Hand in hand with the human fascination with death comes the desire to defang it – to make it bearable and understandable. And yet, horror comedies are perilously difficult to pull off with much success, often veering toward one or the other or coming off with a unpleasantly leering tone (looking at you, Thankskilling). In a world where we’ve all shrugged our shoulders and said, “sure, saying we’re all watching Sharknado ironically is good enough,” I thought it might be nice to take a look at some films that melded comedy and horror with love, effort, and actual worthwhile effect.
5. Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006)
In a world where Freddy, Jason, and Michael were all real killers given larger than life status, up and coming documentarian Taylor Gentry decides to look into the life of these killers’ ultimate fanboy: Leslie Vernon, a sweet and earnest young man who just so happens to be perfecting his serial killer persona.
It’s a little bit impossible for an entrenched horror fan to talk about this movie without coming across as a snob, so let’s get that out of the way first: Behind the Mask does everything that the far more known and lauded Cabin in the Woods did but better, more concisely, with better knowledge of the genre and without the sneering detachment of the latter film. It is a Mel Brooksian love letter that doesn’t hesitate to mock its darling rather than a tourist coming in to lord its superiority over a dead horse.
Right, that’s that. This movie has the lowest place on the list because I’ve already written about it fairly extensively, but there’s always time to show a little love to this smartly made movie anchored by a very talented cast of unknowns.
4. Beyond Re-Animator (2003)
Locked in prison for the past thirteen years due to the casualties caused by his reanimation experiments, Dr. Herbert West finds a new assistant in the form of the fresh faced prison doctor, Howard Phillips.
What’s that, you say? Why am I not just saving time by talking about the original Re-Animator, one of the most beloved cult horror movies of the 80s if not all time? Oh, there will be time for that. Believe you-me. But its status as a cult film is already quite secure, while its second sequel – yes, this is in fact the third RA film, orphaned directly onto video – languishes quietly in the land of the unknown. Which is a damn shame, because it’s hysterical.
Setting the whole of the movie in a rented prison set and populating it with a bizarre mix of relative unknowns and horror staples (Jeffrey Combs returns to Herbert West like a familiar, sarcastic skin; and the sadistic warden is played by veteran giallo actor Simón Andreu) and seemingly aware that it can never match the arch tone of the first film nor the odd sincerity of the second, it settles into trying to be as dementedly weird as possible. “Inexplicable homage to Castle Freak in the third act” weird.
And while the script is happy to feed its cast into the meat grinder while the singular legacy character looks on with droll fascination and then gets back to the very important work of doing SCIENCE!!, it’s so relentlessly joyous about it that it’s hard not to sign up for the ride. Well, with one exception. It continues the franchise legacy of being absolutely abysmal to every single named character, with the caveat here that at least the later body swapping shenanigans give Elsa Pataky a great opportunity to chew the scenery even if her character gets about zero respect.
And the gore effects. Oh, the gore effects. Totally uninterested in being tethered to reality in any way, the bordering-on-surreal guts-letting is spectacular in its lack of restraint, descending into full camp hell in the last 20 minutes with a focus on practical effects that had become (and remains) something of a lost art when the movie was made.
3. Death Becomes Her (1992)
After years of having her lovers stolen by her “friend” Madeleine drives her to a breakdown, Helen Sharp decides to remake herself – reappearing in Madeleine’s life years later looking drop-dead gorgeous and like she hasn’t aged a day. Demanding to know her secret, Madeleine meets a very strange woman offering eternal youth and beauty…and a warning to take good care of her body.
This is probably the most all-star unknown on this list. Directed by Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Forrest Gump), and starring Meryl Streep, Goldie Hawn, and Bruce Willis (back when people would still agree to work with the man), it’s a top tier production as far as talent. It’s also fantastically odd, which might explain why it’s sunk out of memory in comparison to Zemeckis’ other films.
While the setup is a tired cliché of two domineering women fighting over a milquetoast snooze of a love interest, the film’s real interest is in letting its two female stars absolutely dominate the screen with tactically deployed ham. This is the actualization of what people think Joan Crawford’s role in Mommy Dearest was, executed to perfection and the clear joy of both Streep and Hawn.
This is not a film content to use its concept for set dressing for a conventional tale. The consequences of the immortality potion become clear quite quickly when Madeleine falls down the stairs and breaks her neck…and then gets right back up, head still backwards and bobbling uncertainly for the rest of the film after she turns it back around. This is a black comedy of awful people trying to one-up each other that also happens to have top notch body horror laced through it, a semi-satire of the beauty industry’s shallowness that submits itself wholly to the honed talent of its actors. “Meryl Streep, attempted comic murderer” is not a thing you knew you needed in your life, but here we are.
2. The Frighteners (1996)
Frank Bannister has been able to see ghosts since the death of his wife. Mostly he uses it to con people into paying for expensive exorcisms faked by his actual ghost partners. But when his latest mark becomes the most recent victim in a line of inexplicable killings, that power makes him about the only person able to put a stop to things.
In hindsight, this is a film of many lasts: it was one of Peter Jackson’s last offkilter genre films before he launched himself into working on Lord of the Rings (in fact, it sits right between his Sad Lesbian Oscar Bait Heavenly Creatures and Fellowship of the Ring), and one of the last films where Michael J. Fox (as Bannister) was able to be extremely active and stunts-focused before his Parkinson’s began to worsen. It adds a sense of lingering sadness to the viewing experience, certainly, that goes along well with the film’s subject.
This movie is a bag of weird, tonally speaking. It features slapstick, some gross-out gags, and a handful of well-deployed gore effects…and then it’ll shift into an almost earnest sentimentality surrounding Frank, his fridged wife, and his burgeoning new love interest. And then it will shift back again to playing potentially disturbingly tragic elements like Jeffrey Combs’ special cult investigator Milton Dammers for comedy (and in fairness, Combs does a fine job showing off his talent as the deadpan, over the top straight man). It can’t quite decide if it wants to be a lowkey action movie or a genre flick, and ultimately decides to shrug its shoulders and do whatever the scene calls for.
And, ultimately, it works, partly because Jackson has created a very inviting world in his take on life and death; and while Fox is initially an odd choice to play a con artist, his warmth and draw goes a long way to selling the character’s arc and the stakes of what could otherwise be a lot of noise without much consequence. It helps that the cast is pretty universally strong, imbuing even the weird moments with that strange strain of sincerity and anchoring the film even when the plot goes from having one foot in a grounded story to being a straight up extended chase sequence.
1. House (Hausu) (1977)
Gorgeous receives a letter from her aunt, whom she hasn’t met since she was a child. Looking to get away from her father and his new girlfriend, she decides to take her aunt’s invitation to visit and brings six of her friends along. It doesn’t take long, of course, to realize that something is very wrong with the house.
House is a difficult film to classify. It’s not deliberately comedic in the vein of some of the films on this list – while there are some jokes, the escalating threat to the girls is given real weight, and it’s upsetting when the house starts picking them off. But at the same time, this is a film that never allows you the luxury of sinking into the tension of things completely, using effects designed to break viewer immersion every time something strange begins to happen.
Beginning with a scene of some of the main characters shooting one another with a video camera, the film seems to set itself a challenge: “how far can we stretch this film before it breaks.” With a plot supposedly extracted from a child’s memory of a dream they had, it’s a film happy to float along from image to image subsisting on dream logic, sometimes unabashedly silly and obviously fake in its effects and yet slowly lulling you into the pace of its storytelling as it goes along.
This might be one of the earliest experiments with meta in film, from its opening shots framing itself as a story told to the oblique references to the Aunt’s backstory as if the girls are recounting a film, to the effects that seem to scribble on the film stock itself, it wants you to know what it’s doing. “This is fake. We dare you to invest anyway.” It pushes you at every opportunity: a severed head flies out of a well and bites one of the girls on the butt…and then the film cuts to her friends worrying about why she hasn’t come back and what could’ve happened to her. The aunt seems an almost playful character winking to the audience…and then she vanishes, leaving us with a young cast and their very credible attempts to behave smartly and survive.
It’s so bold, so relentless in its experimentation, so completely not “scary” and yet unshakable in its building sense of unease, that it easily classes itself as a masterpiece of horror. A must-watch, I would go so far to say, for anyone who has ever enjoyed the genre or even who enjoys experimental film.