What’s that saying? Dying is easy, comedy is hard? That must mean pulling off death and comedy together is the hardest. The balancing act between two very contrasting tones can feel like an awkward dinner party where a spooky vampire and Don Rickles are both vying for attention. They keep talking over each other’s sentences, and both the jokes and the scares don’t land.
But when it’s done right, it’s blissful. What’s better than that buildup of suspense, followed by the release of a solid laugh? I can think of one thing, maybe. But that’s a different list. In any case, I’ve rarely had a better time at the movies than when I was watching one of these horror comedies:
Shaun of the Dead, 2004
I’d venture to say that, in geek circles, this is the most loved horror comedy in recent memory. Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright, whose British TV series Spaced is at once a delightful slacker sitcom and a brilliant deconstruction of genre tropes, also teamed for this film, which follows a chronic underachiever and perpetual man-child as he tries to grow up and win back his girlfriend. Complicating circumstance? Zombies, natch. The humor varies from dry to over-the-top slapstick–a classic sequence has Shaun sleepily go through his daily walk to the corner store, all the while oblivious to his (now) staggering undead neighbors and a bloody handprint on the refrigerator case. In the end, what makes this movie so special is, while it’s relentlessly clever, it’s also genuinely touching. It’s the perfect coming-of-age story for 29-year-old nerds.
Dark Star, 1974
Going back to 1974 … Directed by John Carpenter and written by Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon, who went on to co-write the not-so-funny classic Alien. This very black sci-fi comedy is part 2001 satire, part Cabin Fever. It’s uneven in places, but really gets under your skin. This is one my dad took me to, thinking it was funny with a capital “fun.” Bad call, Dad. I couldn’t sleep without the lights on for weeks. It ain’t no Galaxy Quest.
The Cabin in the Woods, 2012
Joss Whedon co-wrote this with the supertalented Drew Goddard (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Cloverfield), who also directed. Produced by the long-troubled MGM, this one fell between the cracks and ended up on the shelf. Fortunately, Lionsgate picked it up, and it has an April 2012 release date. A group of teens go into a cabin in the woods to party—I don’t need to tell you that’s a bad idea. But in classic Whedonesque style, this movie doesn’t just have fun with the genre, it blows it up. Deconstruction is kid stuff—this one delves deep into the psychology behind the universal need to confront evil. The turns it takes are pretty mind-boggling, and the end of the movie is truly demented. You’ll still be laughing, but nervously.
This recent hit grabs you from the opening list of “rules” on how to survive in a post-apocalyptic world (“enjoy the little things,” “cardio”), as seen through the eyes of Jesse Eisenberg’s character—a slightly OCD geek. It’s visually bold, genuinely funny, and features great performances from the entire cast, which includes Emma Stone in one of her first major roles. It has a breezy self-awareness, making fun of horror-movie clichés while managing to be downright eerie at times. And Bill Murray’s cameo is delicious. Assuming you’re hungry for brains.
Jennifer’s Body, 2009
I caught this one on cable, with severely lowered expectations after audiences largely ignored it. Also, those posters of sexy Megan Fox in a schoolgirl’s skirt seemed aimed directly at the cerebral cortex of teenage boys, not genre-loving chicks. But with the team behind it—producer Jason Reitman, a clever script by Diablo Cody, and deft direction by Karyn Kusama—I should have guessed there was more to it. This is a distinctly feminist take on horror and female friendship. If you go into it expecting standard slasher fare, you’ll be disappointed. But I was lured in by the witty dialogue, then genuinely engrossed and creeped out. Amanda Seyfried is winning—and Fox gives a bold, self-skewering performance while being, yes, ridiculously sexy, even with a mouthful of black blood.
Another Reitman, Ivan, directed this classic—the Caddyshack of horror comedies. If you can’t quote it, then obviously you don’t take this stuff seriously. “Dogs and cats, living together!” “Don’t cross the streams!” “Many Shuvs and Zuuls knew what it was to be roasted in the depths of the Slor that day, I can tell you!” “We came, we saw, we kicked its ass.” Yeah, they did.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show, 1975
There’s a reason this musical comedy is still in limited release 36 years after it first hit screens. Loopy and occasionally spooky, this loving tribute to B-horror movies and the sexual revolution still makes me want to don white undies and throw toast at the screen.
Evil Dead II, 1987
We’re back in that damn cabin in the woods. But this time it’s for a “romantic” vacation. Still a bad idea. Directed by Sam Raimi, this is one of the sharpest, funniest, and craziest movies I’ve ever seen. Mention this one in a room of genre writers and you’ll be met with shouts of “We’re not worthy!” Raimi is the king of the sustained slapstick horror sequence. You can feel his connection to the Coen brothers, with whom he collaborated on several projects at the start of their careers—they share a distinctive visual flair and sense of irreverence. I also love any horror movie that was, in part, inspired by a Hamburger Helper commercial.
The Haunting, 1999
This remake of the 1963 original was not intended as a comedy-horror film, but boy, does it deliver. I’d go so far as to say it is to the genre what Showgirls is to … well, Showgirls. I’m one of the few, however, who find the much-lauded original fairly hilarious, so I was primed. This haunted-house story has a promising setup: A shrink brings three people to an isolated mansion to study the effects of human fear. But the over-the-top characters (Catherine Zeta-Jones chews the scenery as a bisexual fashionista! Owen Wilson as a pajama-pants-wearing wisecracker!) and the painful dialogue elicited peals of laughter in the theater I saw it in. At one point, poor Liam Neeson actually has to yell the line “Help her, man, she’s in a fugue state!” There is giddy glee in participating in audience rebellion. At some point, we all decided to get what we could out of our 10 bucks and howl at every ridiculous scene. Good times.
American Werewolf in London, 1981
For some reason, it’s hard to make a good werewolf movie. Funny or unfunny. Maybe it’s because guys in wolf suits look silly. Or because even when they don’t look silly, werewolves just aren’t sexy. Hard to get emotion from a monster dog. But writer-director John Landis struck the perfect balance with this film. David Naughton’s nightmare journey from American tourist to hellhound is always clever, and legitimately haunting as his terrible fate becomes clear. Griffin Dunne also stars as a guy who gets eaten early on but comes back as a wry decaying corpse. Also, Rick Baker’s werewolf effects still hold up as “best of show.” If you find yourself hungering for more humorous were-action, check out the British version of Being Human on BBC America. Creator Toby Whithouse’s premise—a ghost, a vampire, and a werewolf are roommates!—sounds beyond silly, but the show is divine. And Russell Tovey as George, the werewolf, is insanely watchable.