Scared Silly

Halloween films to tickle your funny bone

Oct 28, 2009 at 2:06 pm

It is Halloween night. You’re gathered with friends for a movie marathon chocked full of remorseless axe-wielding madmen, brain-munching ghouls and unspeakable monsters. Your companions howl as horror builds and body parts fly, but you’re blind to it all with hands clamped tight across the eyes. You hate scary movies, and you’re stuck in the seasonal Shangri-La for horror fans.

There is an escape, however.

When compiling Halloween flick picks, add horror-comedies to the mix. The amalgam delivers requisite scares for horror fans, but the shift in tone lightens the load considerably.

Horror and comedy might seem strange bedfellows, but they’re perfectly matched. Each relies on anticipation and surprise.

Compare a shuffling zombie’s slow pursuit of its victim to a bumbling Judd Apatow manchild’s nervous approach to a beautiful woman. The build-up, hold and eventual release to an expected (or unexpected) outcome are nearly identical in form and emotional response in each scenario. Similar ties bind a jump scare and an unexpected pratfall, but with a more direct bang.

Choosing the right horror-comedy is tough since they number almost as high as their respective influences. There are also some amazing duds amongst the bunch. The selections below provide a great introduction to the genre’s many avenues, from tame classics to borderline terrifying contemporary screamers.

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948). Bud Abbott and Lou Costello paired with all sorts of monsters for a string of Golden Age horror-comedies, but this is their triumph. It’s the perfect mix of goofy back-and-forth banter and innocent spooks, with the hapless duo running afoul of the ultimate Universal trifecta of Dracula, the Wolfman and Frankenstein’s monster, each played by men who made the roles famous: Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney, Jr. and Glenn Strange (who filled the part after Boris Karloff declined).

The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966). This upbeat chiller about a scaredy-cat aspiring reporter assigned to spend an evening in a haunted house was the perfect showcase for Don Knotts’ comedic genius, allowing him to bug-out, shake and generally be a nervous wreck for its totality.

The Fearless Vampire Killers or: Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are in My Neck (1967). When Roman Polanski’s name pops up in horror talk, most conversations turn naturally to his masterpiece, Rosemary’s Baby. One year prior, though, the young filmmaker directed and starred in this spoof about bumbling vampire hunters who attempt to rescue a beautiful crimson-haired maiden (Polanski’s future wife Sharon Tate) from a castle of bloodsuckers. The humor is broad, but so is the creepy vibe — a difficult balance that’s testament to Polanski’s unmatched talent.

Dawn of the Dead (1978), Return of the Living Dead (1985) and Shaun of the Dead (2004). The recent box-office success of Zombieland proves that moviegoers likes laughs with their zombie carnage, but it’s not the first flick to merge such elements. In fact, zombies are the perfect comedy foil. From Dawn’s zombie pie fight and Return’s screaming naked cadaver to Shaun’s Queen-inspired final showdown with the undead, zombies are dead-eyed straightmen, taking the brunt of mankind’s antics only to throw them back in our faces before devouring them.

Love at First Bite (1979). A tan vampire? George Hamilton stars as an old-school Transylvanian vamp in the Big Apple who falls in love with a fashion model, backed by Disco beats. He loves the nightlife. He’s got to boogie. Enough said.

An American Werewolf in London (1981). Lauded for Rick Baker’s groundbreaking werewolf transformation effects, John Landis’ classic is surprisingly funny, thanks primarily to Griffin Dunne. Doomed to a purgatory afterlife after being mauled by a lycanthrope on the British moors, his talking, rotting corpse can’t help but be sarcastically bitter.

American Psycho (2000). Bret Easton Ellis’ misunderstood novel about a psychopathic New York City yuppie with a taste for the fine life — as well as murder, misogyny and perversion — was considered impossible to translate to the big screen with its extended, obsessively descriptive passages of material minutia and its extremely disturbing set pieces. Director Mary Harron did the impossible with this horror sleeper, though, creating a dark satire of ’80s materialism and violence that captures the source material and brilliantly reflects it in a new light. Christian Bale is a tour-de-force as killer Patrick Bateman, delivering the perfect combo of hilarious vanity and serial bloodlust.

Slither (2006). James Gunn knows comedy and horror, having cut his teeth with tonguein-cheek exploitation masters Troma (of Toxic Avenger and Tromeo and Juliet fame) and penning the script of the 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake. His directorial debut Slither combines the best of both worlds. The story is familiar: A meteor crashes near a small rural town, unleashing a slug-like alien life form that turns the population into zombies hungry for meat. Equal parts The Blob, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Night of the Living Dead, Slither also counts the Grand Guignol as an ancestor with its exaggerated heaps of blood and gore.

Drag Me to Hell (2009). Sam Raimi returns to his Evil Dead roots with this simple but relevant tale of supernatural revenge from beyond the grave. The film follows an ambitious bank employee (Alison Lohman) who denies a mortgage extension to a haggard old gypsy woman and ends up being cursed to suffer unspeakable abuse at the hands of a demon from Hell. Combining the advantages of a budget earned with Spider-Man capital and the director’s flair for over-the-top hyper-horror, Drag Me to Hell is a laugh-riot packed with ridiculous grossouts and jump scares galore. It also happens to be one of the best films of the year.