Social unrest provided a cornerstone in the various boom periods for horror cinema. For example, the genre’s Golden Age in the first half of the 1930s coincided with the worsening of the Great Depression. Hollywood’s Pre-Code era and the genuine anxiety of the time produced classics like Freaks, and the various Universal Studios monster franchises, all of which began as more serious horror films.
By the late 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement begat one of the most frightening and poignant movies ever made, Night of the Living Dead. George Romero’s classic gave birth to the zombie sub-genre, and filmmakers, authors, artists and TV writers still today strive to recapture the social commentary that resonated in that title.
America’s continued involvement in Vietnam, with images of images of senseless violence beamed into homes via television or running on the front page of newspapers, led to a darker approach in horror film-making at that same time.
Titles like Last House on the Left, The Exorcist and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre introduced a more violent and cynical tone, after the 1950s and much of the 1960s featured campier entries into the horror genre.
As important as injecting social commentary into a work of art can be — Night of the Living Dead‘s stand against racism resonates 50 years later for a reason — there’s also a certain genius in bringing levity to a subject matter that otherwise isn’t funny.
Horror-comedy walks a fine line between invoking laughs and eliciting eye-rolls. For example, as Universal saturated the market with monster movies in the 1940s, the studio attempted to keep the lucrative titles fresh with comedy crossovers.
An end-product of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein instead served as one final nail in the coffin of the Golden Age.
Similarly, Freddy Kruger’s transformation from the unnerving monster that defined the terrifying, original A Nightmare on Elm Street into a wise-cracking cartoon character killed off the series.
When done well, however, comedic elements worked into a horror story provide some of the most entertaining popcorn thrills in cinema. To that end, let’s start with a film entitled Popcorn, shall we?
Popcorn was released in 1991, after movie studios had exhausted horror audiences with endless sequels and cliched stories; in other words, an ideal time to lampoon the genre itself. For those who have never seen this underrated gem, I won’t spoil anything beyond the basic premise of a horror-movie audience being so desensitized, it’s unaware of actual atrocities playing out right in front of it.
A few years earlier, my favorite entry in the Friday the 13th series — Part VI: Jason Lives — poked fun at its own audience. The franchise had grown stale by that point, but Tom McLoughlin breathed life into it with fun, laughs, and even planted the seeds for an intriguing, supernatural story.
So, of course, Paramount moved on without him for Part VII to keep the budget down. Sigh.
Such is the plight of horror-comedy, which only started to get its due commensurate with the proliferation of the internet.
Various well-done horror-comedies of the 1980s gained cult followings through online communities: titles like Evil Dead 2, which combined cartoon slapstick with the original film’s scares, and made an icon of lead actor Bruce Campbell.
Bearing undeniable influence from Evil Dead 2, the 1988 Halloween film Night of the Demons combines the slapstick scares of Sam Raimi’s classic with a thumbing-of-the-nose at horror and raunchy teen comedy tropes.
Considering the majority of horror movie-goers in the 1980s were college-aged kids, using the genre as a vehicle to satirize youth culture made sense. In addition to Night of the Demons, the similarly titled Night of the Comet and Night of the Creeps joked at the expense of shopping mall culture and teenage sex obsession.
Even some of the most celebrated true horror films — Halloween and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre — produced comedic sequels.
Halloween III: Season of the Witch invoked a subtle, comedic undertone that was seemingly lost on audiences who instead wanted another entry into the Michael Myers mythos. Subtlety does not always play well, particularly for production studios’ interests of turning over as much profit as possibly on often low-budget films.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 dumped subtlety. Tobe Hooper’s wildly underappreciated follow-up to Texas Chainsaw Massacre came at audiences and critics who missed the black comedy tones of the original with an in-your-face schlockfest that I absolutely love.
In a way, TCM 2 provided a template for the horror-comedies of more modern times, serving up laughs in equal quality to scares.
Zombieland and What We Do in the Shadows are comedies that happen to use horror themes for their backdrop. Both pay homage while simultaneously lampooning the wildly popular sub-genres after which their patterned.
Such is the approach of Cabin in the Woods, maybe my favorite “horror” title of the 21st Century. Every horror cliche is shown tribute and made fun of in this 2012 title that, outside of the rebooted Evil Dead series on Starz, might be the pinnacle of horror-as-slapstick.
If you’re like me, the best way to spend Halloween after the little ones are in bed is with some snacks, an autumn-themed beer, and a horror film that provides as fun as it does frights. You can’t go wrong with any of the above titles.