Review: Small Group — Movies for the Rest of Us with Bill Newcott

Small Group


Rating: PG-13

Run Time: 2 hours 1 minute

Stars: Sterling Hurst, Emily Dunlop, Matt Chastain

Writer/Director: Matt Chastain

In Select Theaters and on Most Streaming Services

One of the reasons faith-based movies don’t ordinarily clean up at the box office is because the faithful too seldom see themselves accurately represented in them — and also because to the uninitiated, believers in these movies seem kind of, well, weird.

Those opposing perceptions are attacked head-on in Small Group, a good-natured faith-based comedy that explores the tentative dance Americans choreograph every day as the faithful and faithless try to find common ground without sacrificing their core beliefs — or lack thereof.

Sterling Hurst stars as Scott, a documentary filmmaker who’s been hired by a sleazy film producer (Robert Riechel Jr.) to make a movie that rips the cloak of hypocrisy from a community of Atlanta Christians, revealing them to be the fakers he’s convinced they are. A generally good-natured agnostic with no religious axe to grind, Scott at first resists. But a job is a job, so he dons a pair of Google Glass-like camera/eyeglasses and embeds himself in the fellowship, recording every interaction along the way.

The film merrily skirts the probability that this sort of Candid Camera scam would most likely land someone in jail. But Hurst is such an appealing actor, reminiscent of Daniel Stern in his goofily clueless Home Alone days, that we immediately give his character the benefit of the doubt. Along for the ride is Scott’s wife Mary (Emily Dunlop of TV’s Doom Patrol), trying to be supportive but uneasy about making “friends” with the subjects of her hubby’s guerrilla documentary.

Small Group wrings its laughs — and a few thoughtful moments — from the couple’s fish-in-baptismal-water experiences. An uncomfortable Sunday service seems to them more like a rock concert than a worship event, and they’re distressed when their brand-new red letter Bible proves no match for the digital Scriptures their pew mates wield on their smart phones.

Of course, once they’re enlisted into a small group of church members, the couple soon discover this is not the flock of weirdos they’d expected. And once Scott’s ruse is inevitably discovered, his enraged subjects have to decide whether or not there’s a place in their hearts for unbelieving — and occasionally duplicitous — outsiders.

It’s all as light as an Easter morning balloon launch — until the film takes an unexpectedly dramatic, almost documentarian turn when Scott is invited to accompany the men folk on a mission trip to Guatemala City. There, writer/director Matt Chastain (who also plays one of the small group guys) turns his camera on the real-life squalor of the city’s slums — and the work of Engadi Ministries, a program that tries to save young men from hurling themselves into the dead-end violence of local street gangs. Through Scott’s eyes, we meet several of these youngsters — their bodies covered with tattoos, their eyes ablaze with suspicion and anger — playing themselves with riveting intensity.

It’s quite a transition, admirably pulled off by first-time director Chastain, who momentarily sheds the friendly confines of an off-kilter Sunday School comedy to dip his toes into a kind of street-smart cinematic realism that owes more to Rossellini’s Rome: Open City than to Heaven Is for Real.

Too often, faith-based movies get written off as second-class cinematic citizens. But the genre has given us some of Martin Scorsese’s most thoughtful work (The Last Temptation of Christ; Silence), more than a few Best Picture Oscar Winners (Chariots of Fire and A Man for All Seasons among them), and even a classic comedy (Jim Carrey’s Bruce Almighty). Small Group doesn’t quite breathe that same rarified air, yet it succeeds in using film to explore the kinds of crosstalk that can build bridges among people of all faiths — or no faith at all.

Featured image: Still from Small Group (Limesoda Films)

The Mary Tyler Moore Show Remains a Television Landmark

It’s easy to say that a show redefined television, but it’s much harder to prove. In the case of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, you might say that the proof is all around. The series recreated the mold of the ensemble comedy. It changed the way that comedy shows were directed. It had a cast that was strong enough to spin off three separate characters into their own series (one of which was a drama!). And it wasn’t afraid to engage in very serious topics, including some that were taboo for the time. The show still shows up on “Best of” lists, including best writing, acting, and direction, as well as Best Finale and Funniest Moment (seriously, the Chuckles funeral). It’s a program where everything still holds up remarkably well five decades later. That’s right; The Mary Tyler Moore Show launched 50 years ago, and TV is much better because of it.

Series co-creator Allan Burns started writing in animation, working on Jay Ward productions like The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. He co-created The Munsters and worked as a story editor on Get Smart. James L. Brooks broke into TV news in the 1960s on the writing side. Brooks met Burns at a party, and Burns got him TV writing work. After working on several shows, Brooks created Room 222; when he left after the first year to develop other projects, he got Burns to come aboard as producer. Soon after, Grant Tinker, a programming executive at CBS, hired the duo to create a show for his wife. His wife happened to be Mary Tyler Moore, who was already beloved and famous for her long-running role as Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show. Leaning on Brooks’s background, they decided to build the show around the goings-on in a metropolitan TV newsroom with Moore’s Mary Richards as the associate producer at the center.

Mary Tyler Moore on casting (Uploaded to YouTube by FoundationINTERVIEWS)

The nucleus of the newsroom cast was Moore, Ed Asner, Gavin MacLeod, and Ted Knight; Valerie Harper and Cloris Leachman played Mary’s best friend, Rhoda, and neighbor, Phyllis, respectively. Over the years, as Harper and Leachman left for spin-offs devoted to their characters, the cast would add Georgia Engel and Betty White to great effect. The Mary Tyler Moore Show managed to be both entertaining and relevant. Mary Richards was single throughout the tenure of the show, and not forcing the character to be defined by a man or relationship was groundbreaking. Similarly, Rhoda grappled with body image issues. No character was one-note; even Ted Knight’s Ted Baxter, for his incompetent bluster, had moments of humanity and deepened further when Engel’s Georgette was added to the cast as his wife. The shading of each character, rather than simply assigning a type and relying on it, became a sitcom staple.

While the actors made it all work, the writing and directing had a great deal to do with it. Brooks would apply the dynamics of ensemble building to shows like Taxi and The Simpsons. When you watch an episode like “Chuckles Bites the Dust,” you’re witnessing something akin to an eight-sided tennis match; each character is bouncing jokes and responses back and forth, but the jokes are all rooted in that particular actor’s character. When Mary can’t control her giggles during the clown’s funeral, and later bursts into tears, it’s funny because a) it’s funny, b) it’s believable human behavior, c) it’s all true to what we know about Mary, and d) it’s deeply relatable. If you’re thinking that the same principles apply to many episodes of the show, you’d be right.

Another important facet of the show was the fact that it didn’t turn its back on difficult topics in society. Like the aforementioned personal struggles that Mary and Rhoda had, characters faced personal difficulties or were involved in plots that brought up issues of the day (and today). One memorable moment came in the episode “You’ve Got a Friend;” when Mary’s visiting mother told Mary’s father not to forget to take his pill, he and Mary both replied, “I won’t,” implying, of course, that Mary was on birth control. The show also addressed equal pay for women and many more storylines that remain relevant today.

As the show went on, appreciation for it grew. It pulled in 29 Emmys, including three for Outstanding Comedy Series in 1975, 1976, and 1977. Moore also won three times for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series. It was a solid Top 20 entry in the ratings for most of its run, with three years spent in the Top Ten. When the show received a Peabody Award in 1977, it came with the state that the show had “established the benchmark by which all situation comedies must be judged.” Since the show’s end after its seventh and final season, it has routinely placed on lists recounting the best in television, including lists from TV Guide, Entertainment Weekly, and USA Today. In 2013, the Writers Guild of America put it number six on their list of the best written television series of all time.

Statue of Mary Tyler Moore
Statue of Mary Tyler Moore in Minneapolis, MN (James Kirkikis / Shutterstock)

After the series ended in 1977, a third spin-off, Lou Grant, was launched. Ed Asner led the series for five seasons, during which it won 13 Emmys, two Golden Globes, and its own Peabody. Plans were made for Mary and Rhoda to reunite in a sitcom; however, those were later abandoned. Mary and Rhoda did meet up again in the 2000 TV movie Mary and Rhoda. A 2002 reunion special brought the entire surviving cast back together (Knight had passed in 1986) for a retrospective look at the series. Today, all seven seasons are available to watch on Hulu.

After the series, Moore worked continuously across film, television, and theater. She earned an Oscar nomination for her role in 1980’s Ordinary People. She and Tinker divorced in 1981, and she married Robert Levine in 1983. A type 1 diabetic, Moore served for years as the international chairperson for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. She was also active in animal rights and in the restoration and preservation of Civil War history. Moore passed way in 2017 at the age of 80.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show left an indelible mark on television. You can see its DNA in everything from Cheers to Friends to The Office. Any show with a workplace at the center is bound to be compared to it, and any show that features adults talking to each other like adults recalls its boldness. Few shows are daring enough to make you laugh at a clown’s funeral; far fewer could make it one of the most memorable scenes in TV history. A classic by any measure, the show’s impact likely never go away. It certainly made it, after all.

During the run of the show, the Post went behind-the-scenes with Moore in a wide-ranging interview from 1974. You can read that story below.

Cover of the October 1974 issue of the Post
Read “$30 a Week and Lots of Credit Cards” by Frederic A. Birmingham from the October 1974, issue of the Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

Featured image: Cast photo from the television program The Mary Tyler Moore Show. After the news that most of the WJM-TV staff has been fired, everyone gathers in the newsroom. From left: Betty White (Sue Ann Nivens), Gavin MacLeod (Murray Slaughter), Ed Asner (Lou Grant), Georgia Engel (Georgette Baxter), Ted Knight (Ted Baxter), Mary Tyler Moore (Mary Richards). (Publicity Image from CBS Television; Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Caddyshack Turns 40: Nine Things You Didn’t Know About the Cinderella Story

EPSN thinks it might be the funniest movie ever made about sports. Some point to it as another example of how Saturday Night Live incubates talents that are suitable for the big screen. And others consider it the best of the “slobs vs. snobs” subgenre of comedy. However you score it, Caddyshack has been one of most popular and most loved film comedies (almost) since its release 40 years ago this week. In honor of its longevity and continued hilarity, we’ll shoot a (front) nine full of things you didn’t know about Caddyshack.

1. It Was Created by Caddies

Caddyshack star Bill Murray is regular on the Celebrity Pro-Am circuit (Uploaded to YouTube by PGA Tour)

Writer and co-star Brian Doyle-Murray had the idea for the film based on his own experiences working as a caddie. His brothers John and Bill Murray had as well, as had their friend Harold Ramis. Brian, Bill, and Ramis had all been members of the Second City comedy troupe; Ramis also worked with Bill Murray on The National Lampoon Radio Hour and was one of four writers credited on Murray’s film, Meatballs. Douglas Kenney, who had founded National Lampoon magazine and co-wrote National Lampoon’s Animal House with Ramis and Chris Miller, came aboard and collaborated with Ramis and Doyle-Murray on the screenplay for Caddyshack. In 2002, the Murrays and their fourth brother, Joel, created and appeared in the Comedy Channel series The Sweet Spot, which featured the brothers playing golf at top-notch courses.

2. What Ramis Really Wanted to Do Was Direct

With his background writing for SCTV, National Lampoon, and two successful screenplays under his belt, Ramis was able to assume the director’s chair. Doyle-Murray took the role of caddie supervisor Lou Loomis, while Kenney would take a background role as one of Al Czervik’s (Rodney Dangerfield) hangers-on. The small scale of Kenney’s role was similar to his turn as Stork in Animal House, which he assigned himself and where he had only two lines; he’s the one who ultimately leads the marching band into a dead end. Brian and Bill’s brother John pulled double-duty on the film, appearing as a caddie extra and working behind the scenes as a production assistant.

3. Chevy Chase Was a Logical Fit

The “Be the Ball” Scene (Uploaded to YouTube by Movieclips)

Although Chase had passed on the role of Otter in Animal House (which was played by Tim Matheson), he agreed to join Caddyshack. Kenney was one of his closest friends, and he’d worked with Ramis and Bill Murray on The National Lampoon Radio Hour. An original member of the Saturday Night Live cast, Chase had also been the first to leave and find film success. By the time that he shot Caddyshack, he’d already had a hit with Foul Play. For his part, Murray was still on the show and would work shooting his scenes in the film around his SNL schedule. Doyle-Murray was also still working for SNL as a writer and would later be a full cast member.

4. There Are Too Many Palm Trees in Florida

Production began in the fall of 1979. Rolling Hills Country Club in Davie, Florida served as the location for the shoot; today it’s called Grande Oaks Golf Club. Ramis chose that location because it was one of the few Florida courses that didn’t have palm trees. The director was particular about that because he wanted the movie to feel like it could be in the Midwest. One downside of shooting in Florida was that the production had to contend with delays caused by Hurricane David, which briefly touched Florida on September 3.

5. The Film Made Rodney Dangerfield a Movie Star

Rodney Dangerfield was already established as a stand-up comedy star before Caddyshack. Dangerfield broke out after an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1967. He would regularly return to that show and became a popular guest on programs like The Dean Martin Show and The Tonight Show (where he was a guest 35 times). In 1969, he and Anthony Bevacqua created Dangerfield’s, a comedy club in New York, which became one of the home bases of HBO’s Young Comedian Specials. Dangerfield’s stand-up background and Chase and Murray’s grounding in sketch comedy made them all quick on the draw with improv, an environment that led to their roles getting expanded and improvised bits (like Murray’s flower-destroying fantasy monologue about playing at Augusta) making the final film. For his part, Dangerfield was launched into leading his own film comedies like Easy Money.

6. We Should Probably Get These Two Together

The “Mind If I Play Through?” Scene (Uploaded to YouTube by Movieclips)

The movie was already shooting when Ramis realized that two of the biggest draws in the film, Chase and Murray, had exactly zero scenes together. That may not have entirely been by accident, as Chase and Murray had famously had a contentious run-in backstage at SNL when Chase had returned to host the show. Nevertheless, Ramis, Chase, and Murray went to lunch together and worked out the scene where Ty Webb (Chase) plays a late-night round through groundskeeper Carl’s (Murray) place.

7. The Gopher Has Some Star Wars in Him

John Dykstra won an Academy Award for special effects work that he did for Star Wars, but he had already been famously pushed out of Industrial Light and Magic by George Lucas for budget and scheduling issues before that film was finished. Dykstra would go on to create special effects for a number of other high-profile projects, including the original pilot and theatrical film for Battlestar Galactica. Dykstra’s team created the gopher and his lair while also handling lightning and other visual effects in the film.

8. The Kenny Loggins Film Reign Begins Here

Kenny Loggins performing “I’m Alright” (Uploaded to YouTube by Kenny Loggins)

Kenny Loggins was already a music mainstay before Caddyshack. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band did four of his songs in the 1970s, which is also when he formed his hit duo with Jim Messina. Loggins and Messina did seven albums in five years. He co-wrote the Doobie Brothers hit “What A Fool Believes” and wrote “I Believe in Love,” which Barbra Streisand sang in 1976’s A Star is Born. He contributed “I’m Alright” to the Caddyshack soundtrack, and it was used as the main theme of the film (and for the gopher’s memorable dance outro). He earned the nickname “The King of the Soundtrack” for his film work throughout the 1980s, which included hit songs for Footloose, Top Gun, Over the Top, and the less-said-the-better Caddyshack II: Back to the Shack.

9. The Hard Road to Classic Status

Harold Ramis on Caddyshack 30 Years Later (Uploaded to YouTube by American Film Institute)

The film was financially successful, but critics weren’t too kind. However, fans embraced it and it went on to an even bigger second life on cable and video. Critics reevaluated the movie over time as they realized how deeply funny and quotable it was. Bill Murray and Harold Ramis (on camera this time) reteamed the next year in Stripes, which was an even bigger success; Murray and Ramis did three more films together: Ghostbusters, Ghostbusters II, and Groundhog Day. Chase had major successes for the rest of the decade, including Fletch and three films in the National Lampoon’s Vacation franchise. Today, Caddyshack is regarded as a comedy classic and regularly places on lists of the American Film Institute, such as 100 Laughs and 100 Movie Quotes. The Murray brothers also own the Murray Bros. Caddyshack restaurants, two of which are still open in St. Augustine, Florida and Rosemont, Illinois.

Featured Image: Bill Murray attends Isle of Dogs New York special screening at Metropolitan museum on March 20. 2018. (lev radin /

Halloween Hijinx: 15 Scarily Funny Horror Films

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.

Gremlins (1984)

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.

Beetlejuice (1988)

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.

Tremors (1990)

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.

Zombieland (2009)

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.)