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The History of Horror-Comedy in 11 Crucial Films

Photo-Illustration: Maya Robinson

This past weekend, Sony’s Jack Black–led adaptation of R.L. Stine’s iconic Goosebumps series crawled, slithered, and/or scuttled its way into theaters across America, grossing a strong $23.5 million. Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse will follow in a couple weeks, letting its spookification of the teen-raunch-fest formula loose on audiences just a day shy of Halloween. Meanwhile, the metafictional slasher flick The Final Girls has slowly been amassing critical praise as it’s slunk from festival to festival, and Paul Feig has lifted the veil of secrecy surrounding his Ghostbusters reboot to confirm that, more so than the originals, his film will counterbalance laugh-out-loud comedy with spectral frights.

All of these films outwardly align themselves under the subgenre of horror-comedy, and yet the vast gulfs of difference separating them in terms of tone reveal just how scattered that distinction is. At times, codifying the entries that fall under the horror-comedy umbrella can feel like herding zebras; how best to determine which black beasts have white stripes, and vice versa? Allow us to help, with this 11-film primer on the history of this long-unlikely genre mash-up. We break down which are hilariously horrifying, horrifyingly hilarious, both, or neither. Brace for side-splitters both figurative and gruesomely literal.

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)
Four parts comedy, one part horror, three parts aggressive #personalbrand promotion.
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein wasn’t the very first horror-comedy (that distinction probably belongs to the 1920 Harold Lloyd short Haunted Spooks), but it was the first to be met with success upon its release. And how could it not? Higher-ups at Universal conceived the film as a can’t-fail cross-promotion between their two most reliably bankable properties: a stable of iconic monsters that included Bela Lugosi’s Dracula and Lon Chaney’s Wolfman, as well as Glenn Strange as Frankenstein’s monster and the hugely beloved comedy duo of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. For MGM, the crossover appeal wasn’t between horror and comedy but household names; think Amy Schumer Meets the Avengers (or rather, in all likelihood, Amy Schumer Ogles the Avengers.) The combination of gags and ghouls didn’t just legitimize the genre hybrid as commercially viable, it helped to cement Abbott and Costello as the biggest team in postwar onscreen humor. The odd coupling yielded scarce scares, but the inspired physical humor has rightfully stood the test of time. Hollow cash-grabs don’t end up in the National Film Registry.

A Bucket of Blood (1959)
One part comedy, three parts horror, very many parts dyed corn syrup.
By 1959, the inhumanly prolific Roger Corman had already helmed 22 features in his four years of professional directing. (Accounts of the filmmaker eating or sleeping are understandably rare.) Cranking out five pictures a year can take a toll on an artist’s creative reserves, and so perhaps it was inevitable that Corman would mix things up and try his hand at comedy. At first he had his misgivings about dipping his toes into a new genre, but this experiment spawned one of the trash auteur’s true classics. A simple-minded busboy named Walter Paisley covers up an inadvertent cat-murder by coating the evidence in clay and passing it off as a sculpture. Naturally, a bougier-than-thou art crowd goes gaga for the “hideous and eloquent” masterpiece, and soon Walter has no choice but to kill again so that he may feed the beatniks’ unknowing demand for blood. Placing the lightest personal touch on his trademark cheapo scare tactics, Corman produced this enduring work of camp in five days flat, and then it was onto the next one. A Bucket of Blood represents the rare example of a horror-comedy finding its humor in the realm of satire rather than a bloody reinterpretation of slapstick comedy (stabstick?). Corman gets laughs by lampooning the pretensions of an art scene that had just begun to wrap its mouths around the word hipster, and then in killing them, he does precisely what we’ve all imagined doing to the café-line gasbags bloviating about what is or is not True Art. It’s cathartic, scathing, and altogether pretty heady for a movie made using pocket change by the guy who had just finished up Hot Car Girl. Which is exactly what it sounds like.

The Cars That Ate Paris (1974)
Two parts comedy, three parts horror, one part high-octane gasoline.
Peter Weir’s mostly forgotten Aussie cult curio enjoyed a relative bump in popularity earlier this year, when his countryman George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road nicked its spiky war-machine design for the lethal automobiles that tore through Max’s postapocalyptic wasteland. While Weir’s film does share its spiritual successor’s tendency for giddy savagery, The Cars That Ate Paris managed to incorporate subversive sniggering and small-town fears into the tone as well. The film boasts a winking self-awareness from the top down, starting with the marvelous title, right on through to the solid-gold tagline (“148 people live in the township of Paris and every one of them is a murderer”). The premise alone, in which a rural community lures outsiders to their deaths via a well-concealed drop and absconds with their corpses for even more nefarious games, conveys the film’s penchant for the macabre. Spooky or creepy would be far too trivial words to describe this movie; depravity is the name of its sick game, complete with a troubling fear that unsettles stomachs at bedtime rather than screams in the moment. Hollywood grew up during the ‘70s, and in the land down under, they were demonstrating that horror-comedy could rankle adults as well. Stranger still that the guy behind such no-holds-barred mayhem would go on to direct The Truman Show a couple decades down the line.

Hausu (1977)
Two parts comedy, two parts horror, two parts LSD-laced Kool-Aid.
It almost feels unfair to call Nobuhiko Obayashi’s singular expression of insanity Hausu a horror-comedy. Those are the two dominant modes in which it works, yes, but long stretches of the film defy categorization entirely. A group of plucky schoolgirls, those perennial heroes of Japanese horror, travel to a distant aunt’s house for summer vacation and unknowingly enter a plane freed from the shackles of coherence. Batsoid weirdness ensues immediately, from a precocious tyke’s severed head that flies around and bites its former pal in the butt, to a possessed grand piano that hungrily gobbles up another. It’s anyone’s guess just how much of the humor was intended by the director; watching the film, it feels as if he responded to every query from his crew with screams of “GO FOR IT” and unhinged cackling. When an audience laughs at a horror-comedy as loony as Hausu, it’s not a response to well-crafted jokes or cleanly executed gags; it’s the only reasonable reaction to such a nuclear warhead of nonsense. Leaving behind logic amplifies the horror, too. When the audience knows that anything — a cat turns into a wall and starts spewing blood, so we’re not using the term “anything” lightly — could happen, there’s no way to anticipate the horrors to come.

Little Shop of Horrors (1986)
One part comedy, one part horror, two parts show tunes.
Frank Oz didn’t want to make things too easy on himself for his big-screen adaptation of the Broadway sensation Little Shop of Horrors (itself based on a 1960 film from none other than ol’ Roger Corman). He was tasked with gracefully melding not only comedy and horror but also the musical tradition in this wonderful cross-germination of tones and styles. For a horror-comedy, it’s not especially funny or scary; admittedly, the carnivorous Audrey II puppet looks less and less convincing in either direction as it grows. But, the catchy musical numbers match the source material’s integral kookiness with enough Broadway panache to overshadow other shortcomings, while also introducing another genre into the mash-up. Horror-comedy would age into its heyday as America rolled through the ’80s (by which I mean that Gremlins came out the same week as Ghostbusters in 1984, and isn’t Gremlins just the best?), but there were still more horrifying and comedic offerings to come.

Army of Darkness (1992)
Equal parts comedy, horror, and snappy one-liners.
There are those who might declare Evil Dead II to be the high-water mark of Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead franchise, and they might not be wrong, either. Admittedly, the series’ third entry, Army of Darkness, does not contain any sequences in which hero Ash Williams (Bruce Campbell, in the role of his life) must fend off attacks from his own severed hand. No, it doubles down on that classic setpiece from II and pits Ash against Bad-Ash (get it, like “bad-ass,” it’s a pun, dear God, do you get it), an entire evil clone. Our chainsaw-handed defender emerges victorious, of course, because the only foe worthy of Ash is his own stupidity; in a pivotal moment, he forgets the last word of a day-saving incantation and attempts to fudge it by mumbling his way through the final syllables. Ash Williams embodies the platonic ideal of horror-comedy, willing to gnaw straight through any and all scenery as if he’s attempting to eat his way to hell. As such, Campbell fully flings himself into the character, pouring every ounce of his ability as a thespian into whatever Raimi asks of him, which can be anything from acting opposite a shambling reanimated skeleton to saying the word “groovy” while keeping a straight face. Whether you prefer II or Army of Darkness, Raimi remains the uncontested king of horror-comedy, eliciting screams of delirium and fear in equal measure.

American Psycho (2000)
One part comedy, three parts horror, two parts overpriced cocktails.
Audiences at the turn of the millennium had no idea how to react to the sight of a poncho-clad Christian Bale hopping around to the strains of Huey Lewis and the News’ “Hip to Be Square.” Fifteen years later, those viewers going into American Psycho uninitiated still squirm a little when Patrick Bateman takes an ax to his colleague’s gourd. Bale’s line-readings — the whole situation, really — are surreally silly, and yet the unbridled malice and barely suppressed pleasure that he takes in the murder put audiences ill at ease. This is the unsweet spot into which Mary Harron’s adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’s novel wedges itself. Bateman’s homicidal antics are far too disturbing to be outright funny, but at the same time, they’re too absurd to be taken completely seriously. The film functions more like an anti-horror anti-comedy, aggressively subverting the good-natured frights of the ’80s and early ’90s. Comparing business cards turns into a dick-measuring contest intense enough to draw beads of sweat, while the urge to end his competitors’ lives rages on behind Bateman’s lifeless eyes. A business card so tasteful it makes you wanna kill people: Such is the fundamental absurdity that the genre is made of.

Scary Movie (2000)
One part comedy, one part horror, four parts Dumpster fluid.
The year 2000 saw the release of another, albeit very different, horror-comedy. Keenen Ivory Wayans’s spoof doesn’t so much combine horror with comedy as much as it slathers rice paste on both and plasters one on top of the other. Superimposing hacky jokes on recognizable setpieces from slasher classics serves only to spoil both, thoroughly illustrating the major pitfall of the horror-comedy form. When the humor’s not up to snuff, it makes it impossible for the audience to take the frights seriously. When the movie’s not scary either, it makes the comedy drag along slowly. It’s kinda astonishing, then, that a film that should theoretically appeal to nobody has put up box-office figures robust enough to merit a never-ending parade of sequels. The Scary Movie franchise turned the horror-comedy, a genre marked more by its idiosyncrasies and proud strangeness, into a factory cranking out homogenous product. The workmanlike efficiency with which Wayans reduced the careful negotiation of humor and fear to a formula would be impressive if it wasn’t defecating all over the tradition that made it possible.

Shaun of the Dead (2004)
Three parts comedy, two parts horror, three parts unadulterated love.
Edgar Wright’s never done the same thing twice, trying his hand in buddy-cop flicks, spaghetti Westerns, postapocalyptic thrillers, and the glorious fusion of video-game, comic-book, and anime styles that is Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. The through line connecting his disparate films has always been a deep, abiding love for the genres to which he’s paying homage, and nowhere is his affection for cinematic tradition more evident than in his zom-com Shaun of the Dead. As a pair of incompetent slackers fight their way through a British hamlet infested with the undead, Wright genuflects to the horror shows that captured his imagination as a kid and creates one of his own at the same time. Wright likely has a small shrine to Night of the Living Dead director George A. Romero tucked inside a closet in his house — an influence he wears on his sleeve through Shaun of the Dead’s savvy navigation of zombie tropes. The film is the rare horror-comedy that knows itself, but never gets lost in smirking irony. Wright’s horror-comedy comes from a place of sincerity, where the pristine waters of cinephilia lap up against the untouched shore of cannibalistic reanimated corpses.

Teeth (2007)
Two parts comedy, three parts horror, three parts feminist allegory.
“Girl has teeth in vagina.” Five words, and most aficionados of bizarro horror were onboard with this clever indie from the jump. But there’s really a lot more going on than genital chompers, though there’s plenty of that, too. In between scenes both viscerally wince-worthy and uproarious (a dog eats a severed penis and then spits out the piercing like a watermelon seed), young Dawn O’Keefe (Jess Weixler) comes to grips with her own femininity and sexuality. The film frames her teeth as a naturally selected defense mechanism, a lethal weapon to fend off unwelcome advances from the many men who force themselves on her. Teeth is a rare breed in the world of the horror-comedy, a hybrid equally concerned with vital social themes and immediate audience response. Most films in the horror-comedy tradition have other concerns than a public conscience, busying themselves with chasing the elusive scream or belly-laugh. That director Mitchell Lichtenstein can manage all that while also challenging a culture of pervasive misogyny is a feat that, at long last, bridges the gap between Jezebel readers and Fangoria readers.

Zombieland (2009)
Three parts comedy, one part horror, two parts unlikely mass appeal.
With the notable exceptions of several entries listed above, horror-comedy has historically had a rough go at achieving mainstream success. The mixture of light and dark can be alienating to those without a penchant for the twisted, so most horror-comedies must accept cult adoration as the highest possible station to which they might aspire. 2009’s sleeper hit Zombieland struck a chord with audiences, however, passing the $100 million mark at the box office and ensuring that every right-thinking American knows enough to “double tap” in the event of a zombie outbreak. A quartet of Academy Award nominees past and future, along with a sublime cameo from Bill Murray as himself, provided the film with ample charm, but it’s in moments like Jesse Eisenberg’s somber recollection of his loved ones’ deaths that gave Zombieland its crucial edge. It’s not quite the perfect mixture of horror and comedy, but it wears both hats with charisma. It’s an odd duck in the annals of the genre, what with its high production values and cast full of recognizable A-list actors. Zombieland is the horror-comedy that dreamed of becoming a real boy, and then shocked everyone by making it happen.

The History of Horror-Comedy in 11 Crucial Films