It is perhaps necessary to define my terms here – by ‘horror comedy movies’ I mean films that involve both actual horror and actual comedy. I am preemptively disqualifying horror franchises that degraded into comedy, such as Nightmare on Elm Street and Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and straight comedy films which parody specific horror properties, such as Young Frankenstein, Dracula: Dead and Loving It, and the Scary Movie series. The first Scary Movie, of course, was parodying Scream, which was itself a parody – however, although Scream makes explicit reference to various horror films, it was sending up the slasher genre as a whole. As such, Scream would not be disqualified from the list, but I haven’t included it because it’s not as good as these ones:
Tucker And Dale Vs. Evil
The evil hick is at this point a stock horror villain in and of themselves, a reflection of the deeply entrenched rural-urban divide that society seems unable to shake off, and perhaps an inevitable development given which side of that divide is more likely to go to the cinema regularly. From Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s Leatherface to the rapists in Deliverance (which, given that, could be said to have horror leanings), evil hicks are as much a mainstay of the genre as the vampire or the jarring scare chord.
So it’s incredibly refreshing to have at least one horror flick where country folk are the good guys. But even given their moment in the sun, Tucker and Dale can’t escape the legacy of the evil hick – everyone’s seen those movies, so a lot of the first act of Tucker And Dale vs. Evil is a comedy of errors in which their awkward but well-meaning efforts to be friendly absolutely terrify the group of sexy teens on vacation. When the actual evil shows up, it’s up to Tucker and Dale to defeat it in a lovable, bumbling fashion, a little like a blood-soaked version of My Name Is Earl.
As black as black comedy can get without being set in the Holocaust, Severance is a classic tale of a cabin in the woods, which is inexplicably picked for a work outing by an arms corporation. Right from the off, things start going wrong for them – little Danny Dyer gets dangerously high in the coach bathroom, the coach driver leaves them to hoof it, the food is terrible, and that’s all before one of them steps in a bear trap. You could very easily believe they’ve just ended up with the worst holiday package imaginable, but the film’s called Severance – it has ‘sever’ right there in the title, so nobody’s getting off that easily.
Each character has a different spooky campfire story of what exactly the cabin’s horrible and bloody history is, which only helps the paranoia to ramp up as people start disappearing. Fans of British comedy will recognise Tim McInnerny as a long-suffering senior member of the team, who goes out with surprising dignity given the circumstances. The entire film could have been played utterly deadpan and it still would have made this list if it included the morbidly hilarious moment when their boss turns up to help and whips out the rocket launcher.
Shaun Of The Dead
Shaun of the Dead defined horror comedy for a generation. Essentially the big-screen adaptation of Spaced – which itself saw Simon Pegg’s character, high on speed and twiglets, hallucinate that David Walliams was a zombie – this was the one that really kicked off Pegg’s career and, by extension, got him the role of Scotty in the Star Trek reboot. Which is only appropriate, because Shaun was a film for nerds before the category got cheapened by twenty MCU flicks a year.
Shaun and housemate Ed (Nick Frost, naturally) are classic-model dropouts, coasting along on the edges of life rather than the mainstream, happier kicking back and playing Timesplitters 2 than fretting over careerist nonsense. But when society crumbles under a sudden and massive zombie outbreak, Shaun and Ed…don’t change their lifestyle much, really. Shaun’s morning routine – a marvellously done tracking shot of him ambling along to the corner shop – is essentially identical, the zombies passing so far under his radar he apologises to a zombified beggar for having no change. Eventually they realise the groaning, stumbling woman in their backyard isn’t just hung over, and set off to get Shaun back together with his girlfriend and make his mum proud, which had been their plan for the day anyway.
Probably the swansong of the golden age of zombie-centric media, Zombieland isn’t quite the zombie genre jumping its undead shark but is well aware that that moment was close. Beyond this one was a lot of shoddy adaptations (World War Z) and zombies meeting X, and you can tell by the way that a lot of Zombieland is riffing on the genre, and, sans much new to do with the zombies themselves, is eventually obliged to start focusing on the survivors instead.
Still, it’s a good last hurrah for the zombie apocalypse set up, with characters who have unconventional methods of slaughtering zombies down to a fine art – they’ve clearly had a lot of time to practice, and the protagonist is played by Jesse Eisenberg, who you could easily imagine has his own zombie survival plan, backed up by Woody Harrelson, who even if he doesn’t have his own survival plan could probably play it by ear. Eventually they find some more screwed-up survivors and become a little screwed-up family, heading for a Mad Max-style promised land out California way. Obviously there is no such place, but then what really matters is the times they had along the way and so forth.
Slither is a charmingly splattery monster flick that wears its influences on its sleeve, and really uses them very effectively. You could fill pages with the amount of tropes it shares with other works – it begins with the monsters coming down in a meteorite like Evolution, cattle being attacked and something horrible lurking in a barn like The Dunwich Horror, and it seems to be set in the same Stephen King-ish small town as Alan Wake – but the most obvious frames of reference are Alien and John Carpenter’s The Thing, and some of the scenes in Slither are so cartoonishly phallic that they make Alien’s imagery look practically chaste.
Given that you might be worried that it simply can’t be taken seriously, but the film always seems aware of just how ridiculous it’s being – at the point where an infectee eats herself into inflating like the blueberry girl in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, there’s no doubt of that – there are any number of particularly gory moments which are presented in both the most horrific most absurd manner possible. The main bloke from Firefly heads up a serviceable central cast as the quip-happy local sheriff (i.e., the bloke from Firefly) who shares decent chemistry with the female lead without bogging down the plot in slush. Despite everything, none of the cast ever degenerate fully into comic relief, although two come pretty close: the mayor, a cheerfully boorish big fish in a small pond who acts like a sort of Kentucky-Fried Saul Goodman, and the first victim, a consummate presentation of the classic horror film character who deserves everything that’s coming to him.
What We Do In The Shadows
A surprisingly bleak and realistic take on the vampire mythos, What We Do In The Shadows gives a fly-on-the-wall look into the lives of a group New Zealand vampires who share a house in Wellington, co-written by and starring Jemaine Clement of Flight Of The Conchords. The main characters each represent a distinct flavour of vampire – one is medieval and torture-happy, one is Renaissance and dandyish, and one is a Victorian lothario – but in spite of this there is a lot to relate to here.
They too are seeking human connection in an unfriendly world, albeit connection between their teeth and the humans’ throats. The social scene in Wellington isn’t the rosiest for vampires, or indeed anyone with a silly accent and period costume, and that’s without the very real risk of being exposed as creatures of the night or running into a group of roaming werewolves. In the documentary format, vampirism seems closer to an addiction or disability than anything else – an ever-present yoke that you just try and live your life around as best you can. If you want an unflinching view of what it’d really be like being a vampire then look no further.
Including any Bruce Campbell title almost feels like cheating on a list like this, but this one’s probably the closest to half comedy, half horror than any of the Evil Deads (which were played straight as horror up to about halfway through the second one, at which point they became cartoons). Campbell plays a man who may or may not be Elvis Presley living under an assumed identity in a retirement home – which, given the kind of mythology that swirls around the King, is perfectly plausible. It’s up to you whether he really is Elvis or not, but ultimately it doesn’t really matter.
Bubba Ho-Tep is a curious one in that the sections that are on the surface horror, with jarring music, freaky lighting and smoke machines, are generally the more comedic parts. Meanwhile, the other sections, where life is normal and nothing is going wrong – where you might expect the comedy to lie – heavily involve the real-world terrors of aging, of physical and mental decrepitude, and of being forgotten. Not to say this can’t be played for humour. The Simpsons drew rich comedic material from the way society slings old people in institutions, and the same applies here – particularly since both give that material the weight it deserves. One of the most touching films to ever involve a fight scene with a plastic scarab beetle.
John Dies At The End
Based on the book by Jason ‘David Wong’ Pargin, John Dies At The End (spoiler alert!) is a strange, surreal tale that would cheerfully describe itself as a little like House of Leaves with more dick jokes. A dimension-bending and oddly cerebral tale, the film follows John and David’s experiments with a new kind of street drug known only as ‘soy sauce’, a substance that doesn’t behave like it should under any known laws of physics and has much the same effect on the user.
With the soy-flavoured doors of perception well and truly open, they find themselves slipping into the role of freelance abomination-hunters, the only ones able to properly perceive what’s going on during those unfortunate times when suddenly, snakes everywhere. Of course, when reality starts bouncing about like this, weird stuff going down in people’s basements must take a back seat to full-on existential threats to the carbon-based dimension. John Dies At The End is an excellent presentation of that kind of nameless, lurking fear, that fear where everything you know could well be wrong, and milks that setup for all the absurdity that it’s worth.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show
Okay, The Rocky Horror Picture Show flies pretty close to breaking my own rule about parodies of established horror properties, given that it involves a Dr Frank-N-Furter building a living creature through insane scientific experiments in his evil castle with his hunchbacked butler. But that’s only half the story. The film is a bit of a time capsule, opening with the newly engaged Brad and Janet, two refugees from ‘50s squaresville America, taking refuge in Furter’s castle and finding – to their horror – that they have stumbled into the ‘70s-era sexual revolution, complete with gaiety, cross-dressing, and musical numbers (appropriately, this side of the film is introduced via the song Time Warp).
This kind of content simply isn’t as shocking today as it once might have been – different groups of people will likely find RHPS more horrific or more comedic for the same reasons – but even so there is still a slightly tacky extravagance to it all, a camp kitsch drawn directly from the general ethos and atmosphere of the Hammer Horrors. Because make no mistake, like the bulk of Mel Brooks’s filmography, this is a parody done out of love, not scorn, for the works it mocks. In the end it turns out they were aliens all along.
Of the films on this list, this one probably has the lowest ratio of horror to comedy, but if you don’t still get a gut urging to hide behind the sofa when you know the library ghost is about to freak out, you’re a filthy, filthy liar. This is the one that started it all – the various cartoon series, the controversial all-women reboot, and a million pastiches where plucky gangs cruise in their Mystery Machines to the tune of Ray Parker declaring that busting makes him feel good. The combination of Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis is surely some sort of ‘80s comedy apotheosis – the kind of thing that always existed in potential and only needed that final step of actually being created.
While it’s very much Murray’s show, there’s also room for Sigourney Weaver and Rick Moranis as some particularly hapless secondary characters, who wind up with ancient Sumerian demigods following them back to their apartments and harassing them. Come the denouement, the comedy and horror strands finally overlap completely, and Manhattan comes under attack from (I’m being coy for the three of you who haven’t seen it) a beast as big as Godzilla and as iconic as the Michelin Man. A bold, audacious film that would probably fall apart under its own weight if it wasn’t for its inherent charm. With enough for the critics to get their teeth into that it has been interpreted as both a warning about the dangers of fast food and a paean to free-market capitalism, Ghostbusters has earned a place not just on a list of the best comedy horrors, but quite possibly on a list of best films, period.