Does combining horror and comedy ever work?
No, it doesn’t.
So there you go, I’ll give you my conclusion right from the off, rather than make you wait for it, so if you want, you can storm off, going, ‘What about Ghostbusters? What about An American Werewolf in London?’ (I’ll address those two, specifically, and others, later on).
Horror doesn’t combine well with comedy; there, I’ve said it.
I would caveat that by saying a horror comedy can be a great film….but the introduction of a comedy element will inevitably be to the detriment of the horror element.
Films are like emotional drugs; we watch to experience one or more emotions, artificially stimulated by the narrative. And this is the problem with horror and humour – they are essentially opposite emotions.
Horror derives from alarm; comedy derives from re-assurance
Horror works by creating tension and suspense; comedy works by releasing tension and suspension.
So you cannot illicit one without diminishing the other.
Still don’t agree? Let’s look at some examples.
Since the whole cross-genre thing in films really kicked in in the Eighties, I thought I’d look at some of the most popular horror comedies of the last forty years – with my respective horror / comedy rankings allocated to each- starting with:
The Evil Dead (1981)
Horror 9 / Comedy 3
Let’s start with one of the greats.
The fact that the title page image for this blog comes from the sequel should indicate how fond I am of Ash and his adventures. So much to praise about the Evil Dead, not least of which Sam Raimi’s ingenuity in getting it made. Starting with a micro-budget of $1,600, Raimi made a short version, ‘Within the Woods’ in 1978, and that eventually led to the funding of, ‘The Evil Dead’ , three years later.
And it’s bloody brilliant.
So good that no one would ever try to re-make it. No they wouldn’t.
From the enduring image of the demon-possessed cellar zombie chanting, ‘dead by dawn’, to the iconic low-to-ground racing-through-the-woods shots, the Evil Dead is a marvellously atmospheric, original, and innovative horror film.
But is actually all that funny?
The comic moment most people probably remember is Ash containing his rebellious severed hand under a bucket and weighing it down with a copy of, ‘A Farewell to Arms.’
But aside from that, when you stop to think about it, there are not that many genuine laughs.
An American Werewolf in London (1981)
Horror 7 / Comedy 3
Cracking film, not least of which for a werewolf transformation scene which still rates as one of the best ever (along with the subsequent, ‘Howling’).
The humour comes in three main forms:
Firstly, the ironic use of music- there are three versions of, ‘Blue Moon’, along with versions of, ‘Bad Moon Rising’, and, ‘Moondance.’
Secondly, there are a number of cameo’s, from Landis himself to Frank Oz and even a young Rik Mayall.
Lastly, there is a delicious thread of dark, gallows humour that runs through the movie, such as the deceased Goodman imploring his friend Kessler to commit suicide so that his spirit may rest.
Of all the variants of comedy, black humour like this clearly sits easiest with horror.
Horror 1 / Comedy 8
That rare beast, a mainstream film that enjoys a cult status as well.
Just thinking about it, you’re now humming, ‘I ain’t ‘fraid of no ghost,’ right?
And you don’t have to tell me how funny it is – in my social group even now, the line, ‘dogs and cats living together…’ is used to indicate something undesirable and catastrophic.
But it’s not a horror film is it? Which bits are genuinely scary? Some of the CGI ghosts are admittedly well-rendered and quite ominous….but the potential fear value of these spectres is immediately nullified by the over-the-top reactions of the Ghostbusters.
Ghostbusters is a great comedy film, but that’s all it is.
Fright Night (1985)
Horror 7 / Comedy 1
‘Welcome to Fright Night…..for real.’
I had to start with Jerry Dandridge’s chilling taunt, I hope you understand.
First off, it’s worth saying that Fright Night is under-estimated as a horror film. It’s vision of vampires was unique and new, and has continued to influence subsequent films (such as Robert Rodriguez’s, ‘From Dusk Til Dawn.’)
Previously, vampires had usually been suave, sexy, seductive immortals (aside from the Nosferatu variants, like the Master in ‘Salem’s Lot.’). And indeed, Fright Night’s Jerry Dandridge starts out exactly like that.
Except before long, we get to see that Dandridge – like his offspring – are proper monsters.
When they transform, they do not reveal a set of enlarged incisors – their mouths break open into horrendous shark’s maws of jagged teeth.
This was a genuinely scary film in places, and the ending- wherein unlikely heroes Brewster and Vincent hunt down villain Dandridge inside his own house – is tense and effective.
But the comedy element is very limited, deriving almost entirely from Roddy McDowell’s comedy-cowardly portrayal of media vampire hunter Peter Vincent.
It’s not so much funny as…..mildly amusing.
Brain Dead (1992)
Horror 8 / Comedy 2
Years before he made the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Peter Jackson was making brilliant gross-out gore films in his native New Zealand and none are better than Brain Dead.
An entirely ludicrous – and brilliantly entertaining – ‘plot’ that involves a rat-monkey infecting a small coastal town with a virus that makes them zombies, is mainly just a back-drop for a number of splendid blood and guts set pieces that culminates in our hero, Lionel, despatching a mob of zombies using a lawn mower.
There are laughs here, for sure, but they are more surreal than standardly funny. The two lines that stayed with me are:
- Father Jon McGruder (the inexplicably Kung Fu skilled Priest) declaring, ‘I kick ass for the Lord!’ before launching himself at a horde of zombies, and
- Heroine Paquita plaintively complaining to Lionel that, ‘Your mother….ate my dog,’ to which he replies, ‘Not all of it…’
Splendidly surreal, messily entertaining, and completely unlike anything else ever made.
Horror 7 / Comedy 2
Never really understood why this is considered a horror comedy.
The humour – such as there is – derives entirely from constant references to the Slasher sub-genre. Indeed, the film manages to simultaneously be a kind of love letter to Slasher horrors whilst being a pretty decent Slasher horror itself, not that one would expect anything less from a director with Wes Craven’s CV.
He also managed to create an entirely new and distinct Slasher villain in Ghostface.
The knowing in-jokes and genre observations certainly illicit smirks but it’s not what I would call actual comedy.
Shaun of the Dead (2004)
Horror 1 / Comedy 9
I love Simon Pegg and Simon Pegg loves zombie films and it shows.
He and long-term collaborator Edgar Wright are big fans of George Romero’s films and even managed to land cameos in, ‘Land of the Dead.’
It’s all classic Pegg / Wright stuff, fast-paced and slacker-centric, with the usual references to other movies, television series and video games.
And it’s extremely funny, but that’s just the point – this is a comedy film that uses a horror setting – it’s never scary and it’s not a horror film.
The Cabin in the Woods (2011)
Horror 7 / Comedy 1
Joss Whedon – who produced this film – described it as a ‘loving hate letter’ to the Slasher sub-genre and it is that and more.
It really is an extraordinary movie.
It manages to examine and dissect the elements of several different horror genres, while still being itself an exceptional and original horror film.
But as with Scream, the humour is subtle and sly, mostly arising from the recognition of the memes and conventions that are being illustrated then subverted throughout.
So in summary, we have no equal ratings in the above. You have to do one or the other to do either justice.
Horror and comedy just don’t play well together.