Laughter and fright. They’re two emotional responses that are similar in the way they’re triggered within us involuntary, yet are spurred on from two completely polar-opposite stimuli – humor and fear (though, oddly enough both hinge on the use of tragedy). Comedy and horror, two of the most longstanding genres in film, have capitalized on those primal psychological reactions. Just on their own, they’re difficult enough to execute properly as they lean heavily on timing and pacing, and a poor sense of either derails your film. Combining the two into what has now become a genre of its own, the horror-comedy, is an even trickier feat that adds the right balance of tone to the filmmaker’s timing and pacing challenges.
Throughout the decades, the horror-comedy, like any genre, has given us more than its share of disasters, but it has also given us some frightfully hilarious gems. So, in honor of the Halloween weekend this week, I’m running down my list of the very best horror-comedies to ever grace the screen. Keep in mind, I’m not counting unintentionally funny films like Troll 2 or Birdemic: Shock and Terror.
Before we continue, here are some honorable mentions: Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, The Cabin in the Woods, Creepshow, Fright Night, The Frighteners, The Lost Boys, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Slither, This Is the End and Tremors.
Anyway, let’s begin the countdown, starting with…
10. Beetlejuice (1988)
Tim Burton has built an entire career out of all things weird, bizarre, unorthodox and macabre, and Beetlejuice features the director’s craft at its most weird, bizarre, unorthodox, macabre, and most importantly, at its funniest. The visual inventiveness, Danny Elfman’s score, the well-deserved Oscar-winning makeup to Michael Keaton’s lively, go-for-broke performance that leads a great supporting cast including Alec Baldwin, Geena Davis, Catherine O’Hara and of course, Winona Ryder. Burton throws everything but the kitchen sink at the screen here, and while it could’ve led to an insane mess, the story is so perfectly suited for his eccentric sensibilities, it works like a charm. A very twisted, demented charm, babe.
9. What We Do in the Shadows (2014)
Brought to us by Oscar-nominated director Taika Waititi and Flight of the Conchords's Jemaine Clement, What We Do in the Shadows is the hysterically funny and surprisingly sweet shot in the arm that both vampire films and mockumentaries needed. Nearly every folklore element of the vampire mythology is given a good satirical skewering, and while the film doesn’t shy completely away from the blood and gore (Viago’s date night, for example), the film’s humor relies more on the day-to-day minutiae of the vampires’ lives. Their most pressing conflict isn’t the dreaded vampire hunter Van Helsing, it’s one of their clan skimping out on his century to do chores.
8. Zombieland (2009)
“Time to nut up or shut up.” Like another movie that you’ll see later in this list, Zombieland is proof that no matter how many crappy Resident Evil films they put out, the zombie genre will not go down without a fight. Led by a winning quartet of Oscar nominees; Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin, and featuring one of the most memorable cameos you’ll see in any movie, this film delivers laughs aplenty while also teaching us the importance of cardio and seat-belts. Even amid the gut-busting laughs, director Ruben Fleischer shows he has more than a competent handle in executing zombie attacks that are just as tense as what you’d find in even the most deadly serious zombie flicks. Above all else, if this film is able to leave you with any important lesson, it’s to never again take your Hostesses snack cakes for granted.
7. Gremlins (1984)
Billy only had to follow three simple rules! From the minds of schlock horror director Joe Wright and escapist filmmaker Chris Columbus, Gremlins takes their strengths and melds into 100 minutes of creature-feature fun. So many things could’ve gone wrong with this film. The tone could’ve been either too dark for kids or too campy for adults. The creature effects could’ve backfired and looked too silly to be considered a legitimate threat. The movie was produced by Amblin Entertainment, which was still riding high off E.T. from two years earlier, and the cutest most adorable creature in the film not named Phoebe Cates's, Gizmo, could’ve backfired as a cheap attempt to capitalize on Spielberg’s endearing character. Yet it all works in its own wonderfully twisted way. Even with what has to be the most depressing Christmas story you’ll ever hear from Kate, Gremlins and all its cheerful creepiness contains a pleasantly universal appeal, packing enough sly, witty bite for the adults while scaring the crap out of their kids without causing any permanent damage.
6. Scream (1996)
Okay, this one’s cheating a bit. Scream technically isn’t a comedy; it’s most definitely a slasher film, and the late, great Wes Craven made sure that the film’s most intense moments pack a severe punch. However, it’s because of Kevin Williamson’s smart screenplay and the direction of Craven, who knew the ins-and-outs of practically every sub-genre of horror, that Scream, underneath its straight face, is so in on the joke of all the tropes and cliches of the genre its cloaked in that it earns a spot here. This for better or for worse, mostly for worse, resurrected the slasher genre from the dead, but despite all the crappy knockoffs that followed, Scream still stands on its own as an intelligent deconstruction of the very film it itself is.
5. Tucker & Dale vs. Evil (2011)
One of the most ingeniously funny films of the past decade, Tucker & Dale vs. Evil takes the backwoods psycho killer premise of dopey films such as Wrong Turn and Hatchet and injects it with a healthy helping of wit, intelligence and even heart. Centering on two best friends Tucker (Alan Tudyk) and Dale (Tyler Labine) on vacation at their rundown mountain home, who are mistaken for two murderous hillbillies by a group of preppy college kids, lesser hands could’ve had this film become one joke that wears out its welcome quickly, but director Eli Craig and his writing partner Morgan Jurgenson avoid such repetition. True, the mistaken identities conceit is essentially one joke, but the avenues Craig and Jurgenson are cleverly able to take it down provides for an endless supply bloody scares and equally bloody laughs.
4. Shaun of the Dead (2004)
Like Scream’s affection for the slasher movies of the past, Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost’s love and admiration for the master of zombie films, and George A. Romero, in Shaun of the Dead (the first film of their “Three Flavours Cornetto” trilogy), is as clear as day (the title alone should give it away). Co-writer/director Wright has effectively created what it’d look like if Love Actually had a baby with 28 Days Later, cutting together a sharply shot and edited send-up that sets up a frantic mood fitting for a local zombie apocalypse without taking things too seriously. From the cast’s perfect comic timing to Wright’s deft blending of the film’s dry humor and horrific elements to the best use of Queen since 'Bohemian Rhapsody' in Wayne’s World, Shaun of the Dead came at a time when zombie films were making very little impression if any and gave it the nasty, flesh-tearing bite in the neck it needed.
3. An American Werewolf in London (1981)
Oscar-winning special makeup effects designer Rick Baker’s (The Exorcist, Star Wars, The Howling, Men in Black) groundbreaking transformation alone secures a spot on this list. Penned by Landis at the age of 19, long before he’d go on to direct comedy classics like The Kentucky Fried Movie, Animal House, The Blues Brothers and Trading Places, An American Werewolf London initially threw off viewers with its mix of dark comedy and horror. For sure, as intense as the horror scenes are, blending it with comedy could’ve turned this film into a bad case of tonal personality disorder, but it’s thanks to Landis’s assured direction and a great cast, led by David Naughton and Griffin Dunne as the two vacationers whose trip takes a hairy turn for the worse, that it works as brilliantly as it does. Also, for all you Michael Jackson fans, this is the film that wowed the late King of Pop enough to want Landis to direct his 'Thriller' music video.
2. Ghostbusters (1984)
I’m fairly certain no one on the set of Ghostbusters expected it to become the cultural phenomenon it’d become in the ’80s. Director Ivan Reitman, co-writers Harold Ramis and Dan Aykroyd and stacked a cast featuring Bill Murray, Aykroyd, Ramis, Sigourney Weaver, Rick Moranis and Ernie Hudson simply set out to make the best horror-comedy they could. That they definitely achieved, and then some. Ghostbusters became an instant box office and critical hit, and its legacy has had such an impact on comedy that to this day even those who haven’t seen the film immediately recognizes the theme song, Ecto-1 car, “Who you gonna call?”, the suits and Slimer upon catching them. Bill Murray’s gift for ad-libbed comedy has never been better, but while he is the star of the film, Aykroyd and Ramis’s script, which combined the former’s impassioned knowledge of the paranormal with the latter’s gift for witty humor, allows each of the cast members an opportunity to shine. Like Gremlins, released the same week in the summer of ’84, Ghostbusters is the type of universally-appealing gem that will thrill your children and continue to entertain them as they grow older.
And here we are at the #1 spot. Fingers crossed it’s Scary Movie V. Drum roll, please…
1. Young Frankenstein (1974)
Featuring unforgettable comic performances from Gene Wilder, Peter Boyle, Cloris Leachman, Teri Garr (taking fetching and vapid to wonderfully hilarious levels), the late Madeline Kahn, a scene-stealing Marty Feldman and a great cameo appearance from Gene Hackman, not to mention the best pair of knockers you’ll ever see, Young Frankenstein is not just a great horror-comedy, nor just a great comedy in general; it’s one of the greatest films ever made. It’s not scary by any means, but no film has been able to riff on their Gothic horror inspiration quite as absurdly, brilliantly and lovingly as Mel Brooks’s homage to James Whale’s 1931 classic (Brooks was able to use the actual laboratory props used in Whale’s film).
Fun fact: This film’s inspiration extends to even music with the legendary rock band Aerosmith. While taking a break from the creative rut they were in during the recording process for Toys in the Attic, the band caught Young Frankenstein in Times Square and upon hearing Feldman’s iconic line “Walk this way… this way.” – well, you know the rest.
So what say you, readers? Agree or disagree? Feel free to let me know what some of your favorite horror-comedies are at the bottom. Oh, and all sincere apologies to the fans of Vampires Suck. It came sooo close.