Wednesday, October 21, 2015

My Top 5 Horror-Comedy Films

Humor and Fear look a lot alike, as far as the body reactions go. Laughter is an expression of surprise. So, too, is a scream. The difference? Watching Curly hit Moe with a shovel, and watching a cat jump out of a darkened recess in the space ship when everyone is looking for the alien. Those two scenarios are considered miles apart. But something really interesting happens when you start moving them closer together.

The Horror-Comedy movie (or, if you prefer, the Comedy-Horror movie) is one of those rare, fragile and delicate kinds of movies that is very tricky to pull off without tipping the scales one way or the other. It takes only a nudge to turn a comedic horror movie into parody, or worse, a self-referential meta-movie that becomes insider baseball. Likewise, if you’re not funny enough, the laughs will be more of the nervous variety than the knee-slapping kind. Not that there’s ever any real belly laughs in a Horror-Comedy movie. It’s more of a sensibility; not quite a slice-of-life motif, but the best of their kind manage to use a combination of setting and dialogue to keep you rooted in the story, rather than overwhelm you with gags. 

So, obviously, for this list, I’m not talking about any of the Scary Movie-type films, or Mel Brooks movies, or anything like that. Those are comedies that make fun of the horror genre. Not the same thing. Ideally, these movies should be built on a framework or horror and then leavened with comedy. That’s my criteria, and you’re probably not going to agree with me much here, as comedy is perhaps the most subjective of all the storytelling forms. What’s funny to you will probably not be so funny to me, as we will no doubt see.

5. Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992)
This is the only incarnation of Buffy the Vampire Slayer I actually like. Christy Swanson is the Slayer, and she’s trained by Donald Sutherland, The Watcher, to kill the Master Vampire, played by Rutger Hauer. You know all of this, right? Or, maybe you know about the show, right? Well, this was the movie where it all started, and nothing against the Buffy fans of the world, but this movie could have been a stand-alone project and done just fine.

What’s funny about the movie is, well, the Joss Whedon dialogue. That’s about all he liked regarding the movie, and if you want to see what he would have done from the get-go, there’s the TV series for you to get lost in. As a stand-alone project, it’s a sly commentary on vampire movies without nodding and winking at the audience every ten seconds. There are some legitimately funny lines and scenes in the movie that echo other films and vampire stories—on purpose—but never really as homage. That cheerful irreverence is what allows the movie to keep its comedic edge.

This is probably the last movie were Luke Perry looked like a teenager—meaning, 19 and eleven twelfths if you squint really hard and think about Beverly Hills 90210. Davis Arquette is in the film, being funny, as is Paul Reubens in a rare turn sans Pee Wee Herman suit. The scary scenes are at least played straight, and there are a couple that genuinely chill the blood, if you’ve never seen Salem’s Lot before. I’m not a fan of the TV series, but as a one-and-done project, the re-watchability factor for Buffy the Vampire Slayer is quite high.

4. Jennifer’s Body (2009)
Diablo Cody’s sophomore offering after she won the Oscar for Juno for Best Original Screenplay was Jennifer’s Body, a “high school is hell” allegory that starred Amanda Seyfried and Megan Fox. Of the mixed reviews it received, there were complaints that it didn’t go far enough in any direction. Whatever. Jennifer’s Body drips sarcasm as often as it flings blood, and it’s a great reversal on the standard Male Monster Hunting Helpless Female Victims trope.

I almost feel sorry for Megan Fox. I’ve seen her act in some smaller, art-house movies, and you know what? She’s got pretty good acting chops. It only she could have kept her mouth shut, and her prima donna attitude in check, about those Transformer movies. Oh, well. It’s probably because she needed the money that she agreed to star in this wonderful flawed masterpiece.

Fox may have been typecast as Jennifer, the cheerleader who is sacrificed to a demon in the woods and walks out of it as a succubus, but she makes the most of the role, both in physical sexuality and a kind of ravenous promiscuity that does not end well for the guys, ever. Amanda Seyfried plays the ugly duckling to Fox’s swan as best, if unlikely, friends in high school. When Seyfried says to her, “You’re killing people,” Fox’s reply is, “No, I’m killing boys.” It’s nice to be on the other end of the objectification stick for once. Side note: only in Hollywood would Amanda Seyfried be cast as a wallflower. It’s like they’re not even really trying.

Diablo Cody’s screenplay is razor-sharp and rooted in pop culture references and witty dialogue, the very thing that made Juno work. I think this kind of humor translates well into the horror genre. There are also a ton of cameos by great character actors to fill out the minutes between the time that Seyfried and Fox exploitatively make out onscreen.

If you don’t like black comedy, and if the very sight of Megan Fox is anathema to you, feel free to give this one a pass. For the rest of you, give this one another look. It’s a darker, more sinister Heathers for the Millennial generation.

3. Slither (2006)
James Gunn’s biggest movie prior to Guardians of the Galaxy was this gross-fest he wrote and directed, set in a small southern town and starring Nathan Fillion, Elizabeth Banks, Michael Rooker, Gregg Henry, and several other character actors who end up playing rednecks in movies set in small southern towns.

Gunn, a Troma films alumnus, knows what we want, and he’s smart enough to recognize the absurdity of things coming out of downed meteorites that mutate humans and turn them into breeding pods for mind-controlling blood slugs that infect other humans and turn them into hive-mind zombies that spit digestive acid. There’s a lot going on in Slither, y’all. And thankfully, the cast is fast with the quips and the really quotable one-liners. Fillion is his usual likeable self, as is Banks, who is very comfortable with the B-Movie subject matter.

There are a few jump scares, naturally, but it’s the creep-out factor that’s cranked up to eleven. The implications of what the monsters can do to the human body makes you go “blargh” and if you don’t like films where the people have no control, then this one is going to bother you more than somewhat. Add to that a lot of phallic, intrusive, violating kinds of imagery, and you may need to ask someone to tell you when the gross parts are over so you can go back to watching the movie.

What saves the film is the bevy of local rednecks, spouting aphorisms, platitudes, and cutting through the unbelievable creepiness to deliver certain in-the-moment truths. Gunn’s Slither takes itself seriously, but it’s the reactions of the characters that allow us to laugh, even if it’s just a tension breaker.

2. Vamp (1986)
What do Long Duck Dong from Sixteen Candles, Rudy from Meatballs, and the other dickhead bully that wasn’t Robert Downey, Jr. from Weird Science have in common? They all starred in Vamp, a quirky little vampire story that wears its 80’s-ness like an ill-fitting pair of parachute pants. Based on its premise, there’s no way it could be made today. It’s a carbon-dated artifact, and that makes it a little more amusing in the re-watching.

Two frat house pledges have to procure a stripper for the big frat party, and so they travel, with the help (and borrowed car) of the campus rich nerd, to the Big City, where they find themselves in the Bad Part of Town, at this strip club called the After Sundown Club. I’m positive you can pick up the narrative cues from here.

There are some wonderfully weird moments, such as anytime Grace Jones is onscreen. Her initial transformation and feeding scene is gross, creepy, and really freaked me out when I first saw it. The guys run afoul of some local freaks early on, and they become a secondary source of tension as the gang separates and tries to get back together again and just survive the night.

The script holds up, again, in that 80s banter, quip a minute kind of way. And the guys are smart, and stay smart, even as they are making bad choices. I would not go so far as to call this a cult classic, but I think it’s an under-watched and under-appreciated film, precisely because it looks scary and ends up being pretty funny.

1. The Frighteners (1996)
It’s always fun remembering that Peter Jackson was considered a horror director for ten years before anyone slapped rubber feet on Elijah Wood and called him a hobbit. The Frighteners is, I think, one of Jackson’s best movies; a fully-realized world with several layers of story that unravel as the movie progresses, and it delivers some great laughs as well as disturbing, creepy images that really do stick with you afterward.

Jackson assembled an all-star cast for the movie, including Michael J. Fox as the guy who walks away from an automobile accident with the power to see ghosts and talk to them. This is how he now makes his living, actually working with two spirits that help him to solve these otherworldly exterminator problems. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Old hands like John Aston get to play bit parts, and cult-favorite actors like Jeffrey Combs get to chew the scenery in these bizarro character parts that you have to see to believe. Jake Busey makes a great psychopath, too, from the second he appears onscreen.

The story is pretty rich in detail, but not too complicated. There’s a lot going on in the movie and that’s part of what makes it such a satisfying film to watch.  Weta Workshop turned in a bunch of special effects for the film, some of them still a little clunky by modern standards, but don’t let that throw you out of the movie. Emotionally-speaking, the plot is equal parts Ghostbusters and Hell House, so strap yourself in for a unique movie that feels at times like other things, but ultimately is its own story, and moreover, indelibly stamped in Jackson’s signature kinetic cinematic style.

This is one small part of a much larger series of articles, the entirety of which are listed below. Enjoy!

My Top 5 Monsters on the Loose Movies  
My Top 5 When Animals Attack Movies
My Top 5 Mummy Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Frankenstein Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Creatures from the Deep Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Killer Doll Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Horror Anthology movies
My Top 5 Favorite Dracula Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Lovecraftian Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Haunted House Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Movie Maniac Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Killer/Creepy Kid Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Devils and Demons Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Ghost Story Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Monster From Space Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Zombie Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Vampire Movies
My Top 5 Favorite Werewolf Movies

1 comment:

Taranaich said...

I remember a forum I went to pre-Fellowship where everyone was complaining about how "the Dead Alive guy" was going to ruin LotR, & it would be a disaster. I, having enjoyed The Frighteners, was one of his staunchest advocates. "Give him a chance," I said. Then the films came out, and they all loved them while I... had issues (though still like Fellowship).

Was about to go to war over the lack of Young Frankenstein, but I see what you mean regarding satire being distinguishable from horror-comedy.