It’s been said that two of the hardest things to do in the movies are make people laugh and make them scream. For every movie that has successfully combined humor and chills, there’s another that falls flat on its face. Here are a few more horror comedies you should check out, as well as a handful in which the joke is on you.
By Don Kaye
The Fearless Vampire Killers, or Pardon Me But Your Teeth Are In My Neck (1967)
By the late ‘60s, the Gothic horror outings made popular by studios like Hammer were ripe for satire, and director Roman Polanski took them down in style with this lavish blend of Euro horror conventions and broad humor. Polanski and his beautiful (and doomed) future wife Sharon Tate star, while Ferdinand Mayne makes a formidable fanged nemesis. The movie set the stage for Polanski to make his horror masterpiece, Rosemary’s Baby, the following year.
1967 Miramax Films
Young Frankenstein (1974)
Although really a parody more than an outright combo of horror and humor, Young Frankenstein demonstrates a love and reverence for the classic Universal horror pictures that seeps out of every frame. The attention to detail is wonderful, and both Gene Wilder (as Dr. “Fronkonsteen”) and Peter Boyle (as his creation) give performances worthy of their iconic predecessors. Plus it remains Mel Brooks’s best and funniest movie ever.
1974 Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation
An American Werewolf in London (1981)
Director John Landis struck a delicate and often perfect balance between nastiness and pitch-black humor in this irreverent tale of two American backpackers who run afoul of a lycanthrope on the English moors. One ends up dead -- yet keeps coming back, more and more decomposed -- while the other starts sprouting fur and fangs. Makeup man Rick Baker won a well-deserved Oscar for the film’s stunning transformation scenes.
1981 Universal Pictures
It’s really more comedy than horror, but how could we not include it? Ivan Reitman’s classic finds Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd cleaning up New York of all sorts of supernatural boogies. Although much of the success of Ghostbusters rests on the comic interplay of the cast and sheer brilliance of Murray’s performance, the movie does feature a fair amount of eerie visuals and hideous manifestations. Hell, we even think the Stay-Puft Man is creepy in his puffy white way.
1984 Columbia Pictures
That cute, furry little Mogwai that dad brought home? Feed it after midnight or get it wet and suddenly you’ll have a nasty, scaly creature devoted to mayhem and murder on your hands. Gremlins packs a surprisingly jarring punch with some of its more violent and horrific sequences, and often plays the gremlins’ destructive cruelty for full-on laughs -- in a way, that makes you take them much more seriously as monsters. The MPAA took them seriously too, revising their movie rating system shortly after Gremlins came out to create the PG-13 rating.
1984 Warner Bros. Pictures
Loosely based on a story by legendary horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, this cult classic takes off in directions that its brooding author never would have dreamed of. Jeffrey Combs plays an obsessed medical student whose experiments with reviving the dead go extremely awry, resulting in some truly jaw-dropping gore as well as scenarios that just get more and more outrageous. The “oral pleasure” sequence alone must be seen to be believed.
1985 Empire Pictures
Return of the Living Dead (1985)
“More brains!” That’s the rallying cry of the undead flesh-eaters in director Dan O’Bannon’s witty takeoff on the zombie movies made by George A. Romero. Return is just as gory and macabre as Romero’s more serious efforts, but also has a slapstick feel, gratuitous nudity and off-the-wall dialogue and scenarios. Interestingly, O’Bannon’s fast-moving, intelligent ghouls have become nearly as influential as Romero’s over the ensuing years.
1985 Orion Pictures Corporation
Evil Dead II (1987)
Although the original Evil Dead had its flashes of macabre humor, director Sam Raimi amped up the laughs in this beloved and hugely influential sequel, which has developed perhaps even more of a cult following than its predecessor. Although it rehashes many events from the first film, Evil Dead II has a decidedly slapstick bent, with star Bruce Campbell proving himself a first-rate physical comedian. It’s still grisly as hell, but you’ll find yourself laughing more than squirming this time.
1987 Rosebud Communications Releasing
Beetlejuice was a turning point in many ways: It was the first movie directed by Tim Burton that fully realized his warped imagination, a tour-de-force for lead Michael Keaton, and a breakout film for co-star Winona Ryder. But while it’s a cult favorite, the humor and horror never gel that smoothly, and Burton displays the lack of concern for narrative coherence that has defined so many of his later movies. Although it has a lot going for it, Beetlejuice just falls short.
1988 Warner Bros. Pictures
We’re also on the fence about Arachnophobia, a crowd-pleaser about poisonous South American spiders running amok in a small California town. It’s so polished and mainstream that both the humor and horror are mostly tame throughout. A few true shocks make their way into the picture, and the climactic showdown between humans and spiders is suitably tense, but nothing in the movie is outrageous enough to make you cringe or laugh out loud.
1990 Buena Vista Pictures
Death Becomes Her (1992)
This half-baked satire won an Oscar for its impressive and surprisingly morbid visual effects, but sadly the rest of the picture -- about two ex-friends (Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn) whose supernatural methods of keeping young turn them into walking corpses -- does not hold up as well. In fact, the movie relies too much on its effects, and even a turn toward darker territory near the end doesn’t add much. Like its characters, Death is all surface and no substance.
1992 Universal Pictures
The Frighteners (1996)
Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson launched his career with several gross-out horror comedies, but toned down his outrageous sensibilities for his first big Hollywood production about a psychic detective who uses his very real abilities to provoke ghosts into creating hauntings that he can then investigate. A clever premise, but despite a game cast and impressive effects, Frighteners is just not that funny and does very little frightening.
1996 Universal Pictures
Bride of Chucky (1998)
After a 7-year break, the increasingly stale Child’s Play series was revitalized by this fourth entry, a dark comedy that featured go-for-broke performances from Brad Dourif and Jennifer Tilly as the serial killer and his lady who find themselves inhabiting creepy little dolls. The Chucky movies always had a ridiculous element to them, but by using that as a strength, Bride became the most successful -- and one of the best -- in the series.
1998 MCA/Universal Pictures
Lake Placid (1999)
Despite creating such acclaimed TV shows as “The Practice” and “Ally McBeal,” writer David E. Kelley found himself in way over his head with this wildly uneven mix of comedy and horror that ends up being not funny at all and barely scary. A scientist (Bridget Fonda) is sent to a small town in Maine, where a monstrous crocodile is eating its way through the eccentric and irritating locals. Some good performances and effects aside, you almost want to root for the croc.
1999 Fox 2000 Pictures
Shaun of the Dead (2004)
Shaun (co-writer Simon Pegg) is a London appliance salesman whose life is going nowhere when he finds himself inexplicably leading a band of survivors through a zombie apocalypse. The film pays loving tribute to the zombie genre while coming up with thoroughly likable heroes, some classically dry British humor and even a few genuinely touching moments. Not just a great horror comedy, Shaun is simply a great movie.
2004 Focus Features
This underrated little gem takes a premise familiar from a dozen other movies -- alien parasites fall from the sky and turn humans into zombies -- and dials up the gory, squishy, squirmy humor quotient to the max. It’s not very scary, but it’s often fresh and unpredictable. A riff on both horror/sci-fi B-movies and small-town soap operas, Slither is entertaining from slimy start to bloody finish.