Saturday, July 18, 2009

Comedy in Horror

Comedy horror films are a hit-or-miss proposition. To succeed, the comedy has to 1) punctuate the horror for a laughing-gasping one-two punch; or 2) must be delicately woven into the storyline in the form of irony or bizarre characters. Self-conscious comedy in horror seldom works, in my opinion. For example, I despise the "Scream" films. To me, they're like horror-themed episodes of "Saved By the Bell" with their "See how much we're in on the joke?" dialogue.

When I first saw the advertising for "Drag Me To Hell," it looked like yet another of those typical PG-13 horror films for teens. But then I started reading the reviews and realized that Sam Raimi, taking a break between "Spiderman" films, wanted to take another crack at the outrageous genre he'd built his reputation on with the "Evil Dead" films. I finally saw it Friday—and I was delighted. The story, co-written by Raimi and his doctor brother, Ivan, is suitably skewed, and the shock scenes are...well, funny! I mean, what other PG-13 movie can you think of that has an old lady getting the crap beaten out of her, blood spurting all over the place, a woman with an arm shoved down her throat and a talking, swearing goat? The MPAA for once saw that this was all just cartoon violence and gave it the more lenient rating. But does a PG-13 help or hurt a film's boxoffice these days?

Anyhow, Raimi quickly sets up the situation: a young woman (Alison Lohman) who has self-esteem issues and is anxious to win a promotion at the bank where she works as a loan officer denies a creepy old lady's request for an extension on her mortgage...and all hell breaks loose. It's fast-moving, delightfully goofy and provides some genuine jolts along the way. Watching "Drag Me to Hell" reminded me of other comedy horror films I've enjoyed throughout the years. Here are some of my favorites:

1.The Fearless Vampire Killers aka Dance of the Vampires (1967). Roman Polanski's send-up of Hammer Films is too slapstick-cheesy for some, but I find this film to be an interesting mixture of humor and a wonderful atmosphere of dread. Professor Abronsuis (Jack MacGowran), the vampire killer of the title, along with his assistant, Alfred (Polanski himself) arrive in a small village that has been plagued by Count von Krolock (Ferdy Mayne), the local vampire. Alfred falls in love with the innkeeper's daughter, Sarah (Sharon Tate), and when she is abducted by the Count, they travel to his castle to rescue her. For every cornball episode (Alfie Bass as the cliche Jewish innkeeper who becomes an extremely Orthodox vampire and the Count's gay son), there are really wonderful scenes. In one, Sarah is relaxing in a hot bath when snowflakes begin to fall. She looks up to see the Count, fangs bared, descending from the skylight. And the "dance" itself is beautifully realized as Professor Abronsius, Alfred and Sarah, trying to pass themselves off as the undead in a ballroom full of nasty-looking vampires, find themselves standing before a mirror that covers an entire wall, and only their reflections can be seen. The studio-bound winter landscapes are magical and the score, by Polanski collaborator Krzysztof Komeda, who also wrote the music for "Rosemary's Baby," is exquisite. One of my childhood drive-in memories!

2. Phantom of the Paradise (1974). Brian De Palma's rock horror musical puts Gaston Leroux's "Phantom of the Opera" in a contemporary setting as a composer, Winslow Leach (William Finley), wreaks revenge on music impresario Swan (Paul Williams) after the aforementioned screws him over and steals his music. His face disfigured from a fall into a record press, Winslow haunts Swan's new Paradise Nightclub, disguising himself in a cape and a weird birdlike mask, and begins causing fatal "accidents" until Swan convinces him to finish his Faust cantata for the Paradise's grand opening in exchange for being allowed to continue creating his music. Among those auditioning for parts in the show is a young woman named Phoenix (Jessica Harper of "Suspiria" fame), whom Winslow is convinced is the only one who can sing the lead. Swan agrees, but he has quite a few more dirty tricks up his sleeve.

With music and lyrics by Williams, the film is a wonderful time capsule, lampooning the Sha Na Na '50s music revival, the '60s beach craze and '70s glitter rock. Gerrit Graham is hilarious as Beef, a glam rocker who minces about the stage while belting out "Life at Last." Harper herself as an agreeable, low-pitched singing voice (she became a composer and performer of music for children), but the real revelation is Williams' music. It's great! Though the film bombed on its original release, it has since earned a cult following and was passionately embraced right out of the gate by the people of Winnipeg, who still love it and even host regular "Phantompalooza" festivals! Here's Harper singing "Old Souls" at a recent event:

3. Re-Animator (1985). I first saw Stuart Gordon's manic classic at the drive-in when it was released unrated by Empire Pictures in 1985. A forerunner of today's "splatterpunk" genre, it's based on an H. P. Lovecraft story and is a hell of a lot of fun. Jeffrey Combs plays Herbert West, a student at Miskatonic University, who has invented a drug that brings the dead back to life. The drug has an unfortunate side-effect, though: the newly-reanimated are angry, violent and really strong. Chock-full of extreme gore, violence and nudity, this film is a trash hound's delight. Gordon has ventured several times into Lovecraft territory with admirable results in films such as "From Beyond," "Dagon" and "Castle Freak," but "Re-Animator" remains his masterpiece.

4. Return of the Living Dead (1985). If you're reading this blog, you already know the plot to the greatest punk zombie film ever made. When two workers at a medical supply house accidentally break open a mysterious government canister containing the "tar man," a slimy-looking corpse, a noxious gas is released that causes all the bodies in the nearby graveyard to get up and go on a hunt for human brains. Highlights include the aforementioned tar man, scream queen Linnea Quigley's naked dance atop a mausoleum and the zombies using the police radio after they've devoured the emergency rescue crew to order more paramedics! Even the soundtrack to this film is exceptional, with great songs as "Partytime," "Surfin' Dead" and "Burn the Flames."

1985 was a busy year for horror, as it also included Tom Holland's excellent vampire spoof "Fright Night" as well as George Romero's "Dead" sequel, "Day of the Dead," but it also brought us Tobe Hooper's terrible space vampire epic "Lifeforce"; "Once Bitten," another dreadful vampire spoof with the dreadful Jim Carrey; and the bizarrely homoerotic sequel to "A Nightmare on Elm Street," "Freddy's Revenge."

5. Braindead aka Dead Alive. In 1992, my friend David, who worked as a publicist for the now-defunct Trimark Pictures, invited me to a screening of a film the company had just picked up for distribution. He said it was a horror film by a New Zealand director he'd never heard of, Peter Jackson. I had, however—his first film, "Bad Taste," had been released on video a couple of years earlier, so I had already gotten a sample of his off-kilter, splattery humor. Nevertheless, I wasn't prepared for this nonstop assault on the senses, and neither was the audience at the screening! The plot is simple. When a shy young man's overbearing mother is bitten at the zoo by a rare but hideous Sumatran rat monkey, she becomes a monster herself and begins infecting others in the town. Soon the son finds himself battling hordes of vicious zombies, and the final half-hour or so is a wildly over-the-top gore tour de force. Before becoming Mr. "Lord of the Rings," Jackson also made a screamingly hilarious all-puppet Muppet spoof called "Meet the Feebles."

6. Shaun of the Dead (2004). If you're already desensitized by urban living, would you notice if your neighbors had become shuffling, flesh-eating zombies? That's the concept of this delightfully witty comedy by Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg, who'd created the hit British television series "Spaced." Pegg plays Shaun, a manager at an electronics store whose life is so mundane that he doesn't even notice the beginnings of the zombie plague. Nick Frost is his vulgar friend, Ed, with whom he'd rather spend time than his high-maintenance girlfriend, Liz (Kate Ashfield). Too clever for its own good, with wonderful references to Romero's films and a terrifically English sense of humor, "Shaun" works as a social satire, dark comedy, and—yes—even a thriller. When it's time to be scary, the filmmakers wisely settle down and let it happen. And the conclusion is hilarious, touching and immensely satisfying.

You may notice that my list starts in 1967—that's because I think the horror comedies made from the '30s to the '50s are cheesy. Sure, there's Corman's "Bucket of Blood" and "Little Shop of Horrors," but they're too broad for my tastes. I'm not a fan of Abbott and Costello either, and the poverty row "comedies" Bela Lugosi was forced to make toward the end of his life are pretty dire. One of the earliest horror comedies that still holds up is James Whale's "The Old Dark House" (1931), with its group of travelers stranded with the creepy Femm family at said old dark house. Charles Laughton, Ernest Thesiger, Gloria Stuart and Boris Karloff are among the stars, and it is loaded with atmosphere, bizarre characters and dialogue.

For the most part, though, comedy in horror is tricky business. Too much and you can slip into cheesiness; too little and your audience will say, "Why are they trying to be funny?" Thanks to Mr. Raimi for reminding us this year that he's still got it.

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