Zach Cregger’s Barbarian is one of the surprise horror hits of the year. Combining wicked twists, an unorthodox structure, and a dash of good humor (Cregger’s background with the sketch comedy troupe, The Whitest Kids U’Know, certainly helped in that avenue), Barbarian became a word-of-mouth hit that’s now finding an even wider audience thanks to streaming on HBO Max. Fun, but still unsettling at times, Barbarian strikes a campy horror tone that’s both refreshingly irreverent and also cinematically satisfying.
With Spooky Season heading to a close, and Halloween right around the corner, you might be looking for more films that scratch this camp horror itch. If you’re looking for self-serious horror films, this isn’t the list for you. But if you’re looking for something that inspires laughter while you’re watching through the cracks in your fingers, something decidedly Barbarian-esque, check out these creepy classics below.
An American Werewolf in London (1981)
In her review of John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London, legendary New York Times film critic Janet Maslin described Landis’ film as “callow.” Maybe that’s exactly why we love this prototype of the horror-comedy genre. Landis’ remake of The Wolf Man follows an American fish-out-water, played by David Naughton, who loses his traveling companion and is turned into a werewolf after not heeding the warnings of the superstitious locals. The comedy is derived from the pair’s confidence that the supernatural folktales of the Old World are something to laugh at, utilizing the sardonic voice that Landis honed on Animal House (1978).
Before Kevin Williamson brought the term “meta” into the cultural lexicon with Scream (1996), An American Werewolf in London played into the idea of characters having a working knowledge of the terrors that they’re experiencing. The film also features makeup artist Rick Baker’s Academy Award-winning practical effects, which still dazzle and delight over 40 years later.
Basket Case (1982)
A gonzo, gory classic, Basket Case is more than just pure shock value, even if a majority of its appeal comes from zany creature design and gore. Basket Case centers on Duane Bradley (Kevin Van Hentenryck), a fresh-faced young man newly arrived in New York City with a locked wicker basket in tow. Inside the basket is his twin brother Belial, a deformed creature that was conjoined with Duane at birth, but was removed. Since then, the two brothers communicate telepathically and aim to take revenge on anyone that had a hand in separating them.
It’s a whacky premise that is somehow inexplicably poignant. Over-the-top kills and a grimy portrait of ‘80s New York are the main reasons to check out Basket Case, but there’s fun to be had admiring (or poking fun) at the low-budget production and amateurish performances.
The Cabin in the Woods (2012)
Is The Cabin in the Woods a takedown of the horror genre or a sincere, celebratory love letter? It’s up for interpretation, but writers Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon clearly are having a ball poking fun at classic horror movie tropes and stock characters. The film finds a recognizable group of close, yet disparate friends venturing off for a weekend trip at a secluded cabin, but little do they know that they’re being set up to be slaughtered by one of countless horror movie monsters of their own choosing.
Smart and winkingly funny before that sort of thing became commonplace, the movie features memorable turns from Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford as over-it bloodbath engineers. The Cabin in the Woods is the highwater mark of the meta-horror trend with enough surprises to keep audiences on edge.
Ready or Not (2019)
Part horror-comedy, part class inequality screed, Ready or Not doesn’t get too weighed down in its political commentary, instead using it as jumping off point to stage the most wickedly dangerous (and fun) game of hide-and-seek ever staged onscreen. Samara Weaving plays Grace, a woman who has just married into a wealthy family unaware of the fact that her new in-laws abide by a century-old agreement to play a game selected by a box of chance every time they add a family member via marriage.
Grace unluckily draws the card that corresponds to the most brutal game, a version of hide-and-seek where the bride must stay hidden until dawn or be sacrificed to Satan. The hunt and Grace’s fight against it are deliciously bloody, with each kill upping the ante for the next until the whole thing reaches a red-spattered climax. Ready or Not is playful, twisty, and gruesome fun.
Tucker and Dale vs Evil (2010)
Less a horror movie than a comedy of errors, Tucker and Dale vs Evil lovingly satires the teen slasher genre with aplomb. Sending up hixploitation films like Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Wrong Turn, the titular characters are not fearsome rednecks but just a pair of sweet-natured country boys that are unfairly stereotyped by a gang of judgemental, yuppie teens. When Dale rescues college girl Allison from almost drowning in the lake nestled by his recently purchased, remote cabin in the woods, her ignorant friends try to “save” her from someone they perceive as a hillbilly monster.
Sure enough, their rescue attempts result in horrific deaths, which only makes the surviving teens more assured that they are up against bloodthirsty, homicidal hillbilly killers. Plenty of laughs and buckets of blood ensue. Tyler Labine and Alan Tudyk expertly anchor this horror-comedy, imbuing it with the right amount of heart so the film’s message of not judging a book by its cover lands without being overly treacly. This one is a blast.
Also streaming on HBO Max, Malignant is almost begging to be seen as a double feature with Barbarian. Like Barbarian, Malignant has a truly batshit twist that also echoes Basket Case and must be seen to be fully appreciated. But let’s just say, this movie turns on a dime from being a fairly standard modern horror flick into deliriously silly, balls-to-the-wall lunacy.
Director James Wan is wild for this one, and not everyone will love it, but those that do will find it to be one of the most fun, out-there twists of the decade. Does the film have anything particularly interesting to say? Not really, but let the craziness wash over you, and you’ll be cackling at delight when Gabriel finally makes his presence known.
A generational touchstone that changed the slasher genre and expertly capitalized on ‘90s irony, for better or worse bringing the idea of self-aware characters to the mainstream, Scream is campy, funny, and horrific. Wes Craven is a horror maestro and he elevates this satirical whodunit with genuinely unsettling kills, including the film’s deliciously brutal opening fake-out. Many have spilled ink over the ways in which Scream changed the game, and the film inspired a trail of imitators that still lingers to this day.
Still, Scream settles on an expertly pitched tone between slasher send-up and the genuine article, and its endearing cast makes it an enticing rewatch even after you know all of its moves. Horror, comedy, and tantalizing twists all in one, there’s a reason Scream endures.