October means it’s a big month for scary movies. But the genre has for the most part strayed away from my tastes into the brutal (Saw, Hostel) or the vaguely creepy (The Eye, The Ring) but always oh so deadly serious. I really enjoyed the horror movies that were a bit more fun–still violent, still scary–but not trying quite so hard to have you leave the theatre in despair for the human race. We get the occasional throwback like Drag Me to Hell but they’re too few and far between for me.
The list below comprises my favorites to date–movies that stuck with me and often influenced the kind of humor in my horror stories, particularly in stories like New Whirled Ordure or Unlife of the Party.
The only rule I used was that the movie had to work as a horror story first. Ghostbusters for example is fantastic, but the ghosts are just props to dress the comedy. It has no intent to scare you, disturb you, or gross you out, so I didn’t consider it and similar films.
Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight
Tragically underrated and underseen horror film. You’ll quickly forget it’s a Tales from the Crypt production. Ernest Dickerson’s film resume is spotty outside of Demon Knight, but he’s recently done TV work on acclaimed shows like The Wire, Dexter, and The Walking Dead so he appears to have found his groove again. Demon Knight is a fairly typical “trapped in a house surrounded by bad-guys” story but the less you know about the details going in the better as the execution is terrific and the surprises are plentiful. Don’t even read the synopsis. Just pop it in and discover who’s who as the film unfolds. You’ll be treated to great work by veteran character actors William Sadler and CCH Pounder, get to see before you knew their names turns by Jada Pinkett Smith and Thomas Haden Church, and revel in a tour-de-force performance by Billy Zane.
Shaun of the Dead
Edgar Wright hasn’t made a movie I’ve disliked yet, and this is my favorite of all of them. It’s very close to being too slanted toward comedy for this list, but it’s got enough gore and creepiness and a traditional horror style ending to just push it over the edge even if it uses all of those elements to generate the comedy. It’s hard not to love these characters which makes the terrible things that happen to them that much more painful.
Return of the Living Dead
Dan O’Bannon, best known for writing the Alien screenplay and adapting Total Recall for the screen, never really got much of a chance in the director’s chair but this cult classic is proof that’s our loss. The cast is just about unrecognizable though they all do a decent enough job with roles that don’t require much range. The zombie food in this go around is a group of misfit teens and they’re a refreshing change from the cardboard jock/cheerleader dynamic we see more often. As things go bad, unleashing a horde of zombies on Louisville, Kentucky, we are treated to an early take on fast, smart zombies that will both frighten you and make you laugh. When a zombie picks up the ambulance mic and requests “send… more… paramedics,” you’ll know you’re in horror/humor heaven.
Dead Alive (aka Braindead)
As Peter Jackson has risen to the level of Hollywood’s elite directors with The Lord of the Rings, his origins as a low-budget horror director has recieved little attention. Dead Alive is gloriously over the top, and gleefully disjointed. It’s hard to see the focus and sentimentality of that later work here, but what is similar is the fun factor–the passion for making movies shines through. In the case of Dead Alive, it bleeds through. I wouldn’t be surprised if half the budget went to making fake blood to cover our hero, his adversaries, and the set. The scattershot narrative may jump from scenes of bloody carnage, to a slapstick kung-fu fight, to a dinner scene designed to nauseate you, but what is never does is bore you. If you’ve never seen it, even today there will be one scene–and I have no idea which one it will be for you–where you’ll be telling someone who likes horror movies “you’ve got to see this…”
Evil Dead II
Sam Raimi, like Peter Jackson, is now known for blockbusters like the Spider-Man movies but started with low-budget horror. Evil Dead II starts out as a summary of the first even lower budget Evil Dead movie (sans tree rape scene!) before veering off into the new, loonier content. The familiar ground of our cast of notables stuck in a remote cabin surrounded by evil quickly goes off the rails as our hero Ash’s hand becomes possessed and he has to go to extreme, and hilarious, measures to combat it. Bruce Cambell as Ash is so unforgettable, he’s rendered everyone else in the cast entirely forgotten. But you won’t care because you’ll be too busy quoting Ash for the rest of your life.
I’ll probably take the most heat for not including Re-animator and An American Werewolf in London. Close calls on both of those but a step below the list above for me. I originally had American Werewolf on the list before I decided Shuan of the Dead wasn’t too much of a straight comedy to include. There’s also Gremlins which would easily fit into my top ten if I expanded it. Scream would make the cut (hah!) too. Sequels like Return of the Living Dead II, Gremlins II, and Army of Darkness go almost entirely for laughs and so miss the list for that reason but if someone wants to say they’re no more borderline than Shaun of the Dead I won’t argue and they’re all great fun too. The Lost Boys is fun, but not quite funny enough or scary enough to get to the top. That pretty well rounds out my honorable mentions.
So which of your favorites did I forget?