Mental Floss
ENTERTAINMENT

The 25 Greatest Horror Comedies of All Time

Scott Beggs
Jessica Rothe and Rob Mello star in Happy Death Day (2017).
Jessica Rothe and Rob Mello star in Happy Death Day (2017). / Universal Pictures Home Entertainment
facebooktwitterreddit

Humor and fear are diametrically opposed, so squishing them together into one coherent piece of art is a horrifyingly, hilariously difficult task. The best horror comedy movies serve up our greatest fears while also playing with them, making us question our own emotional responses to everything from witches to alien plants to not-quite-dead things emerging from the grave to walk very, very slowly toward us.

Those filmmakers who have successfully scared the giggles out of us typically do so by putting funny people in mock danger, getting meta on popular horror tropes, or sublimating scare-based adrenaline into the relief of a good belly laugh. Maybe fear and humor really do belong together after all.

Whether you're in the mood to chuckle or scream, these horror comedies deliver on both counts.

1. Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)

This Cary Grant-starring farce is so funny that you forget his character's dear, sweet aunts are basically Ted Bundy. Adding Peter Lorre into the mix for horror bona fides, the movie plays with our biases about who gets to be a fearsome serial killer—the wide-eyed maniac or the darling old lady with poison in her elderberry wine. The production was shut down temporarily after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, as director Frank Capra was commissioned in the U.S. Army and was requested to return to active duty with only a week of filming left.

2. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)

The legendary comedy duo play baggage clerks who make a delivery to McDougal's House of Horrors, running into Frankenstein's monster, Dracula, and the Wolf Man (played respectively by Glenn Strange, Bela Lugosi, and Lon Chaney, Jr. reprising their Universal monster roles). As with other Abbott and Costello productions, they hired Bobby Barber as the court jester who would play pranks, intentionally ruin takes in silly ways, and keep the actors and crew laughing. It's a good thing spirits were high, because Costello hated the script and didn't want to make the movie.

3. The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)

Vincent Price delivers a magnificent, absurd performance as a doctor who's rebuilt his own mangled face and is seeking revenge on the incompetent team of doctors who killed his wife using the Biblical Plagues of Egypt as inspiration. The kills are astoundingly clever (the film executes the only Death By Frog Mask in horror history), and the whole thing could have been played for straight terror if not for the campy tone Price and company went for. In a nice nod to the blend of horror and comedy, the vicious vampire bats they used for one kill were actually sweet flying foxes who were more interested in the fruit on the craft service table than any of the blood inside the actors.

4. Young Frankenstein (1974)

Mel Brooks's riff on the classic tale of playing God with lightning and old body parts was an early example of parodying beloved horror tales wholesale and is now in the Hall of Fame for its hilarious quotability (Blücher!). Not only did it launch a new wave of horror comedies that played well-known monsters back to us, it also inspired Aerosmith to write "Walk This Way."

5. Hausu (House) (1977)

Seven schoolgirls visit a haunted house and die screaming at the hands of a hungry piano, a violent mirror, and a creepy cat. That's a very basic plot for an indescribably bonkers film from Nobuhiko Obayashi where the effects are bad on purpose, the kills are all profoundly silly, and the whole "plot" plays out like a giallo fairy tale. Obayashi may get the credit, but many of the fearsome ideas, including the central concept of a house eating a bunch of girls, came from his 11-year-old daughter Chigumi.

6. An American Werewolf in London (1981)

John Landis's fish-out-of-water tale just happens to feature a fish that turns into a hairy clawed beast when the moon is full (plus another mutilated fish who comes back from the dead). Instead of lampoon and parody, the film works perfectly as a comedy that happens to feature horror or as a horror film that happens to have a lot of laughs—all of it anchored by Rick Baker's Oscar-winning make-up effects. While winning that Academy Award, it also lost star David Naughton his gig as a Dr Pepper spokesperson, not for the grotesque gore, but because of his nude scenes. As the Dr Pepper Museum diplomatically puts it, "This role showcased Naughton’s range as an actor and put him in a light that sharply contrasted the peppiness he had radiated as a Dr Pepper spokesperson."

7. Evil Dead II (1987)

The original The Evil Dead (1981) was a shoestring gore assault with plenty of laughs to spare, but the sequel is where Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell really went for it. Ash is back in the haunted cabin with a chainsaw attached to his severed arm, fighting back manic mounted deer heads, disembodied hands that give him the middle finger, and a shocking amount of blood. Yet these horror icons wouldn't exist if not for Raimi's savvy money-raising and a helping hand from Stephen King, who convinced producer Dino De Laurentiis to pony up some cash for it. Groovy.

8. Re-Animator (1985)

To create the one-of-a-kind Re-Animator, writer/director Stuart Gordon took a crummy H.P. Lovecraft story and turned it into an eccentric, sleazy assault on the tale of Dr. Frankenstein in which a medical student named Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs) stabs dead bodies and body parts with green goo that brings them back to something like life. It's a disgusting, vile, absolutely raucous tale with genuine scares and an over-the-top style that epitomizes the Splatstick spirit. The most controversial scene, which involves the villainous Dr. Carl Hill's (David Gale) severed head being placed between the legs of peerless Scream Queen Barbara Crampton, was apparently enough for Gale's wife to storm out of the theater and not come home.

9. The Return of the Living Dead (1985)

While George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968) is filled with claustrophobic tension about surviving the night unbitten, Dan O'Bannon's parodic riff is one big party. It's a punk ode that understands what's inherently funny about the dead flopping around trying to eat our brains. In fact, the cliché that zombies only eat brains comes from this movie (it's definitely not canon in the Romero-verse), and O'Bannon claims our living brains have a pain relieving effect for the undead.

10. Little Shop of Horrors (1986)

Frank Oz's all-singing, all-dancing creep show stars Rick Moranis and Ellen Greene as well as a slew of fantastic SNL alums of the era, crooning their way through the coming-of-age for a plant that eats people. Even more frightening is Steve Martin as a sadistic, strange dentist who's wacky and violent in only the way Martin could have pulled off. Sadly, we were spared the original ending where Audrey II eats all the main characters, and a ton of alien plants takes over the planet.

11. The Monster Squad (1987)

It would be easy to mistake Fred Dekker's The Monster Squad as nothing more than a rip-off of The Goonies. But the combination of off-label Universal Monsters and the crude middle school humor of its kid stars come together to create a love letter to the horror genre—one in which the classic monsters we all know terrorize a neighborhood in a bid to take over the world. It's goofy as all get out, with scares stemming from Duncan Regehr's horrifyingly sincere performance as Dracula—a role he won only narrowly, beating out then-unknown Liam Neeson.

12. Elvira: Mistress of the Dark (1988)

Cassandra Peterson's Elvira persona is an enduring horror icon born of The Groundlings alum's love of horror, a tall hairdo, and horndog humor. Instead of making a sitcom for NBC, she convinced the network to produce a movie where Elvira temporarily moves to a small town filled with prudes and proceeds to disrupt their lives with her plunging neckline and crass attitude. There's a villainous warlock, a disgusting casserole, and a showstopping burlesque finale, but there are also some gruesome effects and genuine fear in the guise of a town that justifies disturbing amounts of violence against this independent woman. Don't fear, though! Elvira eventually made a pilot, and while it never became a show, you can watch it online.

13. The 'Burbs (1989)

Whereas Poltergeist crafted fear out of all things suburban, The 'Burbs found humor in Tom Hanks's character's increasing paranoia at what his new neighbors might be up to. Hanks, Carrie Fisher, and the ensemble get silly while delivering the dueling fearscapes of whether the people next door might be killers or whether you're a terrible person for imagining the worst. If was also made during the writer's strike of 1988, which gave the actor's a lot of leeway to improvise scenes since writer Dana Olsen couldn't contribute ideas while on set.

14. Tremors (1990)

Two handymen (Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward) in the tiny oasis of Perfection, Nevada, find themselves assaulted alongside a colorful cast of citizens by giant sand worms with a hunger for human flesh. As they discover more about the worms' powers, their cozy desert existence turns into a deadly game of The Floor is Lava. Beloved with firmly enshrined cult status, Bacon confessed that shooting Tremors gave him ongoing nightmares where he would sleep walk with his wife Kyra Sedgwick in his arms, thinking he was saving her from unseen monsters.

15. Dellamorte Dellamore (Cemetery Man) (1994)

This lascivious, convention-defying Italian gem sees Rupert Everett playing a simple crypt keeper who would rather keep shooting the dead bodies that sometimes come to life than deal with small town bureaucracy to give him some funding and maybe a local PSA to raise awareness of the issue. Naturally, it's a love story. The English translation of the Italian title is Of Death, of Love, which is about as gauzy as the film itself, happy to float through a strange reality as Everett's cemetery man loves, loses, and shoots some he just loved and lost. The film is based off a novel by Tiziano Sclavi, famous for his cult comic Dylan Dog—a character modeled after Everett.

16. Scream (1996)

Most horror comedies are campy or absurd or pure parodies. At the very least they're silly. Scream transcends because it's simultaneously a perfect horror film and a perfect send-up of horror films up to that point in cinema history. With Kevin Williamson's fantastic script, Wes Craven spun an affinity for meta commentary and a veteran's ability to terrify into a slasher masterpiece with character-based laughs—topped by the genius of making Ghostface, well, not very good at attacking people. All of it starts with an expectation-subverting scene where Drew Barrymore's Casey answers a fateful (and soon-to-be fatal) phone call. Originally slated to star in the film, it was Barrymore's idea to play the smaller role and make the audience question how they could have offed such a notable actress so early.

17. Bubba Ho-Tep (2002)

Bruce Campbell is Elvis. Ossie Davis is JFK. Both are bored at their nursing home, until an ancient mummy arrives to steal old people's souls from a very private place on their body. Don Coscarelli's deeply weird ode to aging and finding comfort at the end of life starts with a silly premise and works by taking it absolutely seriously. A low-budget cult favorite, Coscarelli and company pulled some clever tricks to get around the main character being Elvis, including not using any of his expensive-to-license songs and using clips of movies with actors who kind of look like Elvis for a scene where Campbell is watching an Elvis movie marathon.

18. Shaun of the Dead (2004)

It's strange to think that almost twenty years have passed since Edgar Wright's game-changing slacker zombie rom-com made its debut. Cammed with pop culture references, the movie stars Simon Pegg as an unmotivated sap who has to face the Zed Word apocalypse alongside his even lazier best friend Ed (Nick Frost), the girlfriend he's trying to win back (Kate Ashfield), and a tight crew of friends all aiming to get to the pub to ride the danger out. So why did Wright include a Cornetto in the film in the first place? Because it was his real-life hangover cure.

19. Jennifer's Body (2009)

After the massive success of Juno, screenwriter Diablo Cody's next move was a sweet tale about two high school girls forming a lifelong friendship. After popular Jennifer (Megan Fox) is sacrificed to Satan and turned into a succubus, her lonely friend Needy (Amanda Seyfried) has to stop her pal from killing all the boys in the school. Who's the real villain again? Jennifer's Body is filled with Cody's trademark dialogue, fast-paced gags, and a tongue-in-cheek tone about all its destruction, although the sacrifice scene really did bother Fox and director Karyn Kusama, with Fox relating it to how she felt movie studios were treating her at the time: using her for their gain regardless of her wellbeing.

20. Tucker and Dale vs Evil (2010)

What if all the horny teens in a slasher movie have completely misunderstood their situation and keep killing themselves trying to escape two harmless-yet-unwashed rednecks? The premise is golden, and Eli Craig's ingenuous movie sticks the landing, delivering a ton of laughs from title characters Tucker and Dale (Alan Tudyk and Tyler Labine) as they grow increasingly flustered at all the rude city teens who keep tripping into wood chippers near them. As the cherry on top, the DVD release features a version of the story that—more traditionally—tells it from the moronic teens' perspective.

21. The Cabin in the Woods (2011)

Drew Goddard's meta masterwork is the horror film you can recommend to people who tell you they hate scary movies. As usual, five stereotypical college kids go to a secluded cabin to party but encounter a pain-thirsty Zombie Inbred Torture Family. Not as usual, all of the action is being orchestrated and monitored from a banal office setting, crafting a clever cover story for all the dumbest horror movie tropes along the way. Goddard explained that he was inspired by growing up in Los Alamos where he would see scientists go about their normal daily routines while building weapons that could destroy the entire planet while on the clock.

22. The Final Girls (2015)

Another entry that finds its footing thanks to a love of 1980s slashers and a willingness to dive as deeply as possible into its premise of lovingly mocking them, Todd Strauss-Schulson's film features a bunch of youths who are sucked into a summer camp slasher and have to face off against the rip-off Jason in order to get free. That includes Max (Taissa Farmiga), whose now-deceased mother Amanda (Malin Ackerman) co-starred in the slasher flick, allowing her some time to rekindle her relationship with a fictional version of her mom while running away from a machete-wielding maniac. Anchored by Adam Devine, Alia Shawkat, Nina Dobrev, and Thomas Middleditch, the comedy is on point, and the stakes are still life and death. Co-writer Joshua Miller came up with the concept to help him deal with the death of his dad, Jason Miller, the actor who portrayed Father Karras in The Exorcist.

23. The Love Witch (2016)

A swell tribute to technicolor horror of the 1960s, Anna Biller's saturated dreamscape stars Samantha Robinson as Elaine, a gorgeous witch in modern-day California who keeps giving men a potion to fall in love with her before getting bored with how clingy they all are. As you might guess, this is not an upward spiral. As ridiculous as the dating scene itself, the film was inspired by dozens of classic Hollywood tales as well as Biller's experience with self-help manuals constantly telling women not to engage with the men they liked because it could cause resentment. She told Little White Lies, "I thought it would be interesting to create a film around the idea that a woman’s love is so toxic it can actually kill."

24. Happy Death Day (2017)

The bad news for sorority girl Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) is that a slasher is planning to murder her. The double bad news is that after she gets stabbed to death, she wakes up to repeat the whole day again. It's Groundhog Day meets April Fool's Day, and the movie pulls it off. It's irreverent with eye rolls that could kill, but the slasher storyline is genuinely tense, thanks in no small part to the horrific baby face mask designed by Tony Gardner, who also designed Scream's Ghostface.

25. Little Monsters (2019)

What do you call movie where a teacher and her kindergarteners run screaming from starving zombies? How about whimsical? Lupita Nyong'o stars as said teacher, leading her small charges on a field trip to a farm where sleazy children's entertainer Teddy McGiggle (Josh Gad) happens to be filming. The zombies bust out, factions are formed, true natures are revealed, and all of it is profoundly goofy. Nyong'o even plays the ukulele herself in the film. When she asked if they's use a ukulele-playing double for her part, director Abe Forsythe said, "No. You can win an Oscar, you can learn to play the ukulele."

facebooktwitterreddit