Horror and comedy are inherently symbiotic. They’re balancing forces to one another, helping to lower and raise tension and mood so that scares hit harder, and laughs come easier. Jokes calm the nerves, making a jump scare all the more unexpected and effective, while a good fright makes a comedy bit land way better as a palate cleanser than it ever would as a standalone.
Most horror films, all but the most bleak and sadistic examples, will have a delicate balance of humor and terror. I’d frankly go so far as to say that a good horror film can’t work without some comic relief. You can’t have the highs without the lows, and in order to successfully manipulate an audience in to feeling exactly what a horror filmmaker intends, they need to give the audience a full range of emotional stimulus.
But some horror films tweak that balance a bit, upping the humor so that it overshadows the scares. As a concept, this sounds fatalistic, especially giving all that junk I was just saying about balance. And yet, because horror and comedy play so well together, it often works exceptionally well.
I think this is likely due to the fact that horror, as a genre, is inherently ridiculous. A horror film by its very nature deals with conceptual and narrative elements that are completely fantastical and unrealistic, and therefore are the perfect incubation chamber for comedy, which in its purest form exists to lampshade the absurd and the outrageous.
Horror-comedy is probably one of the most popular horror subgenres, with films like Shaun of the Dead being huge hits both in terms of box-office gross and critical reception. In this, the greatest month of the year, I thought it would be fun to take a look at some maybe lesser-known horror comedies, movies that eschew the tightrope act altogether and instead choose to go all-in with the natural silliness that the genre provides. These movies are hilarious, while still serving as excellent examples of the same horror tropes that they’re often lampooning. In short, they’re the perfect choice for some Halloween viewing that keeps the mood light and embraces the fun of the season.
Here’s a few of my favorites:
Hailing from New Zealand, which has seen a rise in mainstream attention for its particular exported brand of quirky comedies thanks to the likes of Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement, Housebound takes the very basic concept of a girl stuck in a house where supernatural occurrences may be happening, and adds its own peculiar, often hilarious twists. It’s less straight-forward a comedy as something like What We Do in the Shadows, instead finding its humor more in the increasingly ridiculous escalation of the supposedly occult events happening in this unassuming home. On top of its delightful tone is a surprisingly complex plot, which doesn’t quite reveal all of its secrets until the very end, and at times makes some fairly out-of-left-field turns. Make no mistake, Housebound is not nearly as simple as it appears to be, and it’s all the better for it.
Attack the Block
Journeying across the pond to the UK, we have Joe Cornish’s 2011 “Aliens in South London” black comedy Attack the Block. Set in a London housing estate and starring a pre-Star Wars John Boyega and a pre-Doctor Who Jodie Whittaker, Attack the Block is a darkly funny, dry-witted survive-the-night horror film which features a group of predatory, hungry extraterrestrials making their way floor by floor through low-income apartments. It’s action-packed, suspenseful, and satirical as all hell, with likable leads and enough monster-mayhem to balance out the Edgar Wright-esque horror lampshading. Some of the humor is a bit region-specific, but enough comes through on translation that it’s still a great time. Just maybe watch this one with the subtitles on; Those accents are like hieroglyphs at times.
Bruce Campbell is the undisputed KING of the horror B-movie comedy, coming off of the iconic, cult-classic Evil Dead franchise. Which is why it surprises me that more people don’t seem to know about this little gem. Directed by Phantasm creator Don Coscarelli, Bubba Ho-Tep follows Campbell as an elderly man in an East-Texas nursing home who claims to be Elvis Presley. Yes, Bruce Campbell is doing an Elvis impersonation this entire movie, and yes, it’s amazing. Joining the maybe-Elvis is his best friend, a paraplegic black man who claims to be JFK. The premise is already great enough at this point even before the horror element makes itself known: An ancient Egyptian mummy, who has made its way to the nursing home through a convoluted series of events equally as ridiculous as everything else in this film. Elvis and JFK have to then face off against this undead monster, who shambles and limps along slowly in typical fashion, which for the first time in cinema history is actually a threat due to the fact that our protagonists rely on walkers and wheelchairs to get around. The film feels like three or four different SNL sketches got thrown together in a blender, and the result is an absolute riot that feels very much like the spiritual successor to old horror/comedy classics like Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy. I love this stupid movie so much.
Tucker and Dale vs Evil
After a fair amount of buzz during the festival circuit, this film achieved a decent level of notoriety in the mid-2010s due to its place in Netflix’s horror library, in a time where the streaming platform still had some quality content at its disposal. Tucker and Dale vs Evil is the best type of horror comedy, one whose central premise is a simple parody of general horror tropes and that mines its laughs and scares from the same source. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A group of college kids go out to a remote cabin in the middle of the woods to party, and run into a couple of sketchy rednecks before they start dying horribly. Sounds familiar right? Well what if the “rednecks” were just a couple of guys looking to relax at a lake house for the weekend, and the college kids were all so stupid that they kept accidentally killing themselves on their property? That’s the gist of Tucker and Dale, which hilariously flips the script on horror clichés and reverses the victim/killer dynamic in a fresh, unique spoof on the slasher genre. I’ve been quoting this one with my friends for almost a decade now, and it never gets old.
The most recent film on this list, having released in 2020 at the height of the COVID pandemic, Freaky flew beneath a lot of people’s radar. Which is a shame, because it’s a great horror twist on an old classic, the body-swap comedy. From director Christopher Landon, whose previous films Happy Death Day and Happy Death Day 2U ask the magical question “What if Groundhog Day was a slasher movie?”, Freaky poses its own genre-smashing variation: What if Freaky Friday was Friday the 13th? The answer is a charmingly funny, surprisingly endearing, almost John Hughes-ish high school coming of age story about a shy, nerdy girl swapping bodies with a raging psychopath played by Vince Vaughn. Along the way, she learns self-confidence, earns the trust of her alcoholic mother, and lands her high school sweetheart, all while in the body of a lumbering, murderous lunatic. And the best part is how played-straight its slasher elements are: This is a gory movie, one that can go toe-to-toe with the best of the best in terms of sheer gruesome kills. If “Mean Girls + Halloween” sounds like fun to you, you’ll absolutely love Freaky.
The last recommendation I have for you probably leans the least into its comedy aspects than the others on this list, but don’t let that deter you. This is a pitch-black comedy, in the vein of something like From Dust ‘Til Dawn, where the comedy supplements the horror more than the other way around. James Gunn’s directorial debut, before he ever dreamed of talking raccoons or Suicide Squads, Slither is a rural take on The Thing or Invasion of the Body Snatchers: An alien menace arrives from the stars, and begins slowly assimilating the people of a small town. Only, in this case, the aliens are disgusting little worm monsters, and the town is populated by people like Michael Rooker and Nathan Fillion. The humor is flip-flops between being gross-out and deadpan, with assorted redneck inhabitants of this small, South Carolina town rallying together (with varying degrees of competency) to combat the alien menace and survive the night. It’s a disgusting movie, like a lot of James Gunn’s work, but absolutely revels and relishes in its own grossness in a way that’s almost endearing. If you enjoyed Gunn’s Suicide Squad this year, odds are you’ll love Slither too. (Fun fact: The aliens in Slither actually cameo in Guardians of the Galaxy as a part of The Collector’s menagerie of alien species).
Being one of the most prolific flavors of horror, the horror comedy has a near-infinite supply of options for your viewing pleasure. From Fright Night to Child’s Play to Scream, terror and humor go together like peanut butter and jelly. With different styles of both comedy and horror, there’s a mind-bogglingly large number of combinations out there to try, and a little something available for everyone.
What are your favorite horror comedies? Shout out in the comments!
And as always, Happy Halloween!