Dying of Laughter or Finding Comedy in Horror
In my Time of The Season post I expressed a little of my love for horror movies that also contain humor and that gave me the idea to write a bit more about them. This combination of conflicting reactions could be described by something Director Alfred Hitchcock once said: [paraphrased] about the sight of a man who slips on a banana peel and hits his head and bleeds all over. Seeing this really shouldn’t make us laugh but for some reason it does. There’s something special about movies that can scare the wits out of us as well as make us laugh. I think it’s one of the most unique kinds of emotional hybrids in cinema history. This new list/article is dedicated to those types of movies.
CARRIE (1976, Dir: Brian DePalma) I’ve written a couple times about this film on the site (HERE and HERE) I guess that just shows how much I love it. What I especially enjoy about this movie is the fact for all intentional purposes it really isn’t a horror movie in the traditional sense although it is usually categorized as one. What it really is, is one of the funniest black comedies ever. The first full line of dialogue in the film comes after Carrie (Sissy Spacek) the shy awkward outsider is playing volleyball with her gym classmates and misses a chance to hit the ball back. The bully who despises her he most, Chris Hargenson (Nancy Allen) walks up and yells in her face: “You eat shit!”… Cut to the opening credits sequence. Now, bullying isn’t funny at all (as we know) but to open up a movie in that type of blunt manner is just hilarious to me. The film continues on with the comedy accented by brief moments of shock (from Carrie’s supernatural powers) or feelings of pity for her. Almost every scene has a laugh in it, whether it’s dark or downright goofy. Watch the sequence when Carrie visits the principal and he keeps getting her name wrong, calling her “Cassie” and “Cassie Wright”. Carrie’s mother (played by Piper Laurie), is a religious nut and her over the top, shrilly persona adds yet another level of humor to the story. Every scene with supporting stars Allen as Chris and John Travolta as her goony boyfriend are very funny too. The film doesn’t get to the really horrific side until the end when Carrie, who has been humilitated at her senior prom gets some pretty effective vengeance on her tormentors.
PSYCHO II (1983, Dir: Richard Franklin) In this first sequel to Hitchcock’s 1960 proto slasher classic we revisit the twisted world of Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) the crossdressing maniac who thought he was his own dead mother. After years of being held in a mental institution, Norman has regained his sanity and is released. He still has one person who doesn’t want this to happen, thats Marion Crane’s sister Lila Loomis (Vera Miles). Norman returns to his home at the Bates Motel tries to restart his life again and this is where the film becomes a dark comedy. What causes this is the audience’s knowledge of Normans past and his fragile mental state. Norman is basically a nervous wreck throughout the film, unsure if he’ll slip back into his psychosis. He gets some minor comfort in Mary Samuels (Meg Tilly) a waitress he works with and who he develops a relationship with. When he begins seeing and hearing things and thinks “Mother” is back he slowly begins to lose his grip and the more he does, the funnier it gets. One of my favorite scenes has to do with an iconic Psycho type butcher knife and a jittery Norman who has trouble saying the word “cutlery”. FILM GEEK NOTE: Mary Samuels is the fake name Marion Crane used in the first film.
THE STEPFATHER (1987, Dir: Joseph Ruben) I cant recall when I first saw this movie, but all I know is that it really entertained me. The story is about a guy named Jerry Blake (Terry O’Quinn) who is a psychopath that is obsessed with having the perfect All American family. If his dream vision is ruined or thwarted in any way his immediate reaction is to kill the whole family then start over again. The way O’Quinn plays Jerry brings to mind another performance that I always liked alot, that was Mark Harmon’s portrayal of the serial killer Ted Bundy in the 80s TV movie The Deliberate Stranger. Both of the actors were able to evoke a charming yet creepy sociopathic character perfectly. In O’Quinns case he also brought a comedic slant to Jerry, with his obsession of being the best darn dad ever. When he and his new wife (Shelly Hack) and stepdaughter (Jill Schoelen) sit at the table to eat, he makes little comments like “Father knows best”. Theres one scene that is so funny in how its set up. The Blakes have a BBQ at their home and some of Jerry’s friends/colleagues comment on the murder of his last family that is all over the news. Of course they don’t know he did it. Jerry is visibly alarmed because of this and when they discuss it and ask “can you believe someone could do that?” Jerry says “Maybe they dissapointed him”. He then turns the newspaper containing the article into a little hat for a boy who lives next door. Jerry calls the kid over and places the hat on his head and bellows: “Now you’re Blackbeard The Pirate! Arrrgh!”. That’s hysterical, but what takes the cake is the next scene when Jerry runs down into the basement and proceeds to have a split personality meltdown. The catch here is, he doesn’t realize Steph is down there too, getting some ice cream out of the freezer. When Jerry finally notices her watching him lose his mind, he quickly regains his composure and quietly says “Oh Hello Honey” and tries to pass it off as blowing steam from work related stress. The Stepfather is just a perfect example of a film that’s known as slasher/thriller but is actually very funny too, albeit in a pitch black way.
THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2 (1986, Tobe Hooper) When you watch THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974) you can clearly see aspects of dark humor and goofiness placed throughout it. With the sequel (which came out 12 years later) Tobe Hooper took the comedy elements even further into screwball territory. Dennis Hopper plays a former Texas Ranger, Lt. “Lefty” Enright, the uncle of Sally and Franklin Hardesty from the first film, both of whom were victims of the Sawyer clan. It turns out, for the last decade the Sawyers have been committing more murders around Southern Texas. The Sawyers reappear when two high school students having a wild time cruising around run into them. The infamous human skin-mask wearing/cannibal-chef-psycho killer Leatherface (Bill Johnson) and “Chop Top” (Bill Moseley) the maniacal twin brother of “The Hitchhiker” (Edwin Neal) who was killed in the first film proceed to kill the kids in a gory fashion while driving the wrong way down the road in their truck. Meanwhile, oldest brother Drayton (Jim Siedow) has become an award winning Chili cook (what kind of meat is in the chili we can only guess). Chop Top and Leatherface then proceed to terrorize a radio DJ named Vanita “Stretch” Brock (Caroline Williams), who the two kids were talking to during their on air deaths on the road. Chop Top is a seriously goofy ghoul, who sports a Sonny Bono wig to hide his nasty headplate. He also has an itch that he scratches by lighting a clothes hanger and burning the dead skin. If that wasn’t weird enough, he then eats the skin afterwards. In one of the craziest scenes, Stretch actually flirts with Leatherface who uses his chainsaw in a strangely phallic way. She’s later kidnapped by the two fiends and Lefty (who is obsessed with using chainsaws to get back at the Sawyers) follows her to the creepy clan’s new home: an abandoned amusement park to seek vengeance. Dennis Hopper’s take on Lefty was really some wacked out stuff and he went off the deep end in terms of characterization with it but it sure is fun to watch.
AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (1981, Dir: John Landis) – If you took a couple Animal House style characters and put them in a serious horror genre film, this might be what you’d get. Two college pals Jack (Griffin Dunne) and David (David Naughton) are on an adventure backpacking across Europe. On their way through the foggy English moors they are attacked by a werewolf. Jack is violently torn apart but David only suffers a bite before some local villagers save him by shooting the monstrous creature. David, who appears to be alright on the surface soon discovers his wound has infected him with lycanthropy. The humor of the film comes from the reactions and aftermaths of David’s transformations. The film brilliantly combines highly suspenseful, terrifying wolf attack scenes with David’s natural sense of ironic humor. He also gets visited by Jack who comes to him in visions, seen in a worsening decomposed state over the course of the film. These guys still crack jokes with one another (one of the best lines involves meatloaf) but the reality is David must be stopped so he wont cause more deadly havoc.
THE EVIL DEAD (1983, Dir: Sam Raimi) – Sam Raimi combined the comedy and horror-splatter genres and created a new form called “Splat-stick”. Audiences weren’t ready for the level of over the top action, gore and laughs this film delivered. Bruce Campbell plays Ash Williams a college kid who along with some opals travel to a small cabin in the woods to chill out on the weekend. When they discover a book that contains strange writing, they try to figure out what it is. After reciting some lines outloud they awaken an evil spirit that tries to take over their souls, possessing and turning them into monsters. The cabin becomes a figurative “frogs in a blender” joke as Ash, tries to fend off his friends who have turned into evil dead puppets. The highlights of the film are Sam Raimi’s inventive visual tricks and over the top gore scenes. Ash is drenched in blood and grue and the action is straight up Three Stooges styled antics. These two elements make it a hysterically funny fright fest. The sequel EVIL DEAD 2 (1987) was basically a retread of the original but with better production value including visuals and FX work. It’s also highly recommended.
CABIN FEVER (2002, Dir: Eli Roth) – In the tradition of The Evil Dead, this film featured a group of college kids (Rider Strong, Jordan Ladd, James DeBello, Cerina Vincent, Joey Kern ) who also travel out to a cabin in the woods to party. Their good time is suddenly ground to a halt when a local water supply containing a flesh eating bacteria comes into play. One by one the kids (who up to this point have only have drinking and sex on their minds) become infected and their lives become a bloody, hellish nightmare. Even with the heinous premise, the film is one hilarious scene after another as the goofy kids try to cope with the deadly serious situation they find themselves in. Much of the comedy stems from the supporting characters who are a variety of oddballs like Winston the Bike Cop (Giuseppe Andrews) a guy who’s obsessed with “partying” and the local general store owners who are some of the wackiest hicks I’ve seen in a horror movie.
Do you have any favorite horror films that also make you laugh? Let us know in our comments section!