogue would be authentic) and dry sarcastic references to popular culture. Then there is the slapstick behaviour and the reality of these kids when there is something nasty out there, hunting them down. That look at character and circumstances creates the opportunity for some fascinating character moments. Cornish has played on the strengths of the locale and the acting talent, developing a film that was the important shot of adrenaline into British genre cinema whilst capturing the mood of the traditionally American alien invasion movie.

 

TUCKER & DALE VS. EVIL
Tucker & Dale Vs. Evil

It’s a common set-up in 21st century horror cinema:  a ground of college students head out into the woods for a good time, with no distractions, just debauchery until they run into ‘murderous red-necks’. Tucker & Dale vs evil is the antidote to that.  Tyler Labine and Alan Tudyk are Tucker and Dale, two friends out in the country to check out their newly purchased holiday home, when their truck is nearly crashed into by a gang of boisterous city types, when they all meet up later at a convenience store the city kids gets the idea in their head that Tucker & Dale want to kill them. After a few contrivances, the group think that Tucker & Dale want to kill a member of their group who they actually saved from drowning, and the two friends think these stupid college kids are part of a suicide cult. The whole film is one long gag based around a misunderstanding, but credit has to be given the scriptwriters for keeping the film fresh throughout. Tucker & Dale versus Evil is a violent film, no doubt, but it’s also a hilarious one. Not many films can make humour out of someone diving head first into a woodchipper and that probably wouldn’t be the case here if it wasn’t for Labine and Tudyk being on such fine form as the lovable pair. Their reactions alone make this movie an unadulterated slice of entertainment.

 

BRAINDEAD (DEAD ALIVE)
Braindead (Dead Alive)Before Peter Jackson brought middle earth to life, he was a peddler of dirty, low budget horror films, the pinnacle of which is Braindead (Dead Alive). Made in his native New Zealand, we see another zombie outbreak this time confined to a house after a woman his bitten by a Sumatran rat-monkey. A bite from the animal sees people infected with a zombie virus. The woman’s son Lionel (played enthusiastically by Timothy Balme) tries to prevent the outbreak spreading by knocking out the few zombies he’s kept in his basement with sedatives. He doesn’t just have to stop the zombies eating him; he also has to stop the zombies having sex. He can’t stop them all the time and despite his best efforts a zombie baby is born, a baby who stars in some of the films funniest scenes. The icing on the cake for the whole film is the kung fu priest and his immortal lines “Stay back boy, this calls for divine intervention” & “I kick arse for the lord”. As a genre piece, Braindead is full of gore; there are gallons of the red stuff. Whether it is still true today, I am not sure, but once upon a time this film was labelled as “the goriest ever made”.

 

THE CABIN IN THE WOODS
cabin in the woods

The Cabin in the Woods is about a gang of College students who want to disappear off the grid for a weekend in the titular Cabin. In the 00s, there are few horror set-ups as well-travelled as that. After that we see who resides in the rabbit hole and how deep it goes. Many films deconstruct genre and some of those films are on these lists, but how many of them are as gloriously entertaining in presenting their queries on the horror genre? Whether it is the high energy spectacle take on the horror genre or the comedic dialogue and exchanges of Fran Kranz, Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford.  The latter two steal the show, however to comment on the nature of those laughs, beyond saying Bradley Whitford gets exactly what he wanted and Richard Jenkins doesn’t like Japanese school girls, would be elaborating too much. The real value of the film comes in the much discussed and tip-toed around final act that amps up the up the horror to a wonderfully bloody crescendo, it’s one of those movies that you notice something new each time. No more so than on THAT whiteboard.

 

YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN
young frankenstein

In the 1970s Mel Brooks was unrivalled, Blazing Saddles, Silent Movie, High Anxiety and Young Frankenstein.  With a script by its star and equally fantastic comedy actor Gene Wilder, Young Frankenstein saw the director at his best. With an authenticity lent by use of the original universal sets, Wilder and Brooks film pays homage monster movies of the 1930s, Dracula and Frankenstein in particular. Years after the Dr Frankenstein’s Monster had come and gone, his grandson is working as a lecturer even if he refuses to be addressed as anything other than Fronkenstein. After a lecture one day he approached by someone telling the grandson that he has inherited the family castle. Upon arriving there he meets the same array of eccentrics and lovingly observed satirises of horror icons. Igor or Egor played by the bug-eyed and wise cracking Marty Feldman. He is joined by Frau Blücher whose name conjures lightning and spooked horses, every time and the hilariously incomprehensible Inspector Kemp. Through these figures, the homage is instilled with that playful camp of the carry on movies and Brooks’ style, a testament proven by the monsters large “member” and the iconic musical number, putting on the Ritz.  When modern comedy has lost its way as much as it has, films like this develop into legendary almost unstoppable behemoths and rightly so, Young Frankenstein is one of the funniest movies ever made and it just so happens to be about a classic era of horror.

 

THE EVIL DEAD TRILOGY
Evil Dead

In the UK, the Evil Dead was one of the most controversial films of the 1980’s, a lead figure in the notorious collection of ‘video nasties’. Nasty, yes, but the evil dead had one tongue planted firmly in cheek, although shocking with its tree rape scene and spurting gore, the Evil Dead is the dark offspring of a Looney tunes cartoon. Six years later, the film was remade with a much stronger focus on comedy with the result being Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn. Sam Raimi found his niche and built upon it, here his mastery with the camera and sound effects were housed within a film where Raimi’s brother Ted and Bruce Campbell could run free. Campbell’s psychical presence and the way he threw himself around the room, fighting himself, with a straight face made him a B-movie star. Let’s not forget most of this film sees Campbell on screen, alone, few actors could carry the film as well as him. Number 3, is the oddball of the series. Ash has been plunged back through history and through his he shows his love for Ray Harryhausen, the three stooges and period fantasy films. More comedy than horror, it’s nothing less than a fitting end to a legendary trilogy.

 

RE-ANIMATOR
re-animator

Herbert West is a scientist who is investigating the possibility of bringing dead flesh back to life. After brutally killing his senior professor in the opening scene he moves to America to investigate the effects on humans. Made abundantly clear in the opening sequence, this is an excessively gory film, some of which is hard to stomach (the aforementioned exploding eyes, cutting someone’s head off with a spade) and other sequences which are so over the top it becomes slapstick. The constant reanimation of a dead cat and the sex scene with the severed head illustrate the borderline comedy genius of the film. Stuart Gordon’s directing is one thing, but the true greatness comes from Jeffrey Combs. The things he does are all outlandish and comedic, yet it’s delivered straight, the mark of a truly great comedic turn. Jeffrey Combs is Herbert West, A man obsessed with his work, a man who has no idea how to deal with people. In a grotesquely funny way, Re-Animator is fish out of water (black) comedy. Re-animator is also one of the best horror films of the 1980s, it just so happens to be funny too.

 

SHAUN OF THE DEAD
Shaun of the Dead

Advertised upon its release as a rom-zom-com, Shaun of the Dead has become the measuring stick to which all new comedy horrors are measured. Each new comedy horror has its DVD sleeve plastered with claims of “… is the best comedy horror since Shaun of the Dead”. The romantic comedy aspect of Wright/Pegg and Frost’s big cinema hit, even with the invasion of zombies, is more believable than near enough all traditional rom-coms, and more emotionally affecting.  It also helps that Nick Frost’s character Ed has a filthy mouth, making for a great comedy relief character. The zombie aspect is a stunningly astute love letter to the work of Romero, from the pun of the title to the zombie king returning the favour by giving Edgar Wright and Shaun Pegg cameo’s in Land of the Dead. Story beats can be followed from the entire original dead trilogy – the media coverage from night and dawn; even the same lines are pitched from the news media. The tower block is there from Dawn of the Dead. The isolation in a single location is there, from isolated house to pub, only for the zombie mass to invade thanks to the stupidity of one of the survivors. As far as zombie homages go, Shaun of the Dead is just about note perfect.

 

AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON
An American Werewolf in London

Here it is, number 1, the greatest comedy horror ever made. Alongside The Howling & Company of Wolves, the John Landis directed American Werewolf in London stands at the top of pile for films with the most impressive werewolf transformations; with their mutations akin to something out of a body horror, with bones snapping, flesh stretching and contorting. If nothing else, this film as well as a handful of others made throughout the 70s and 80s scream the praises of practical effects work. It also helps that American Werewolf has John Landis at the peak of his powers. Two American students visit England and visit the wrong pub, aptly titled the slaughtered lamb and from there they are dragged into the world of werewolves. A unique version too, the person who infected David must be killed for the curse to be lifted, and a werewolf is haunted by all the people they killed. The connection between the living and the afterlife is a unique premise, with further grotesque effect work. Alongside the more obvious fish out water comedy, American Werewolf plays up the fact that David turns up in the strangest of places; he is an animal after all. Likewise the vitriol Jack throws at David gives the dark humour a sense of hopelessness. American Werewolf in London is one of the best horror films of the last 30 years.

Happy Halloween.

- Rob Simpson

PART ONE / PART TWO / PART THREE / PART FOUR / PART FIVE

By Rob Simpson

Hailing from the middle of nowhere in the north east of England. Rob has his fingers in many pies, whether it’s his own website, the double take podcast or being the occasionally wheeled out film critic on the geek show. He also writes & directs his own short films as well as helping out on the sets of other local film-makers work. His favourite films are John Carpenter’s The Thing, Yojimbo, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, Battle Royale and The Life & Death of Colonel Blimp.

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2 Responses to When Comedy meets Horror

  1. Liisa April 21, 2013 at 10:20 am

    Battle Royale movie is not based on the manga. Both manga and the movie are based on the book published in 1999. (Both manga and movie came out in 2000. Manga continued until 2005. The movie sequel came out in 2003. So it is more likely that the movies influenced the manga than vice versa.) The movie actually is very close to the book where as the manga is as stated above at times closer to hentai.
    And to that BR couldn’t be viewed as anything other than horror… It is very political and set in another time and dimension that is a complete dystopia. It’s not just any pointless slasher flick, it’s very fine science fiction at times. Though the movie did leave a lot of the interesting points out that the book had making it seem more of a slasher as there were no real background stories for the characters.
    If you like the movie I recommend reading the book. Gives so much more depth to the movie too.

    Reply
  2. Morley March 4, 2013 at 9:34 pm

    When I think of Roman Polanski, I think of when he fled prosecution for statutory rape….yup.

    Reply

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