We can’t help but laugh at the blood-splattered mayhem.
Laughter and fear are paradoxically intertwined. Whether it’s a moment of levity that breaks the tension of an otherwise traumatic moment or laughter used to mask terror, comedy is never that far away from horror. As a result, a well-crafted horror comedy film can often stand out as among the best entries to either genre. We put our heads together and voted on the best films that fall under the nebulous horror comedy umbrella. Some films focus more on laughs, others poke some fun at the genre itself, and there’s plenty of room left for gruesome films that go so gleefully over the top that we can’t help but laugh at the blood-splattered mayhem.
10. Ghostbusters (1984)
Demonic possession. A gateway to a paranormal realm. Terror Dogs. Ectoplasm. These are typically the ingredients of a true horror flick, but it’s hard to get too scared when Bill Murray’s around. Ghostbusters thrust the horror comedy subgenre into the mainstream, and its snappy pacing, sleek production and emphasis on special effects changed the game for how comedies were made. Eleven years after The Exorcist compelled some audience members to faint or cry in theaters, Ghostbusters made demons conjure up laughs thanks in large part to Murray’s deadpan performance in the face of otherworldly malevolence. There’s a virtue in taking the things that most terrify us—and for many people, ghosts and demons somehow remain near the top of that list—and defanging them through comedy. Ghostbusters did that in a way that made this subgenre into an institution, one that has had hits and misses but has forever become more interesting since Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis’s script first took both horror and comedy and dared to cross those streams.
9. The Cabin in the Woods (2012)
Like Scream did back in 1996, The Cabin in the Woods attempts to turn the horror genre on its head by adding a subtextual layer to what is familiar. Basically: take the well-worn horror tropes with which we’re so familiar and use them against us to create a film that is self-referential yet still knows when to pull back and give us the goods. The title itself evokes the mist-shrouded environs of Camp Crystal Lake or the shack from The Evil Dead, right? But the group of teens about to be dispatched this time around is facing a threat far worse and with many more ramifications than a resurrected mass murderer or a book of demons.
The Cabin in the Woods really only works if you’re willing to let Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard take you on a ride. Lots of it is not going to make sense, all of it is completely implausible, but let yourself go and you’re in for a thrilling treat that will induce numerous, genuine laughs. By the time the film makes its way to its apocalyptic finale, the suspense trappings have been completely left behind, leaving us with perhaps the goriest comedy ever filmed.
8. Re-Animator (1985)
Director Stuart Gordon took the antiquated source material of an H. P. Lovecraft story and transformed it into one of the greatest, funniest and, oddly, most romantic of mad scientist flicks. The premise is almost as old as the movies: what if we could bring the dead back to life? The casting is pitch-perfect, from Jeffrey Combs’s nerdy Herbert West to Barbara Crampton’s doomed Megan to the gleefully campy David Gale as the evil and eventually headless Dr. Carl Hill. The movie sold its Grand Guignol humor with convincing special effects, none more memorable than the sight of the disembodied head of Dr. Hill attempting to go down on our poor heroine. Re-Animator first gained popularity on home video, one of the high water marks of the VHS era, but the theatrical cut that has since become available proves this is not just a great B-movie but a great movie, period.
7. Beetlejuice (1988)
In recent decades, protagonists who ultimately discover that they were actually ghosts the whole time have almost become a cliché. In Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice, there’s little question about corporeal status when a married couple returns home after a car accident to discover that they’re now the owners of the Handbook for the Recently Deceased. Burton’s stylized gothic aesthetic and emphasis on stop-motion and other practical effects makes Beetlejuice a hallmark of weirdo ‘80s comedy.
Brimming with acting talent like Alec Baldwin, Geena Davis, Winona Ryder and Catherine O’Hara, it’s nevertheless Michael Keaton’s grease-painted turn as the boorish “bio-exorcist” ghost Betelgeuse—summoned to rid the house of insufferably pretentious new owners—that makes this film a horror comedy classic. The original script called for a far darker approach, with graphic supernatural violence and psychosexual undertones, and while it’s intriguing to consider what kind of results that may have yielded, Beetlejuice’s zany, freewheeling tone applied to morbid subject matter presents a delightfully strange tonal contrast that ultimately casts a much wider net. The only certainties in life may be death and taxes, and Beetlejuice finds humor in both by giving us an afterlife that’s a bureaucratic nightmare.
6. Young Frankenstein (1974)
A meeting of the minds of two comic legends, Young Frankenstein is based on a story by Gene Wilder and co-written (with Wilder) and directed by the one and only Mel Brooks. It is also, of course, based on Mary Shelley’s classic monster tale, but rather than a straight parody of the novel, Young Frankenstein is a sequel of sorts, following Dr. Frankenstein’s grandson (played by Wilder).
The film is a unique mix of homage to classic horror and classic Brooks-ian humor. Classic horror is represented in the film’s black-and-white cinematography, its (Oscar-nominated) bump-in-the-dark sound design and its period-appropriate score by John Morris. When it comes to the humor, Brooks was rarely better, and he and Wilder were nominated for an Oscar for their screenplay. Particularly satisfying, and in the vein of the best horror films, are Young Frankenstein’s terrific roles for women, and Madeline Kahn, Cloris Leachman and Teri Garr are all wonderful here. A feature on any list of the funniest movies ever made, the film was also revealed to be Brooks’ favorite of his own work.
5. Gremlins (1984)
June 1984 was a banner month for horror comedy. Released the same weekend as Ghostbusters, Joe Dante’s Gremlins blended urban legends, storyline parody, fairy tale influences and socio-cultural satire to create a good old fashioned creature feature that felt unique at the time and remains fresh today. Gifting mysterious species as pets is never a good idea—despite how undeniably cute the big-eared, doe-eyed mogwai Gizmo might be—and that’s never been truer than in this film. That Dante pairs the gluttonous and destructive gremlins with the Christmas holiday only drives home the critique of American excess, but Gremlins is never preachy. Its success may have budded off into inferior copycats like Critters and Ghoulies, and its subsequent merchandising may have undercut its critique of capitalism run amok, but Gremlins’s commitment to dark humor skitters and darts with the kind of madcap action that makes this a prototypical horror comedy.
4. This Is the End (2013)
The premise is simple: a bunch of celebrities go to a party at James Franco’s house and the world comes to an end. The survivors must overcome horrific odds, which includes, worst of all, the obstacle of their very large egos. In the process, Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen have created one of the smartest and funniest horror comedies ever.
The film takes its time. We slowly realize: this is not a comedy. In fact, it is a horror movie with comedic elements. It’s The Towering Inferno with dick jokes, a Shaun of the Dead where we get to see real live celebrities crushed and cannibalized. Rogen and Goldberg go all-in and somehow the thin premise is sustained for the film’s entire running time. This Is the End works best when you’re familiar with the past successes and failures of the actors involved with the film. You should be able to understand a Green Hornet jab in Rogen’s direction or Jonah Hill being razzed for his Oscar nomination. Because that’s the whole point here: even if we’re not obsessed with these actors, media saturation makes it impossible for us to avoid this sort of information. However, Rogen and Goldberg let sweetness overcome the profane. Lucky for us, the toll is only the end of the world and a few dead celebrities before we can reach that conclusion in this brilliant film.
3. What We Do in the Shadows (2015)
A horror comedy mockumentary about a group of vampires who live together in Wellington, New Zealand sounds absolutely bonkers—and it is. But though its originality is a strength, it’s the film’s warm humor, thoughtfulness and genuine chills that make What We Do in the Shadows a classic. The film is written and directed by and stars Jemaine Clement (of Flight of the Conchords) and Taika Waititi (who has been tapped to direct the upcoming Thor: Ragnarok), and the fact the two of them work together as a comedy duo—and also cast the film with a number of their friends—comes across in the realistic relationships between the main characters. This realism couples with the absolute insanity of following a group of friendly-yet-disturbed vampires as they roam the quiet streets of Wellington night after night, avoiding suspicion from regular citizens, vampire hunters and (in the film’s funniest recurring gag) their rivals: a pack of profanity-averse werewolves. Not only is What We Do in the Shadows one of the best in its genre, it also more widely announced Clement and Waititi as huge talents who are sure to do a lot more in the future.
2. Scream (1996)
While Wes Craven’s Scream still stands up today as a fright flick, it’s easy to forget that, when it arrived in 1996, the film re-invented the modern horror movie, adding a wit and cultural awareness to a genre that up until that point had relied mostly on supernatural and metaphorical terror. Scream made fun of itself as it was happening, daring audiences to guess who would live and who would die. The film overtly played with common horror tropes like “the final girl” and “sex equals death” with scary and hilarious results. When the most famous actor in the film (Drew Barrymore) dies in the opening minutes, audiences know all bets are off. But beyond its shocks and intelligence, Scream’s theme of teenagers terrorizing teenagers was not only terribly funny but terribly real. Writer Kevin Williamson (“Dawson’s Creek”) is one of the best writers about teens because he understands how to make the uncertainty and romance of that time of life both satirical and relatable. Scream also spawned three sequels and a television series, all pretty good as far as horror sequels go. But it’s the first film that will be remembered as revolutionary.
1. Shaun of the Dead (2004)
The first movie in Edgar Wright’s Cornetto Trilogy was a well-deserved breakout smash for the director and his co-writer and star Simon Pegg. Shaun of the Dead succeeds by means of dry and, at times, absurd humor: would we even notice if the lost souls around us were really zombies? As is typical for zombie movies, there’s plenty of social commentary to go around. Are the daily routines that make up our lives—getting ready for work, going to the pub—no different from what we would do if propelled solely by a mindless desire to sate hunger. Are the people who take low-paying jobs in the service industry gradually reduced to will-less husks?
What sets the movie above mere zombie parody is its heart. Wright isn’t afraid to explore the emotional horror of seeing your dead loved ones risen from the dead with no memory of you. While zombies may have never completely gone out of style, the movie perhaps anticipated the current onslaught of zombie entertainment, from the darkness of “The Walking Dead” to lighter fare like “iZombie.” And while zombies had previously made for effective horror comedy (Return of the Living Dead and Dead Alive come to mind), Wright and Pegg work in tandem to create one of the most wholly integrated blends of horror and comedy ever to shamble across the silver screen.
Honorable mentions: Army of Darkness, Evil Dead 2, Tucker & Dale vs. Evil, Zombieland