by C. Michael Forsyth
We love movies that scare us. We love movies that make us laugh. Movies that do both can be among our favorites. Below are my picks for the best horror-comedies of all time. I’ve kept off the list movies that are unintentionally funny, or so-bad-they’re-good, like “Plan Nine From Outer Space.” At the bottom is a poll asking which is your choice for THE best horror-comedy ever. In chronological order:
1) “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein” (1948) – One of the first of this genre, it sets the bar high for future horror-comedies. Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney Jr. reprise their roles as the classic Universal monsters Dracula and the Wolfman respectively. (Boris Karloff refused to return as the Frankenstein monster, but personally trained a lookalike). What makes the film so brilliant is that they play their roles absolutely straight. The humor comes from the reactions of America’s most famous comedy duo. Favorite scene: Costello searches for Lon Chaney’s character Larry Talbot in his hotel room, unaware that the Wolfman has transformed. The werewolf keeps diving for him – and missing!
2) “The Fearless Vampire Killers” (1967) – Just as Abbott and Costello spoofed the Universal horror movies, director Roman Polanski sends up the Hammer pictures of the ’60s. With loving attention to detail, he recreates the look, the atmosphere — and yes, those heaving bosoms. Polanski himself proves himself quite an adept comedic actor as the buffoonish assistant to a Van Helsing-like vampire slayer. As one might expect from the master director, there are plenty of artistic touches. In one scene, a human woman dances at a crowded ball in a vampire’s castle, then it is revealed in a mirror that only she casts a reflection. Adding to the creepiness of the film, the leading lady is Sharon Tate, who two years later would meet her end at the hands of real life monsters – the Manson family.
3) “Young Frankenstein” (1974) – Mel Brooks, the comic genius who created “Blazing Saddles” and TV’s “Get Smart,” affectionately parodies the early Frankenstein movies. He perfectly mimics the sets, lighting and costumes – and even got his hands on actual laboratory equipment and props uses in James Wale’s 1931 masterpiece “Frankenstein.” The movie was shot in black and white, a highly unusual choice at the time, especially for a comedy. The dead-serious look of the film makes the antics of Gene Wilder, Marty Feldman and the rest of the cast all the funnier. My favorite scene: Wilder, as Dr. Frankenstein’s descendant, demonstrates his new creation’s abilities in front of a theater full of colleagues – by joining the Monster in a tap-dancing rendition of the musical number “Putting on the Ritz,” complete with top hats and tails!
4) “Love at First Bite” (1979) – Throughout the 1960s and until the tail end of the 1970s, George Hamilton was a perennial favorite on talk shows and one of the most famous movie stars in the world – without ever having had a starring role in a major motion picture! He was one of those celebrities like Zsa Zsa Gabor, who was famous for being famous, a handsome, amiable fellow with a terrific tan. But here, in his role as Dracula, he demonstrates a surprising flair for comedy. Hamilton followed this movie up with the lesser known but equally funny “Zorro and the Gay Blade,” one of the few comedies that literally made me laugh until I cried.
5) “Ghostbusters” (1984) – Bill Murray is at his smirking, wiseass best, while fellow “Saturday Night Live” alumni Dan Ackroyd earns laughs with his trademark mock-serious delivery. Rather than spoofing any prior film, “Ghostbusters” introduces a highly original – and hysterically funny — concept: a ghost-hunting team that operates like a pest-control company. Ackroyd, himself an armchair paranormal sleuth, wrote the first version of the story and his genuine interest in psychic phenomenon lends an air of loony authenticity to the jargon. As he often does, Murray ad-libbed many of his one-liners. My favorite is when confronting a possessed Sigourney Weaver, he says, “This chick is toast!”
6) “Return of the Living Dead” (1985) – A direct sequel to George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead” that ignores previous follow-ups, this black comedy has become a cult classic in its own right. The premise is that the zombie outbreak of the original film actually occurred (in slightly different form), but was covered up by the government. When a pair of bungling employees at a medical-supply warehouse accidentally release toxic gas from a barrel containing zombie remains, all hell breaks loose. The movie owes much of its success to the wonderful comic timing and dead-pan delivery of Clu Gulager – an actor I’ve never seen before or since — as the warehouse owner. My favorite scene is when he’s asked by a suspicious cop what’s in a garbage bag full of squirming body parts. He replies, “Rabid weasels.” A bonus is the appearance of scream queen Linnea Quigley as a skanky punk girl who is stripped and ravaged by a gang of male zombies. She emerges as a ravenous zombie and remains nude for the rest of the movie, her perfect body inexplicably – and gloriously – intact.
7) “Army of Darkness” (1993) – In the final installment of the “Evil Dead” trilogy, director Sam Raimi continues the progression from nightmare-inducing horror to comedy. Bruce Campbell’s protagonist Ash, little more than a pointy-chinned hunk in the first movie, here emerges as a full-fledged comic character, a cowardly hero of the classic Bob Hope variety. Macho, blustering and alternating savvy and stupid, Campbell is a joy to watch as a modern-day American trapped in a medieval kingdom beset by a horde of demons. There are genuinely scary scenes, such as when an old serving woman suddenly becomes possessed in the supposedly “safe” castle. But the real appeal of the film comes from Ash’s wisecracks and the slapstick comedy. At one point, Ash engages in an eye-poking Three Stooges routine while battling a skeleton. My favorite line: A woman in the S-Mart where Ash works turns into a horrifying demon, and the shotgun-toting hero tells her,” Lady, I’m going to have to ask you to leave the store.”
8) Scary Movie (2000) — Keenan Ivory Wayans, creator of the hysterical sketch-comedy show “In Living Color,” directs this “Airplane”-style parody of Wes Craven’s “Scream.” The most pleasant surprise here is that his kid brothers Shawn and Marlon are actually funny, for the first time on film. The spoof of the super-successful slasher flick brings on the gags fast and furious. My favorite scene: the heroine Cindy (Anna Faris) is terrorized over the phone by the masked killer – then, when another call comes in, puts him on hold to babble girl talk to a friend.
9) “Scary Movie 3” (2003) – Number 2 was a disappointment, but the series gets back on track in the competent hands of director David Zucker, co-creator of “Airplane” and “The Naked Gun.” The movie spoofs “Signs” and “The Ring,” combining the plots imaginatively. Like “Airplane,” and as in the case with the best comedies, the plot makes sense. Indeed, this parody actually comes together more logically than “Signs.” If you recall, in that M. Night Shyamalan thriller, the invading aliens are capable of interstellar travel yet incapable of getting into a boarded-up house; they had plotted their attack for decades, but neglect to wear suits to protect them from water — which kills them on contact!
10) “Shaun of the Dead” (2004) – If you’ve only seen Simon Pegg as Scotty in the “Star Trek” reboot, you missed out on one of Britain’s finest comedic actors. Look for him in movies like “Run, Fat Boy, Run,” and “Hot Fuzz.” Here, he’s engaging as a loser who rises to the occasion when England is overrun by zombies. Though funny as hell, the movie actually works as a zombie flick. My favorite scene occurs when Pegg, as Shaun, proposes to a group of survivors that they take refuge in the oaken-doored bar where he took his girlfriend the previous night. His snooty love rival shoots back, “How can you put your faith in a man whose idea of a romantic nightspot and an impenetrable fortress are the same thing?”
Copyright C. Michael Forsyth. All rights Reserved.
To hear the shocking and controversial opening of Hour of the Beast read by the author, click HERE.