Laughing At Our Fears: The Rise of the Comedy-Horror
by Jaq D. Hawkins
Comedy-Horror films are nothing new. As far back as the 1920s people were making Comedy-Horror shorts, like Haunted Spooks (1920), The Haunted House (1921) and The Ghost Breaker (1922). However, these were invariably of the ‘Scooby-doo’ school of Horror where the ghost is eventually uncovered to be just faked hauntings by someone who stood to gain by getting rid of someone who stood between them and a coveted legacy.
By 1925, Dr. Pyckle and Mr. Pryde brought spoof comedy into the world of Horror. The plot concerns a scientist who uses himself as a guinea pig when he experiments with a new drug that changes him into a compulsive prankster, very like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but with practical jokes. This was still the era of silent films and several movies were unintentionally funny more through over acting than plot, including The Monster (1925) starring the original Lon Chaney.
Through most of the 1930s and 1940s, films continued to be of the unintentionally funny sort until in 1946, when the Bowery Boys starred in Spook Busters, a precursor to the idea for Ghostbusters. Comedy-Horrors had moved into feature length films by then and sound had been added, opening up new opportunities for comedy expression through sound effects as well as dialogue and music. Hammer Films had opened its doors in 1934 and the classic Horror films that defined an age were beginning to churn out, though they were not intended as comedies.
In 1948, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein marked a return to intentional Comedy-Horror, again, spoofing Horror films of the past as they meet Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula and the Wolf Man. The film must have been successful, as it was followed up by Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in 1953, followed by Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy in 1955. Also in 1953, Dean Martin and comedian Jerry Lewis starred in Scared Stiff, one of the first Comedy-Horror films that wasn’t a spoof of other films.
Comedy-Horror was given another nudge in 1964 with The Comedy of Terrors starring Vincent Price and Peter Lorre, and again in 1966 with Carry On Screaming, The Ghost and Mr. Chicken and Munster, Go Home! But the mixed genre really came into its own in the 1970s, starting with The Werewolf of Washington (1973) starring Elvira, followed by The Cars That Ate Paris (1973), Phantom of the Paradise (1973) and Young Frankenstein (1973). Phantom of the Paradise, a musical starring Paul Williams that combined the concepts of The Phantom of the Opera with Faust, paved the way for Musical-Comedy-Horror and in 1975, The Rocky Horror Picture Show strutted its way into our collective media consciousness. This would prove a hard act to follow and the next few years saw more surreal Comedy-Horror in the form of Hausu (1977) and Attack of the Killer Tomatoes (1978), then George Hamilton brought the laughter back to Horror spoofing with Love at First Bite (1979).
The 1980s were nicely set up for everything from Horror with a few laughs thrown in as in Motel Hell (1980) to the intentional Comedy-Horror that we see in films like An American Werewolf in London (1981), The Munsters’ Revenge (1981), National Lampoon’s Class Reunion (1982), Ghostbusters (1984), Gremlins (1984), Little Shop of Horrors (1986) and The Witches of Eastwick (1987). The original Little Shop of Horrors in 1960 was intended as serious Horror (No, really!), but the Comedy-Musical remake was intended as pure amusement. Elvira gave her acting career another comedy push in 1988 with her own film named after her series, Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, and 1988 also saw the classic Comedy-Horror, Beetlejuice, come into fruition. The Comedy-Horror sub-genre had become well established.
It continued on through the 1990s with Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990), Frankenhooker (1990), Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995), and some embarrassingly bad attempts at sequels, a musical about cannibals, and other efforts to keep the sub-genre alive. I must give a mention to Wolf (1994), starring Jack Nicholson and Michelle Pfeiffer. Though the main plot is a poignant study of aging and business politics, the comedy elements in this one have Nicholson’s special touch and keep the film entertaining from the first bite.
If you ask someone today what movies would fall into the Comedy-Horror category, they are likely to cite the Scary Movie series and Shaun of the Dead (2004). The original Scary Movie was released in 2000, with sequels appearing in 2001, 2003, 2006 and 2013, each spoofing a different area of the Horror genre. Elvira pops up again in 2001 with Elvira’s Haunted Hills and the list of Comedy-Horror films released in the twenty-first century has grown longer each year, though few reach the popular notoriety of Shaun of the Dead. Obviously comedic titles like Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead and Stupid Teenagers Must Die! (2006) have increased exponentially with the age of digital filmmaking that makes it easier for independent filmmakers to produce their own visions of Comedy-Horror, though not all of them induce the mental imagery of titles like Zombie Strippers (2008), which I must admit is one of many that I’ve personally given a miss. It was actually in 2005 that I began my own foray into indie filmmaking which has resulted in years of learning film editing and the footage for two films in my hands; Graveyard Shift: A Zomedy of Terrors and Old Blood, both of which I hope to release in 2015-16. Both are Comedy-Horror features dealing with zombies and vampires, respectively.
Meanwhile, recent years have seen the release of a comedy approach to an old Horror soap opera, Dark Shadows (2012) starring Johnny Depp, as well as John Dies at the End (2012) based on the book of the same name, Vampire Academy (2014), which bears the tagline: They Suck at School, Ghostbusters 3 (2015) and a selection of dubious offerings which include another sequel, Return of the Killer Klowns from Outer Space in 3D (2015). I remember well the original Attack of the Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988). Whether it was intended as Comedy is perhaps debateable. If it had been made twenty years earlier, I would easily believe that it was intended as serious Horror in the same way that the original Little Shop of Horrors was meant to disturb a more innocent society.
I’m fairly confident, however, that the sequel will be made for Comedic value and that the combination of Comedy and Horror will only increase over time. We do love to laugh at our fears. As real life becomes more and more stressful and filled with genuine concerns for our continued safety in any number of ways, banishing those fears with laughter would seem the only way to stay sane.
Jaq D. Hawkins was originally traditionally published in the Mind, Body, Spirit genre, but moved to indie publishing soon after releasing her first Fantasy fiction novel. She currently has five novels released which include the Goblin Series (Dark Fantasy) and The Wake of the Dragon (Steampunk Adventure). A dark science fiction novel is in progress, as well as further writings in occult subjects, some of which continue to be traditionally published while others are destined for the indie market.