Humor and fear are very similar. Each elicit involuntary responses. A scream is as much a reflex as a laugh. They are both physiological ways to deal with the unexpected. Horror comedies mix the two different physiological responses and swap them. Sometimes you need to scream and you wind up laughing but sometimes you expect to laugh but let out a shriek. The mixture fills several emotional needs at the same time. The movies have been scaring up laughs since Harold Lloyd, a suicide attempt survivor, was almost forced to spend a year in a haunted house in Haunted Spooks in 1920.
Sometimes the horror comes from regular human beings reacting to monstrous situations and sometimes the humor comes from monsters reacting to human situations. Here are 32 of the scariest movies we laugh at.
32. Spook Busters (1946)
Long before Ghostbusters, The Bowery Boys set up shop and dusted for ghosts in Manhattan. Leo Gorcey, Huntz Hall and Bobby Jordan had ghostly encounters before, when two East Side Comedies, Ghosts On The Loose and Spooks Run Wild, paired the boys from the city with the actor from Hungary, Bela Lugosi. The young actors even got the quintessential Dracula to curse on camera, in a scene they knew the producers wouldn’t bother to cut because they didn’t pay that much attention to screenings.
Like those films, the mystery at the heart of Spook Busters has a rational explanation and the only thing that gets murdered is the English language by Slip. Finally reunited with original Dead End kid Gabriel Dell, the paranormal investigators uncover illegal basement experiments being done by a fairly peeved scientist. The film was made under the working title Ghost Busters.
31. The Ghost Breakers (1940)
Before Spook Busters, Bob Hope went chasing ghosts. There was also a short-lived TV series with Sgt. O’Rourke and Corporal Agarn from F-Troop, Forrest Tucker and Larry Storch respectively, called The Ghost Busters. This proves that haunting cleanup work is a good second job for comedians. It certainly beats selling aluminum siding, just like having a frog in your throat beats having a knife in it.
This was a remake of the lost 1922 silent film The Ghost Breaker. The ghosts in this movie have a lot of spirit. The Ghost Breakers starts with Hope, as radio crime columnist Larry Lawrence, going after gangsters and winds up helping monsters clear Paulette Goddard’s good name. Great atmosphere and Anthony Quinn abound.
30. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)
Okay so Harry Potter is more like Rodney Dangerfield going Back To School than Jessica Harper learning ballet in Suspiria and would have benefited from casting a young John Oliver, but we get to see Kenneth Branagh make merciless fun of himself and have a blast doing it.
While there are few intentional laughs in the Harry Potter series and the horror is aimed at the uninitiated, Chris Columbus still manages to leave the boy who would not die Home Alone. Is it me or does Maggie Smith turn everything she does into comic gold?
29. Blood Sucking Freaks (1976)
This movie is both intentionally and unintentionally funny. It’s mainly scary because the two lead actors both died violently after the movie came out. In case you haven’t seen it, because most people haven’t, Master Sardu, played by the late Seamus O’Brien, and his midget sidekick Ralphus, run an incredibly realistic dungeon torture show that is driving the critics mad. But it’s not S&M, it’s art.
Shot on the usual Troma budget of lunch and gas, the performances and gore fly past camp into farce at times, but they really stretch the imagination. For indie horror lovers, this is chicken soup for the soul, but you have to boil it up while the chicken’s still alive.
28. Bad Taste (1987)
Peter Jackson could have stopped right here and said good night and I would have been satisfied. A cannibal picture called Bad Taste sounds like it could have been one of those Mondo movies, but no, it’s a front for an interstellar McDonald’s, you can’t imagine the trillions served. Shot for less than no money in locations he and his friends probably picked on the fly, Jackson indulges his every whim to the delight of indie horror fans to this day.
He wrote, directed, photographed, co-edited, paid for it and starred in it. I think he even applied the makeup, mixed the Karo syrup with the food coloring and molded the brains, some of which look like they were just yanked from a freezer. It supplies the scares too.
27. Basket Case (1982)
The monster in the wicker basket looks like a half finished art project that was pulled out of the kiln too soon, but that makes him no less poignant or frightening. The best part is seeing Times Square the way it should be remembered. C
aptured on gritty 16 mm, Frank Henenlotter tells a heartwarming story of two brothers from out of town who make it in the city. Kevin Van Hentenryck is clearly loyal to the twin who was ripped from him too soon.
26. Trick ‘r Treat (2007)
Always check your candy, this movie makes it looks less appetizing than getting a rock in your goodie bag and Charlie’s Brown’s an asshole, anyway. The people of the normally sleepy town of Warren Valley, Ohio, take their Halloween seriously, especially the guy with the NRA card in his pocket and a shotgun over the fireplace. The little town celebrates Halloween like it’s a pre-Christianity Celtic holiday and invite demons, werewolves, zombies and school bus drivers for rituals that occasionally include human sacrifice.
Anna Paquin plays a 22-year old virgin who wants her first time to be special, though maybe not as special as she had it on True Blood. Here, she’s gone full werewolf and the transformation is extraordinary. She really sheds her skin. The best gag, for me, is when principal Wilkins, who is deepening a shallow grave, throws a dog the bone of the kid he’s burying.
25. Sleepy Hollow (1999)
Don’t bite my head off, but Sleep Hollow sticks close to the demonic Law of the Ds. It is dark, decapitated and a deadpan Depp is dry and oh so droll. His pursed lips foretold the comic turns he would take in Pirates of the Caribbean and even, dare I say it, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Tim Burton directed this adaptation of Washington Irving’s classic short story, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” about an isolated farming community, mainly Dutch. Three persons have been murdered there, all within a fortnight.
Each one found with the head lopped off clean as dandelion heads. Depp tries on a fake British accent and even a wry, dated, pickup line “Perhaps there is a little bit of witch in you, because you have bewitched me.” A toothy Christopher Walkins rides away with the movie.
24. Andy Warhol’s Dracula (1974)
“The Blood of these whores is killing me,” bitches the ancient vampire who needs the blood of virgins to survive. In Italy’s post-sexual revolution, all the rules of bloodsucking have been turned on their back and vampires could dig for days before realize they’re pointing the wrong way.
Udo Kier brings bright eyed class as Count Dracula. The Count and Anton gargle their blood like it is fine wine. They are out of touch but in the mood. Directed by Paul Morrissey, the film didn’t get sliced and diced like The Flesh of Frankenstein, Warhol’s earlier trip into the horror genre, but still dipped its bread across the edge.
23. Fearless Vampire Killers or Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are in My Neck (1967)
Roman Polanski spills a different take on the sanguine legacy of regal monsters. Count von Krolock (Ferdy Mayne) is a bargain basement European trash vaudevillian who brings down the roof when he makes an entrance. Jack MacGowran plays Professor Abronsius with a detached lunacy and rubber legs. MacGowran was an interesting character actor who also played with John Lennon that year in Richard Lester’s How I Won The War. His last movie would be The Exorcist.
Roman Polanski, acting as Alfred, the bumbling assistant to the bumbling vampire hunter, throws down some inspired physical comedy. Sharon Tate is positively maddening in her blonde ditziness, but absolutely irresistible. The movie is beautifully shot, with an even more beautiful score and most of the laughs come out of left field.
22. Fright Night (1985)
At first glance, this is just a teen sex comedy with fangs, but Chris Sarandon brings such a subtly seductive and nuanced turn it has to be seen again. Sarandon is able to do this while saddled with the most terrible vampire name in horror movie history, Jerry. The best laughs come from former teen actor Roddy McDowall, best known as Cornelius and Caesar in the original Planet of the Apes franchise, but whose work in The Legend of Hell House should not be overlooked.
Written and directed by Tom Holland and starring William Ragsdale and Amanda Bearse as the teenagers, it has some surprisingly creepy moments.
21. Hocus Pocus (1993)
When the full moon blooms on Halloween in Salem, all the weirdos come out. Not the witches, they can really be the death of the party. They think Clark bars are the chocolate covered fingers of a guy named Clark. Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Kathy Najimy are the Sanderson Sisters, long-ago burned witches who get brought back to life by Max, the new kid in town who can’t pass a book of the dead without conjuring someone.
Directed by Kenny Ortega, the sleepy seaside town has an undulating Peyton Place vibe hiding under the surface where criminals dress up like cops and all the parents secretly want to dump their kids and dance the night away. The Sanderson sisters have always wanted children, preferably on toast. After such a long snooze, they should have gotten it. This movie would have been vastly improved if they ate the kids.
20. Attack of the Killer Tomatoes (1978)
Some suspenseful satires pour on the cheese, but this is a saucy song-filled skit that could be tossed into any salad. Made for less than a meal at Olive Garden, it became a schlock cult classic that planted the seeds for senseless sequels and watered George Clooney’s lawn. J
ohn DeBello directed, produced, edited and wrote the songs, which were sung at Killer Tomatoes parties whenever it played on cable. DeBello co-wrote it with the lead non-tomato David Miller. I don’t know what made the tomatoes talk, but when they broke into song I gave up any ideas of being a vegetarian and became a humanitarian.
19. Cabin in the Woods (2012)
Okay, at first you think this is “Zombie Redneck Torture Family,” but that’s just the surface. One stop on the freight elevator takes you a kind of reality TV show that would be a big hit in hell. Everything in the killing field is under control, from the musky musk of pheromone clouds to the dusky dusk of mankind itself. But you’ll cheer when the production team gets their pink slips.
Joss Whedon co-wrote the movie with the director, Drew Goddard, and they have fun with horror in-jokes between tokes. Hidden inside almost every frame of Cabin in the Woods is an army of creature features quiz show answers.
18. Scream (1996)
What’s your favorite scary movie? If anyone has the right to mock you for a wrong answer it is the late great Wes Craven. The former porn actor redefined the horror genre when he ungloved Freddy in Nightmare on Elm Street and kept everyone awake for weeks. Up until then all slasher movies centered around some stupid killer chasing some big-breasted girl who can’t act up some stairs when she should be running out the door.
Craven kills off the little girl from E.T, Drew Barrymore, in the first 10 minutes and then proceeds to gut the entire genre. No one knows why, because killers are a lot scarier when there’s no motive. Neve Campbell is a strong anti-villain who overcomes Courteney Cox’s monstrous yellow journalist but is powerless to stop Mr. Ghostface from making a sequel.
17. Theatre of Blood (1973)
Vincent Price is at his hammy best in this seventies gore-fest. I didn’t know Shakespeare was such a good horror writer until Edward Lionheart began his blocking. This is a virtual tour de force for Vincent Christ and we cheer every downed critic because we know his heart is with us.
We also get to see Game of Thrones’ Diana Rigg in a cheesy mustache and blonde afro. Watching stuffy British actors like Robert Morley get stuffed with their own dogs is positively delicious. Directed by Douglas Hickox, Theatre of Blood is a dish best served cold.
16. Phantom of the Paradise (1974)
Paul Williams is more Dr. Zaius from Planet of the Apes than Satan, but he is positively frightening as the devilish Swan. Early rock stars bemoaned binding record contracts, but signing with Death Records is worse than signing with Colonel Parker. Writer/director Brian De Palma monster mashes Phantom of the Opera, Faust and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and gives it a pretty good beat you can almost dance to. He should do more musicals. The closing song, “For The Hell Of It,” written by Williams, should be on every single horror soundtrack.
Rocky Horror had Meat Loaf, but Phantom of the Paradise has Beef, who is almost plunged to death in one of dozens of visual gags. William Finley is a very innocent villain, well, until he’s violated at a Swan groupie gathering. The muse for all of this is Jessica Harper, who starred in Dario Argento’s classic seventies thriller Suspiria.
15. The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
In this science fiction sendup that was double featured for a while with Phantom of the Paradise, Richard O’Brien builds a creature while androgynous androids from another planet chase Brad and Janet and we watched it all from the back row, where it was easier to take a jump to the right. Rocky Horror is more than a movie, or a title creature, it is a Halloween costume party that has been going on for forty years.
It’s hard to be scared when you’re watching it in a theater, or sometimes to even pay attention to what’s on the screen, but the movie is fun, funny and even plays with gore and a horrific atmosphere. The plot has murder, cannibalism, interspecies seduction and a mad scientist. Well, Dr. Frank N. Furter isn’t mad, but laughing makes his face hurt.
The film is such a love letter to too-often neglected science fiction and horror movies that it is largely responsible for reviving interest in them, as well as helping fuel the sexual identity revolution. It starred Susan Sarandon and Barry Bostwick and introduced celluloid to theater actor Tim Curry, who would go on to become another witty horror icon, Pennywise the Clown in the TV adaptation of Stephen King’s It.
14. Hair-Raising Hare (1946)
Monsters live interesting lives and Gossamer’s debut is a little slice of heaven. Bugs Bunny dips his paddies in the murky waters of horror and freaks out the monsters. Hair-Raising Hare was directed by Chuck Jones and was the final appearance of his design of the Brooklyn-born rabbit. Mel Blanc is so good at mimicry that when I was a kid, I thought Peter Lorre did the voice for the mad scientist.
Writer Tedd Pierce warns us not to go up there cos it’s dark and gave us the feeling we was being watched, that the eyes of strange creatures was upon us. In the end, the hero disposes of the monster and exits through the front door, stage right, none the worse for his harrowing experience. Even if his date falls apart.
13. The Addams Family (1991)
“Don’t torture yourself, that’s my job,” we hear and every twisted utterance is exquisite comic torture. When I was a kid, I wasn’t allowed to watch The Brady Bunch, because our family was an Addams Family. I wasn’t only a fan of the TV series, I loved the Charles Addams comics and this movie expertly fuses the sensibilities and insensitivities of both.
Angelica Huston and Raúl Juliá, as Morticia and Gomez Addams, tangoed through this Barry Sonnenfeld masterwork like it is a flawlessly choreographed Danse Macabre. Christina Ricci is so completely committed to the reality of Wednesday Addams that she should be committed, she’d probably like it there. Christopher Lloyd is a perfect successor to Jackie Coogan as Uncle Fester. Not only did he drive people nuts as Jim Ignatowski on Taxi, he was the only eye witness to the Chief’s escape in One Flew Over the Cuccoo’s Nest.
12. Shaun of the Dead (2004)
It’s hard to tell the zombies from blitzed out British pub crawlers until they belly up to the bar. Shaun of the Dead is funny because it’s true. This is probably the most realistic depiction of how everyday people, in England at least, would respond to a zombie apocalypse. Nobody wants to lop off the head of one’s own mother and everybody always wants to be the hero in front of the girl.
Simon Pegg co-wrote it with the director Edgar Wright, and cast his shadow Nick Frost as the only person in London who knows how to use a shotgun. The best bits are the background shots as the city gets consumed and it barely registers.
11. Arachnophobia (1990)
Long before spiders came crawling out of banana bunches, a South American rain forest drone hitched a ride in a wooden coffin and moviegoers have been checking under the toilet ever since. At least I have.
Jeff Daniels plays a city doctor who hangs up a shingle in the sleepy town of Canaima and is kept up all night by the pitter patter of spindly legs. Daniels has such a bad case of the creepy crawlies he can’t move in their presence. Julian Sands tut-tut-tuts his way through the role of the doubtful entomologist Dr. James Atherton who needs more raw data, when any fool knows a web indicates an arachnoid presence. Director Frank Marshall frames each spider perfectly for suspense but the best parts are found at the bottom of John Goodman’s shoe.
10. Serial Mom (1994)
Proceed with caution. Beverly Sutphin is armed and fucking nuts, but you’d never think it to look at her. Kathleen Turner give us the very picture of Waspy goodness, manners and grace. But we all have our bad days. Her husband, played by Law & Order and Newsroom’s stalwart veteran Sam Waterston, is a dentist who is worse than the one in Marathon Man. Waterson brings a new level to clueless enabler to match Turner’s wild ride of denial. Ricki Lake and Matthew Lillard, the kids, think it’s kinda cool because their friend would all like to take the Serial Mom home to do away with pesky relatives.
Writer-director John Waters, who came up through trashy low budget classics like Pink Flamingoes, stitched the whole thing together from transcripts at a real trial. Throw in Patty Hearst and Traci Lords for the wha? factor and you almost have the Citizen Kane of gore comedies.
9. Monsters Inc. (2001)
More monster movies should be told from the point of view of the monster. From Frankenstein to King Kong, their stories are the most compelling and ultimately sad. But not the monsters of Monstropolis, they revolutionized the scaring industry. This movie is special, yes, it’s funny as hell and children really do make the most monstrous of villains (There’s nothing more toxic or deadly than a human child. A single touch could kill you), but it’s more than that.
Monsters Inc. transcends its animation to present a visceral sensation of hope and wonder. I saw that last scene, where Sulley looks into Boo’s room, over a dozen times now and it is the greatest encapsulation of anticipation in the history of celluloid. I don’t care that John Goodman probably wasn’t even at the mic, he should get a lifetime achievement award for those eight seconds. Director Pete Docter never lets up and Billy Crystal, as the egocentric one-eyed Mike, never lets down.
This has to be the greatest acted animated movie. It might even have my favorite Steve Buscemi part.
8. Beetlejuice (1988)
In Beetlejuice it’s the people who are nuts while the ghosts are perfectly reasonable beings. In very sensible clothes. Of course, it’s really that way in all horror films but director Tim Burton lives that way on a day-to-day basis. Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis are the picture perfect dead couple who find themselves besieged by pretentious artsy types from the city, played by Catherine O’Hara and Jeffrey Jones.
The only ray of darkness is their prototype Goth daughter played by Winona Ryder. Michael Keaton breaks out like a shooting star as the title character. There are too few parts for manic actors to really strut their stuff and Keaton almost runs amok in the part. With Dead End‘s Sylvia Sidney handling the paperwork, it’s no wonder no one wants to move out.
7. The Lost Boys (1987)
The Lost Boys might be the first movie where everyone wanted to be a vampire after seeing it. The vampire life was better than anything Peter Pan could promise. You never grow old, you never die, but you must feed, that doesn’t make you a bad person.
Directed by Joel Schumacher, the movie is a comic book story on celluloid. Lost Boys stars Kiefer Sutherland and Alexander Winter, Bill from Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, and Edward Hermann as the vampires and Coreys Haim and Feldman and Jamison Newlander as the vampire hunters trying to save the too-cool-for school Jason Patric and his not quite undead new girlfriend Jami Gertz. Dianne Wiest plays the mom. It’s fun to be a vampire, but don’t kill anyone until we get back to you.
6. The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
Based on a poem by Tim Burton that reads backwards and directed by start-stop animation wizard Henry Selick, The Nightmare Before Christmas is inspirational. It’s not a Halloween movie, it captures the magic of Christmas even if the characters struggle to make sense of it. The citizens of Halloween Town bring their own special interpretation to secret Santa. The yuletide spirit is really a ghost. Danny Elfman wrote the songs, each one a skewered classic, and sings the part of Jack Skellington.
Chris Sarandon, from Dog Day Afternoon, acts the part and transcends the limits of his skeletal face to plumb deep emotions and ponder the elusive mysteries of merriment. Catherine O’Hara, who drove the Mr. Softee truck in Martin Scorsese’s After Hours and pampered her poodles in Best In Show, plays the rag doll Sally with an otherworldly vulnerability that’s barely stitched together. William Hickey’s mad scientist is just a lonely old man. It is funny, poignant and exciting.
5. Ghostbusters (1984)
Do you remember where you were the first time you got slimed? Dan Aykroyd fans know he’s always had a major obsession with this ghost stuff so we believe all the obscure references he and Harold Ramis, who co-wrote the screenplay utter: the mass energy displacement of Philadelphia, the book stackings. This is the first time most people heard of UFOs, astral projections, mental telepathy, ESP, clairvoyance, spirit photography, telekinetic movement, full trance mediums, the Loch Ness monster, the theory of Atlantis, and ectoplasmic residue. These tidbits coupled with some truly frightening concepts, like life as we know it stopping instantaneously and every molecule in our bodies exploding at the speed of light or dogs and cats living in sin, create a solid foundation for the silliest of scares. Like the hot dog-loving free-floating green thing.
We also know we can’t really trust anything Bill Murray says, because he never studied, but we trust him with an unlicensed nuclear bomb on his back more than we trust the oily guy from the NRC. Ernie Hudson and Annie Potts are the audience, heavily invested in the steady paycheck of paranormal investigations. Sigourney Weaver may be the best flautist in her row, but she really should clean out her refrigerator.
Ghostbusters was directed by Ivan Reitman, who brings a manic fun to what is ultimately a love letter to horror movies and New York City.
4. Young Frankenstein (1974)
Oh sweet mystery of life, at last I found you.
Mel Brooks dips his schwanzstucker into the horror comedy genre for the first time here. Brooks did it for the knobs. In interviews he said that was the thing that most scared him when he went to see Frankenstein as a kid and with this movie he pulls all the knobs.
Young Frankenstein had one of the best Dr. Frankenstein labs ever captured on celluloid. Intricate, with a lot of moving parts, some of which burned as they spun, it was a perfect recreation of everything he loved about early horror movies. Gene Wilder directed the “Putting on the Ritz” scene. The casting is wonderful. Teri Garr brings great knockers to her roll in the hay. Cloris Leachman overheats with a smoldering longing that only horses can satisfy. Marty Feldman is comic relief in a comedy film. Madeline Kahn’s voices go into hyperspace. She always finds an unexpected approach to lines that are already funny. Gene Hackman makes a wonderful espresso.
Peter Boyle transcends genre as the creation. From Boris Karloff to Rory Kinnear in Penny Dreadful, the monster in the Frankenstein story has the most pathos, is the least understood and the one we ultimately identify with and cheer.
3. Zombieland (2009)
Horror comedies are almost always fun, but Zombieland is such rollercoaster ride it even ends in an amusement park. This movie makes zombie chasing look so much fun people might look forward to the inevitable zombie apocalypse, even at the risk of life’s little Twinkie gauge going empty. The movie was the directorial debut of Ruben Fleischer.
The screenplay was written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (keep an eye out for them with Deadpool in 2016). Jesse Eisenberg stars as Columbus. He explains the rules of Zombieland, always check the back seat, the importance of the double-tap and lots of cardio. Although Woody Harrelson, as Tallahassee, points out that lions don’t do warmup stretches before taking out a gazelle. Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin play very capable former hustlers who have seen it all, except maybe Ghostbusters and Willie Nelson. Bill Murray gets to admit that maybe Garfield wasn’t such a hot idea. The movie also has incredible heart, as these disparate, desperate, displaced people come together as a dysfunctional family.
2. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)
Modern audiences might dismiss these old horror monsters as dumb, but they’re smart enough to scare me. Some of the biggest advances in horror makeup happened while people were laughing. The Wolf Man’s transition in this film was the most detailed to date. This is also the first movie to really show Dracula turning into a bat. Sure, it’s a cartoon transition, but it is blended together so well, it must have been spine tingling at the time.
Bud Abbott and Lou Costello don’t just meet Frankenstein, director Charles Barton introduces them to the entire Universal monster guild. Bela Lugosi put down the needle to play Count Dracula for the first time since the original movie. Lugosi would go on to play Frankenstein’s monster when Lou and Bud meet the wolfman, cowboy actor Glenn Strange does the honors here. Lon Chaney, Jr., plays the perenially whiny Larry Talbot, one of a million guys who will turn into a wolf at the full moon. Even Vincent Price puts in a cameo, unbilled and unseen.
1. An American Werewolf in London (1981)
Beware the moon, a naked American man is running through London and he’s not just snatching balloons. People are turning up dead. Six of them, all in different parts of the city, all mutilated. He must be a real right maniac like the old demon barber of Fleet Street. Except that David (David Naughton) is probably the nicest monster ever on screen. He calls his little sister to say he loves her before he tries to slit his wrists with what looks like a boy scout pocket knife. Of course, he had just seen his family brutally murdered in a hyperrealistic dream, which might have made him a little nostalgic.
The walking meatloaf Jack, played by Griffin Dunne, steals the movie, actually the dripples of phlegmy ooze that’s coming down his face as he asks for a piece of toast do while he bitches about how boring corpses are as conversationalists. John Landis capture the feel of British comedy while Rick Baker revolutionized the horror makeup world. Best werewolf transformation ever, the little Mickey Mouse figure is so funny and yet so haunting, as always.
One of the best bits is the very last scene when The Marcels’ version of “Blue Moon” comes in about a beat too soon.