Horror and comedy are two of the most popular movie genres, one is on the up-and-up (especially this time of year) and the other has been relegated straight to streaming for years now. Horror and comedy, like primary color, create new colors when you mix them. The duo creates a subgenre that on paper should not work: how can you freak someone out and make them laugh simultaneously? Well, dozens of filmmakers at this point have cracked that code and now we have dozens of great movies from them. Here is how it started.
Bruce Hallenbeck wrote in his book Comedy-Horror Films: A Chronological History 1914–2008, “the permission to laugh at your fears, to whistle past the cinematic graveyard and feel secure in the knowledge that the monsters can’t get you.” He talks about the origins of horror-comedy in the silent era, including Harold Lloyd’s short Haunted Spooks (1920). The film blends supernatural elements with jokes just as you would see today.
During the Universal monster movie craze, the studio released Abbot and Costello Meets Frankenstein (1948) which is probably the most famous example of the subgenre of its time. What’s interesting is how the films mix horror and comedic elements in each film. The last two discussed were mostly comedies with just hints of horror, but as the years went on we’ve started balancing these scales with films like Nobuhiko Obayashi’s chaotic Hausu (1977). Although the film’s horror is amplified with things like demon cats and severed heads, it showcases the ability to use its comedy to enhance its horror and vice versa.
When comedy enhances horror, it is like a good seasoning on a dish. It can get you closer to the characters and by the time the horror starts up you are left vulnerable. Maybe you’re creeped out and laughing at the same time like in An American Werewolf in London (1981). A decaying ghost will make jokes as he begs his friend to commit suicide. Other movies dump a mouthful of seasoning and still manage to work, like the genre-defining Evil Dead II (1987). Bill Paxton once told a story about watching the movie with James Cameron, who apparently remarked that “It’s not every day that you see a movie that starts a new genre: the horror cartoon.”
Recently, the horror-comedy genre has become much more self-aware. A seminal meta-horror, Scream’s (1996) exploitation of horror tropes is hilarious. This type of horror-comedy is still going strong with films like Cabin in the Woods (2012), which mocks society, or Final Girls (2015), which critiques 80s slashers.
Today it’s becoming increasingly uncommon for smaller-budget movies (which horror-comedies usually are) to be released in cinemas. As more and more of them are relegated to streaming, only a few distributors like A24 still opt for theaters. Just this year they released X, Bodies Bodies Bodies, Pearl, (and Men if you thought the last act was funny). The horror-comedy will always have a future, it just depends on how big the screen is.
If you are interested in horror-comedy and looking for Halloween vibe recommendations, here are several!
All the films mentioned in the article:
· Haunted Spooks (1920)
· Hausu (1977)
· An American Werewolf in London (1987)
· Evil Dead II (1987)
· Scream (1996)
· Cabin in the Woods (2012)
· Final Girls (2015)
· X (2022) & Pearl (2022)
· Bodies Bodies Bodies (2022)
More great horror-comedies:
· Wolf of Snow Hollow (2020)
· What We Do in the Shadows (2014)
· Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006)
· Shaun of the Dead (2004)
· Gremlins (1984)
· Army of Darkness (1992)
· Death Becomes Her (1992)
· Ready or Not (2019)
Kevin de los Cuetos is a senior at Florida International University, pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in English – Creative Writing, along with a certificate in Film Studies.