Anyone Who’s ever laughed at someone taking a blow to the head on America’s Funniest Home Videos knows that there’s a fine line between the comedic and the serious. That fine line also exists in our relationship with horror movies; every time we’re startled when a cat jumps into frame, , we laugh. Some filmmakers have made art from walking that fine line by combining genuine scares with genuine hilarity. It’s a tough trick, and not everyone who tries it manages the same measure of success.
We identified a few of the very best scarily funny horror films. We hope they bring you some laughs, but you might want to keep the light on, just in case.
Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)
The original Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein trailer.
From 1931 until 1945, the monsters of Universal Studios ruled Hollywood. The very first cinematic universe featured Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, the Wolf Man, and more; they began crossing over with Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man in 1943.
Meanwhile, Abbot and Costello spent the ’40s building up an incredible resume as comedy hit makers, amassing 21 films together by 1948, mostly for Universal. Knowing that their monsters were hitting the end of their run, Universal decided to combine two of their big franchises in Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein.
The film was the Infinity War of its day, with the comedians running into Dracula (Bela Lugosi, in the only other time he played the count after the 1931 classic), Frankenstein’s monster (Glenn Strange), the Wolf Man (Lon Chaney, Jr., for the fifth time), and the Invisible Man (voiced by Vincent Price). Simultaneously spooky and funny, the film was a hit and led to four more horror team-ups for the comedic pair.
The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967)
The original trailer for The Fearless Vampire Killers.
Incredibly problematic today — because it stars and was cowritten and directed by Roman Polanski — The Fearless Vampire Killer nevertheless retains a strong critical reputation for combining authentic scares with loads of comedy. It wrings a lot of humor out of incompetent vampire killing and turns the notion of using a crucifix as a weapon on its head by proving it to be ineffective against Jewish vampires. Noted for Douglas Slocombe’s striking cinematography, particularly a treacherous journey across the top of a snowy castle and a show-stopping ballroom sequence featuring vampires that flit in and out of site as they fail to cast reflections in a room-length mirror, TFVK still contains much to be admired on a cinematic level.
On a depressing note, it was during the filming of TFVK that Polanski met and fell in love with his eventual wife Sharon Tate, who would be murdered by the Manson family just two years later. Despite the tragedy that surrounds it, the film maintains its craftsmanship and many funny moments.
Young Frankenstein (1974)
The original Young Frankenstein trailer.
Considered by many to be among the finest comedies of all time, Mel Brooks’ ode to Universal Monsters succeeds in part due to its scholarly attention to detail. Brooks used props from the 1931 Frankenstein in the lab, and he shot the film in black and white to echo the overall look and feel. The script, written by Brooks and star Gene Wilder, worked in nods to the earlier films while layering in plenty of sight gags and ribald comedy. It’s an approach that worked, as the film became an immediate success with a reputation that’s only grown. The American Film Institute considered it the 13th greatest comedy on its list of the 100 funniest American films.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
The “Time Warp” from The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Richard O’Brien created the concepts for The Rocky Horror Show while working as an actor in England. He wrote it as a musical love letter to the B-grade science fiction and horror films that he grew up loving. O’Brien and director Jim Sharman put it together for the stage in 1973. Producer Lou Adler saw it and bought the rights to turn it into a film. Sharman directed, O’Brien played Riff Raff, and history was in the making.
Initially panned by critics, The Rocky Horror Picture Show became a staple of midnight showings beginning with Waverly Theater in New York. It soon turned into the ultimate audience participation film, with viewers dressing as characters, bringing props, and clutching an alternative script with lines to shout in response to the actors on screen. Though the film only boasts a couple of outright horror moments, it’s steeped in the tradition and is full of funny moments and memorable tunes.
Love at First Bite (1979)
The original Love at First Bite trailer.
George Hamilton has been famous simply for being, well, the very-tanned George Hamilton for so long that people forget that he’s a skilled comedic actor. His entry on this list comes from this classic skewering of Dracula. Made in the same vein (yes, we went there) of affection that Mel Brooks hit for Young Frankenstein, Hamilton plays a Lugosi-esque Dracula who comes to New York in the ’70s in pursuit of the model he believes to be the reincarnation of his lost love. Much of the humor comes from Dracula’s interaction with the modern world of the 1970s, including discos and taxis. A high point is Dracula and Renfield’s (Arte Johnson) heist at a blood bank.
An American Werewolf in London (1981)
The trailer for An American Werewolf in London.
Some people hear that An American Werewolf in London is classified as a horror-comedy and are completely baffled; they remember it as being supremely scary. Amazingly, it does exist in a near perfect balance of bloodcurdling and gut-busting thanks to writer-director John Landis, an able cast, and the groundbreaking effects and makeup work of Rick Baker. A good portion of the humor is provided by Jack Goodman (Griffin Dunne) in a supporting role; after he dies in the initial attack that infects David Kessler (David Naughton) with lycanthropy, Goodman continues to haunt his friend through advancing stages of decomposition. The most profound memory most have of the film is Kessler’s transformation into the wolf. At nearly three minutes long, it’s a tiny epic of effects and acting that sticks with audiences long after the final frame.
The original Gremlins trailer.
Director Joe Dante keeps things light for the early stages of Gremlins, but once Spike and his buddies turn, he goes for broke. In fact, this is one of two films (the other being Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom) that directly led to the creation of the PG-13 rating. The scene most at issue is Lynn Peltzer’s kitchen showdown with a group of Gremlins in which she dispatches them via blender, microwave, and butcher knife. Despite the occasionally gruesome nature of the action, the film comes stocked with solid laughs, including a scene of a theater full of Gremlins becoming enraptured by a showing of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
Evil Dead II (aka Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn) (1987)
The original Evil Dead 2 trailer.
Sam Raimi’s original Evil Dead was as brutal as they come. Well-regarded for its innovative camera work and effects that were managed on a meager budget, it included few scenes that you would describe as funny. For the sequel, Raimi, co-writer Scott Spiegel, producer Rob Tapert, and star Bruce Campbell decided to lean in to more slapstick humor, echoing films that Raimi and Campbell had made together when they were younger. The result is a fiendishly funny gross-out, powered by a manic and quotable Campbell performance as hero Ash. An instant cult classic, the film went on to generate another sequel, Army of Darkness, in 2003, and a television series, Ash vs Evil Dead, that ran for three seasons on Starz.
Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988)
The original Killer Klowns from Outer Space trailer.
Even without this film, the three Chiado brothers would have a strong reputation as puppeteers and creators of effects. You can see their work in movies like Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (they did the “Large Marge” scene), Critters, and Team America: World Police. On Killer Klowns, they took their knack for prop creation to delirious heights, turning every manner of circus paraphernalia into something deadly. The film owns its deliberately goofy tone, but also manages to work in genuine scares. And if you’re already scared of clowns … stay far away. You’ll never look at cotton candy the same way again.
The original Beetlejuice trailer.
Much more funny that it is scary, Beetlejuice sprang from a screenplay by horror novelist Michael McDowell and writer-producer Warren Skaaren. But the real heartbeat of the film comes from famously eccentric director Tim Burton. Burton infuses the film with his patented goth surrealist aesthetic, wringing comedy out of social discomfort, surprising music cues, and a hilariously over-the-top performance by Michael Keaton. While some very little ones might still be freaked out by various depictions of the afterlife and some unsettling claymation effects, this film really can be enjoyed by the whole family.
The original Tremors trailer.
Witness the birth of a franchise that just refuses to die! Ron Underwood’s Tremors manages to juggle a number of tones, notably suspense and comedy. He also makes the bulk of the protagonists regular people from the wilds of Nevada, pulling additional laughs from unlikely heroes stranded in town surrounded by subterranean monsters that are driven by noise to attack. Kevin Bacon, Fred Ward, and Finn Carter do great work as two handymen and a grad student who try to warn the town and end up as the central characters. Country legend Reba McEntire, in her film debut, earns big laughs with Family Ties dad Michael Gross as a pair of overly enthusiastic survivalists who play a big role in battling the “graboids.” The movie was liked by critics, did moderate business at the box office, and positively exploded on video. It’s surge in popularity led to six more Tremors films and a short-lived TV series.
Peter Jackson’s Combined Early Work (1987-1992; 1996)
The trailer for Braindead (aka Dead Alive).
This one’s a bit of a cheat, but this is definitely a case of a career that adds up. Peter Jackson earned an Academy Award nomination for his screenplay for Heavenly Creatures in 1995 and conquered the film world with The Lord of the Rings. But before that, he had the reputation for deliriously funny gross-out cinema driven by inventive camera moves and clever writing. His feature debut, 1987’s Bad Taste, was the tale of aliens invading New Zealand to harvest the new intergalactic fast food delicacy: humans. Meet the Feebles, from 1989, was a demented take on the Muppets long before Avenue Q or The Happyland Murders. Jackson took a swing at the zombie apocalypse in Braindead (aka Dead Alive) in 1992. Cult successes all, they eventually led to Jackson landing Heavenly Creatures, which told the story of real-life murder while introducing Kate Winslet in her film debut. Jackson stepped back to his familiar horror vibe for The Frighteners in 1996, a movie that drew some praise for effects and stylish photography. The common thread in Taste, Feebles, Braindead, and The Frighteners is comedy of excess offset by a few truly shocking moments.
Shaun of the Dead (2004)
The original Shaun of the Dead trailer.
Edgar Wright made his mark as a director of television in Britain, including the much-loved comedy series Spaced, which starred its creator and writer, Simon Pegg. During the course of that series, the pair discovered their affinity for the zombie films of George Romero while doing a horror spoof episode. The two subsequently teamed up to write Shaun of the Dead; Wright would again direct, with Pegg as the star. The film became the first cinematic calling card for Wright’s signature visuals, involving frenetic camera moves, quick cuts, split-screens, and more. Populated by familiar faces from British television (notably Nick Frost), the film takes place during a zombie apocalypse in London; however, it’s also quite clever in occasionally making that the backdrop to another story about the relationship between Shaun (Pegg) and Liz (Kate Ashfield).
Filled with incredibly funny sequences and an obvious affection for the source material, Shaun of the Dead garnered critical praise and a number of awards while launching Wright, Pegg, and Frost into greater stardom. Wright recently directed the acclaimed Baby Driver, Frost is a regular on AMC’s Into the Badlands, and Pegg plays ongoing roles in both the Mission: Impossible and Star Trek franchises.
The trailer for Zombieland.
Every horror film and movie monster comes with a particular set of rules. This concept becomes central to many genre entries, including the Scream series. However, the rules for zombies have never been so frequently updated, addressed, and reiterated as they were in Zombieland. Beginning with a zombie apocalypse premise, the film follows four survivors (who only identify themselves to one another by their cities of origin) who try to reach the alleged safety of a California theme park. The four leads (Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone, and Abigail Breslin) have crackling chemistry and make the material work on levels both human and humorous. And if you ever had any doubts about the genius of Bill Murray, this one will eliminate those. It’s extremely entertaining overall, with some excellent scare sequences (especially Amber Heard’s zombified rampage in Eisenberg’s apartment).
What We Do in the Shadows (2014)
The trailer for What We Do in the Shadows.
Taika Waititi had already established himself with his directorial work on HBO series Flight of the Conchords and his feature film Boy. Conchords co-creator and star Jermaine Clement teamed up with the director to write and star in his vampire “mockumentary.” Following four vampire housemates in Wellington, New Zealand, Shadows takes the formula established by shows like The Real World and turns it on its head with horror, humor, and occasional shocks of violence. The film was well received by critics and audiences alike and has spun-off a mini-universe of sorts; a sequel called We’re Wolves is in preproduction, a spin-off television series called Wellington Paranormal just aired in New Zealand, and American network FX is preparing an American series version of the original film. The movie also helped catapult Waititi’s career forward, landing him at the helm of recent worldwide hit Thor: Ragnarok.
Featured Image: Young Frankenstein film poster. (Art by John Alvin; © 20th Century Fox.)
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