When it comes to the horror genre, the appeal it has with audiences is simple- people have fun getting scared. In that controlled environment, the smiles and laughter represent an acknowledgement that the scare did its job properly, and the audience appreciates it. It’s because of this that the blending of horror and comedy comes so naturally, and it’s a sub-genre that has only grown more in the last decade. Movies such as Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland, Teeth, Pirahna 3D, and Cabin in the Woods have all had considerable success with audiences, not to mention the overwhelming popularity of the Evil Dead franchise, along with it’s current incarnation, the TV series Ash vs. Evil Dead. While all of these might be the first and most popular examples that the average viewer will think of, there are several horror-comedy classics that have either been forgotten, or have gone underappreciated. These are 5 horror-comedies that got lost in the shuffle.
5. The Frighteners (1996)
Despite visually striking special effects and standout acting performances, Peter Jackson’s The Frighteners wasn’t very well-received upon it’s release in the summer of 1996, mostly due to competition from mega-hit Independence Day, but it has since achieved cult-classic status.
The film follows the story of Frank Bannister (played by Michael J. Fox in his last live-action feature film before his retirement)- an architect with the ability to see ghosts, three of which he works alongside with as part of a con where he “exercises” them for a fee. Things take a dark turn when an entity that only Frank can see begins a murder spree, and Frank has to get to the bottom of it, as he is the the FBI’s prime suspect.
Most of the movie’s humor comes from the quirky portrayals of Chi McBride, Peter Dobson, and the late John Astin as several of the ghosts working with Frank (including a memorable cameo by R. Lee Ermey’s drill sergeant persona), but also most notably, Jeffery Comb’s disturbed FBI agent, Milton Dammers, who constantly steals the show with his off putting, yet hilarious persona. But it’s Jake Busey’s chilling performance as serial killer Johnny Bartlett that gives the movie it’s dark edge, especially during the violent flashbacks of the character’s backstory. In the midst of the lighthearted tone that the ghostly characters give us, the introduction of Bartlett is what injects the fear into the story, providing the audience with the realism necessary to crack the quirkiness, as elements of Bartlett’s story are all too similar to real-life teenaged serial killer, Charles Starkweather.
With a tone and humor that is reminiscent of such classics as Ghostbusters and Beetlejuice, the team of Peter Jackson and Robert Zemeckis provides us with a movie that is chilling as it is funny.
4. The Monster Squad (1987)
For anyone that was born before 1990, the magic of Richard Donner’s The Goonies resonates in our childhood memories, as it gave kids a reason to get out of the house and explore the outdoors with hopes of stumbling across danger and excitement. Armed with multiple similarities, Fred Dekker’s 1987 classic The Monster Squad gave us the terrifying flip side of that premise, where instead of frolicking around an amusement park of adventure, our child heroes encounter the classic Universal monsters we all grew up fearing.
In this story, Count Dracula, played by Duncan Regehr, assembles a team of monstrous cohorts, such as the Wolfman, Mummy, Gill-man, and Frankenstein’s Monster, in order to find an ancient amulet that will plunge the world into eternal darkness (always the end game of every supernatural antagonist). In the small town where the amulet can be found, only a club of local monster fanatics, with some help from a reformed Frankenstein’s Monster, can stop The Count and save the world.
The film’s funny moments come from the kids themselves, especially fan-favorite Horace, the “Fat Kid,” who seems to be the only monster club member who is just scared of everything, but who also has the funniest moment of the movie- kicking Wolfman in the groin while delivering the film’s immortal catchphrase, “Wolfman’s got nards!” Most of the family friendly humor also comes from Frankenstein’s Monster being introduced to 80’s pop culture by the club in the film’s obligatory montage. But even through the kid-friendly moments, Monster Squad does feature decently scary scenes, such as Dracula’s genuinely frightening brides closing in on club cool guy and 80’s greaser, Rudy, as he attempts to slay them with a bow and arrow, and Dracula showing no moral boundaries when he shockingly calls an 8-year old girl a “bitch” as he hisses at her.
While the film’s humor may be juvenile at best, it also may be one of the few movies that actually makes the Universal Monsters scary again (minus their pathetic attempt at the Mummy).
3. Arachnophobia (1990)
Historically, spiders featured in horror movies tend to be much bigger than normal in order to elicit the proper fear factor in the audience, whether they were tarantulas, like in Kingdom of the Spiders (1977), or even the size of dogs such as in 2002’s Eight-Legged Freaks. The genius behind 1990’s Arachnophobia was that through the use of various suspense techniques, the film was able to effectively scare audiences while keeping the spiders’ normal insect size by simply using the audience’s existing fear of spiders in everyday scenarios. Add various comedy gags, and you have one of the most effective horror-comedies of all time.
The movie starts off in the jungles of South America, where a nature photographer unknowingly stumbles upon an undiscovered species of poisonous spider, which bites and kills him in his tent, and proceeds to stow away with his corpse all the way back to his small hometown of Canaima, California. When the spider mates with an ordinary house spider, the deadly offspring produced quietly spread all over the town, leaving it up to the only one who suspects that something is afoot, town physician Ross Jennings (Jeff Daniels), to stop it. But of course, we come to find that Jennings is also deathly afraid of spiders.
Whether you suffer from actual arachnophobia or not, there’s not one of us that doesn’t have that lingering fear that a black widow may be hiding in our shoe, or any other small crevasse that we normally would come across in our everyday routines. The film plays off this fear perfectly, as we see several scenes where the small arachnids find their way inside one of the characters’ slippers, or a high school football player’s helmet, before delivering the fatal bite. These suspenseful scenes induce the kind of fear that makes you squirm, but more so out of fun, setting up a follow-up gag that fits right in. The comedic moments thrive off of the nervous laughter that these various scenes builds, such as a girl in the shower screaming in terror at one of the killer spiders, then screams again when her dad runs in and sees her in the nude. But the biggest comedic showstealer in the movie by far is John Goodman’s quirky town exterminator, Delbert McClintock, who, even though featured as a minor role, manages to have one of the more memorably funny scenes in the film, when he repeatedly tries to kill one of the spiders with pesticide before he gives up and merely steps on it instead.
Arachnophobia may not deliver the same kind of terror that similar creature features would, but it’s ability to make it’s audience squirm out of delight and laugh through it’s nervous energy makes this one of the best Friday movie night choices for any age.
2. Tremors (1990)
On paper, 1990’s Tremors should not have worked. A small, desert town that looked like it was left over from a Sergio Leone western gets invaded by giant underground worms, labeled “graboids.” While the movie did fairly well at the box office, it holds critical acclaim, while also becoming a huge hit on VHS and cable. The reason- it balanced scares and laughs perfectly, while introducing characters that are very likeable.
Corpses are popping up out of nowhere in the town of Perfection, Nevada . While handymen Val and Earl, played by Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward, suspect a killer is on the loose, it really turns out that giant prehistoric carnivorous worms lurk underneath the ground. They, along with the rest of the small town find that escaping isn’t so easy, as the creatures sense every vibration on the surface and attack with lightning speed to pull its’ victims below ground.
The appeal of Tremors isn’t so much the gimmicky monsters, but the charm that the characters exude. Bacon and Ward have great chemistry together as Val and Earl, and even find time to constantly bust each other’s balls in the midst of a monster invasion. While the rest of the townsfolk all have their moments in the movie, it’s Michael Gross’s survivalist gun nut Burt Gummer and his wife Heather, played by Reba McEntire, who comically steal every scene they’re in, starting with a memorable one where a “graboid” crashes through the wall of the couple’s rec room, and they manage to kill it themselves by using every piece of artillery they have at their disposal.
But it’s the situational terror that the film specializes in, putting the characters in a position where they can never touch the ground, for fear of being graphically devoured by one of the most disgusting looking orifices in movie monster history. It’s like every game of “hot lava” you ever played as a kid, but with horrific consequences.
The home video life that Tremors relished in took the film to supreme cult classic status, even spawning 4 direct-to-video sequels, and a TV series, all featuring immortal fan-favorite Burt Gummer in each installment.
1. Gremlins (1984)
While director Joe Dante was already no stranger to the horror-comedy world (he helmed 1978’s satirical Piranha, as well as the subtly humorous The Howling in 1981), 1984’s Gremlins was by and large his most popular hit, luring families into the theatre with the cartoonish nature of the title creatures, and then making them squirm with several suspenseful scenes capped with great jump scares as the payoff.
Gremlins starts off innocently, as a father wanders into New York’s Chinatown district, and finds Gizmo, a small, furry, friendly “mogwai” in one of the shops and buys it as a gift for his son, Billy, played by Zach Galligan. After Billy fails to uphold the 3 rules of taking care of the mogwai (no sunlight, no water, no feeding after midnight), Gizmo spawns several terrifying reptilian-looking, violent versions of itself that cause chaos and destruction of Billy’s small town.
Dante litters the movie with elements of slapstick comedy, from the lighthearted score, to the various scene inserts that portray the gremlins as fun-loving Looney Tunes that love to imitate and mock modern society. While the fear factor is derivative of the overall vicious look and nature of the gremlins, especially when they are attacking humans, the film never shows a gory aftermath, maintaining the delicate balance of scares and family fun. The film does, however, show it’s dark tone several times. Phoebe Cates’s character, Kate, sharing the story of how her father died trying to climb down the chimney on Christmas Eve almost seems disturbingly out of place in that particular moment, while alpha-gremlin “Stripe” uses handguns and chainsaws to violently attack Billy towards the film’s climax. Even the image of Santa Claus being mauled by a swarm of gremlins was enough to traumatize me upon my first viewing as a kid.
The elements of humor and horror intricately played off each other so well, Gremlins is one of the rare films that can make an 8-year old child both howl with laughter and cry furiously with fear in the same sitting.