Who said horror had to be only scary? I like a movie that can pull double duty and scare me while making me laugh.
Together, horror and comedy create an enjoyable, rollercoaster-ride viewing experience. It’s excited to have a genuine scare only for it to be undercut by some silly slapstick the next second. There’s a pleasurable in the back and forth there, a kind of compare and contrast with the basic human emotions of fear and happiness. Maybe there’s also something there about how horror and comedy are very closely-related, cousins if you will. They both provoke catharsis, but in different ways.
I find that, as a genre, horror likes to get right in your face. It likes to confront you with monsters and scariness and deep, dark truths about the human condition. I can spend two hours watching a scary movie, clutching a pillow in front of my face for protection, and then, once my two hours are up, the movie ends and I’m safe. Hopefully I’ve learned something about myself through vicariously experiencing the horrors onscreen. It can be a way to cope with the world.
Comedy, on the other hand, likes to put distance between you and whatever is painful and horrifying. This works particularly well, because being able to psychological distance ourselves from offending material gives us a sense of control over it. As Charlie Chaplin said, “Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot.” I can watch a comedy where people are grievously injured and laugh because the events are presented in a way that prevents me from feeling empathy with the injured. It’s another way to cope with life.
Together, both of these approaches can give depth and nuance to a story that would otherwise be kind of flat and boring.
Or it’s just entertaining to have guts and giggles in a movie.
Either way, I wanted to share some of my favorite horror-comedy movies. In no particular order, here is my non-exhaustive list. These may not be the best horror movies, but they kill me with laughter and good scares. Enjoy! Be sure to leave any recommendations in the comments!
1. Shaun of the Dead
One of my favorite movies, period. I love zombie movies. I love Simon Pegg and Nick Frost (Hot Fuzz and Spaced are also great). Together they make a hilarious movie that doesn’t skimp on the scares and gore.
I think this movie works as horror comedy because it doesn’t compromise on the apocalypse element–the zombies are a very real threat. No, the humor comes from injecting some silliness into what would be terrible, surreal moments in a zombie apocalypse. Have to hide from zombies? What better place than the pub! Have to steal a car to escape the zombie hoard? Pick a BMW and take it on a bit of joy ride! Have to kill your first zombie? Maybe this is a good time to clean out your record collection.
The movie is very good at depicting a realistic zombie outbreak and all the confusion and difficulty people would experience in such a catastrophe, especially if those people were the ridiculous yet lovable characters of Shaun and Ed. Even in the midst of catastrophe, these two manage to have some fun.
2. Idle Hands
This movie is one of the gorier films on this list, but also the most 90s, which makes it absolutely magical.I remember going into this movie with zero expectations and laughing hysterically. Satanic possessed hand + stoners + high school = hilarity. The plot is wacky, the dialogue silly, and the characters are completely one-dimensional, but this movie owns all of that.
Don’t worry, it’s also very bloody. People die left and right in increasingly outlandish ways. The stoner best friends are murdered in very creative ways only to return as decomposing undead. A character’s parents are murdered and stashed inside pumpkin scarecrows. And there’s that part where Devon Sawa has to cut off his demonic hand, which is gross and funny (and definitely an homage to Bruce Campbell’s work in Evil Dead 2). Seriously, Devon Sawa may not be the strongest actor, but his physical comedy skills are amazing here.
I just love how cuckoo this movie is.
3. Death Becomes Her
Alright, I know most people would put this in black comedy section rather than horror comedy, but I disagree. Not only is the movie funny as hell, it’s incredibly morbid and grotesque. And it loves how morbid it is. It smacks you in the face with the body horror and the general terribleness of aging in the public eye. Sure, Goldie Hawn and Meryl Streep take the edge off with their expert scene-chewing, but it’s still a movie about two women who hate each other and repeatedly do great violence to each other and, once they realize they can’t escape each other, resign themselves to a fate of rotting away without the ability to die.
Like, damn, really? That’s messed up. But so funny! Like, really hysterical.
I love how self-aware this movie is, which adds another layer to the biting, sardonic wit. This film is about Hollywood and the unrealistic physical expectations we all have for celebrities. The fact that Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn, obviously gorgeous actresses who are still subject to this pressure despite their legendary status, agreed to do this movie speaks volumes to me. It’s funny when their characters spray paint over their deathly pallor and glue themselves back together, but you can’t help but think of how real this is for them, on a surreal level.
God, I love this movie.
4. Tucker and Dale vs. Evil
What happens when you take the classic horror trope of psycho killers in the creepy woods and mix it was a comedy of errors? Why, you get Tucker & Dale vs. Evil! I love how a series of misunderstandings and miscommunications leads to some wickedly funny and bloody deaths. Each misunderstanding, either on the part of kindly rednecks Tucker and Dale or the slightly stupid college kids, serves to make matters worse by creating more confusion for all parties. This movie is one long case of out-of-the-frying-pan, into-the-fire.
While the deaths may be ridiculous and stretch the boundaries of physics at times, the movie does everything with tongue firmly planted in cheek. It’s also very inventive in the ways that it sets up the mass confusion, taking the time to set up situations and fully develop characters. This all makes for a great little horror-comedy that subverts audience expectation and explores the limits of certain well-worn horror tropes.
It also helps that Alan Tudyk’s Tucker has great chemistry with Tyler Labine’s Dale.
5. Cabin In the Woods
This was an instant horror-comedy classic upon release, and for good reason. It makes so much fun of horror genres and tropes while clearing paying homage to those same genres and tropes. Personally, I think the film’s conceit is genius. It adds elements of a workplace-comedy to an already satirical slasher flick. The narrative is also very successful in explaining slashers to viewers who may not be familiar with all the wonderful ins and outs of psycho killers. Things are presented in such a way as to impose that psychological distance I talked about above.
At the same time, I think fans of this hardcore genre appreciated the thought that went into this darkly funny movie. I know enjoyed how the movie continually subverted expectations, which I always saw coming but knew was going to be hilarious. And still, this movie remembered that it was a slasher and delivered splashy gore. I mean, that’s why you watch these movies, satire or no!
6. Evil Dead 2
Of course, this is a classic in its own right, comedic elements notwithstanding. But the comedic elements are what I think makes this classic so enduring.
The story behind this is well-known. While the title is Evil Dead 2, it’s more like a reboot of Evil Dead. Details have been changed, but the essential story is the same–Bruce Campbell’s Ash and assorted friends travel to the creepiest cabin in the creepiest woods ever, unleash terrible demon spirits, and spend the rest of the movie fighting off evil.
What sets Evil Dead 2 apart is the creative and ingenious use of self-aware, well-done slapstick comedy. Director Sam Raimi knows just how to push a horrific scene to the point where it stops being scary and becomes ridiculous and therefore funny. And Bruce Campbell is extremely skilled at using his physicality to execute the slapstick. The scene I embedded below shows the cartoonish scene where the demented mounted deer head starts laughing maniacally at Ash, only to be joined in by the rest of the cabin and Ash himself. And there are numerous scenes where blood and filth are poured all over Ash in such ridiculous quantities, I’m expecting Ash to break the fourth wall, address the audience, sigh, and ask, “Really?”
And then there’s the fight between Ash and his possessed hand, which is probably my favorite part of the movie. The little squeals the hand makes kill me everytime. I couldn’t find a video of it on youtube, but you can find it here.
7. What We Do In The Shadows
As a big fan of HBO’s Flight of the Conchords, I was really looking forward to this movie. The humor on that show was witty, understated, and multi-layered. But there were also moments that were laugh-out-loud funny. I watch an episode here and there when I need a pick-me-up, and I still listen to the soundtrack.
So imagine how excited I was when I heard the creative team behind Flight of the Conchords was doing a horror-comedy movie in the style of a vampire mockumentary!
When done well, mockumentaries can be amazing. Add vampires in, and I don’t see how it could be bad. And it was so funny. I love the whole premise, which follows four vampires, all representative of different vampire archetypes (a Vlad the Impaler type, a Count Orlock type, an Interview with the Vampire/dandy type, and a Lost Boys wannabe). The film doesn’t have much of a plot because it doesn’t need it–the characters are well developed enough that the film just kind of lets them loose.
When the film really lets us see how awkward, unconfident, and unglamorous vampires are, they are no longer scary. They’re actually kind of lame in the way that everybody is. Everyone has to worry about rent and roommates and how to keep the living room looking clean after a feeding. And everybody has a petty, hilarious grudge with someone else for virtually no reason. Vampires–they’re just like us!
Ah, last but not least, the movie I drop everything to watch when it’s on TV, even though I own it.
Like Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland is successful by 1) delivering a solid zombie flick, complete with nice effects and lots of blood, but also 2) developing strong characters that survive the apocalypse by finding the joy and humanity left in the world. This movie has it all: fast zombies, characters that get very good at killing fast zombies, actual useful rules for the zombie outbreak, and heart. Lots of heart.
I mean, have you ever cared about Twinkies like you cared about them in this movie? I was emotionally invested not only in everyone’s survival, but damned if I wasn’t more relieved when Woody Harrelson finally got his Twinkie. It just meant so much to him.
But seriously, I just love how this movie balances the inherent ridiculousness of a zombie apocalypse with the emotional growth of group of misfits. It doesn’t get too sappy, but you really feel for the characters. And because you like them, the comedy is made stronger for it. Woody Harrelson steals the movie and has way too much fun with his character, but the movie wouldn’t work without him.
An American Werewolf in London – I’d argue that this isn’t horror-comedy so much as a few key scenes are subtly played for laughs. Parts of this movie are terrifying and don’t use humor to pull back. It doesn’t quite tip the scale for me, though I still love this movie. It’s a classic.
Ghostbusters – kind of the opposite problem as An American Werewolf in London: where the above has too much horror to be a horror-comedy, Ghostbusters has too much comedy to be scary. Even as a kid, I never was scared of any of the ghosts, poltergeists, or Zuul. But it’s still a classic and a favorite.
What did you think of my list? Be sure to leave your favorites in the comments!