Comedy Meets Horror: When blending genres works

It seems incongruous at first glance to bring together the genres of comedy and horror, and to have this recipe be a success. The blending of the two genres can go very much awry if the execution isn’t done in the right way. It probably has to be a certain kind of horror, since slasher-type horror doesn’t work well with comedy, as the audience doesn’t want to feel desensitized in their enjoyment.

This is why successful comedy-horror films often use horror with substantially supernatural elements in it. The more removed from realistic scenarios a work can be, the freer the audience is to enjoy it, while the supernatural or fantasy elements can be used as a source for material. Why does this blend work? The comedy within the horror tale trappings provides just enough relief to take what may be an otherwise scary image or concept, and diminish its power a bit.

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The best of the genre combine traditionally “cute” imagery with a darker twist. Gremlins, for example, takes what should be cute pets, such as the Mogwai, and transforms them into chaotic, violent, and devious creatures. Killer Klowns from Outer Space takes what would seem like fun circus imagery, such as popcorn, balloon animals, and cotton candy, and also uses those items in more unsettling ways. The movie Krampus has Christmas elements and a family holiday setting, and the effect is to take recognizable ingredients and skew them in a darker way.

Another feature of these movies is that the characters often take a backseat to the unusual elements, creatures, or effects. This can sometimes be a feature of sci-fi movies overall, as the settings can be such a prominent feature of the movie if it’s far removed enough from the everyday. Beyond that, though, success in a movie like Gremlins or Killer Klowns lies in the memorability of the introduced creatures. If the gremlins were too cheesy or didn’t interact well enough with the live characters, the movie wouldn’t work as well. In addition, the background mythology of the Mogwai and Gremlins forms an important part of their movie. The rules regarding them and sunlight, and avoiding contact with water or feeding after midnight, etc. are such a part of that story that they’ve become one of the more enduring pop culture references. The only really memorable character in Killer Klowns is the grizzled and increasingly unhinged Sgt. Curtis Mooney, whose great performance was also distracting because actor John Vernon’s voice is so distinctive that it kept making me think of the great Batman: The Animated Series and the character of Rupert Thorne. Zach Galligan is a somewhat bland protagonist in Gremlins, and other than David Koechner in Krampus, I don’t think there are any particular stand-out characters there.

As I wrote, the premises of the movies referred to here are heavily fantasy-based, and one of the reasons that these movies can be so much fun for a viewer is that the humor doesn’t have to come from any kind of contrived setup that a romantic or situational comedy may frequently use. There isn’t a need for the “wackiness” stemming from two different dates set up with two different people at the same time, or from the misunderstandings resulting from a partially heard or misheard conversation. The main source of interest is from whatever the outside ingredient brought into the setting is, be it the gremlins, alien Klowns, or crazed toys.

Although I listed the Gremlins movies, Krampus, and Killer Klowns from Outer Space together as enjoyable examples of horror-comedies, there are some key differences between them. Killer Klowns from Outer Space is more sci-fi oriented, but also more over the top in its campiness than the other three films. The original Gremlins film, despite still having comedy elements, takes itself more seriously, as a Spielbergian-type ’80s comedy-adventure. The sequel is more of a parody of the original concept and at times of blockbuster sequels as well. It increasingly loses much of an overarching structure and uses more metafictional elements. Krampus is darker in tone than the other three films, as well as gorier in places in its violence.

These differences reflect some of the elements of this genre as well. Some of the factors of success emerge from the use of contrasts. There is the contrast present in the calm of a small town vs. growing chaos from the outside forces unleashed on it. There is the contrast between a seemingly harmless outside appearance of items like dolls, balloons, or cute pets, and the dangers they present. And there is a contrast between the warmth of a holiday with family and the violence that comes.

The comedy-horror genre can have some thin lines when it comes to where the boundaries lie. For example, Ghostbusters (1984) is a terrific comedy film, but isn’t comedy-horror despite having some ghosts and monsters. The tone is too light for it to be any type of horror and the humor is largely verbal and character-oriented, like Venkman’s sarcastic quips. Another boundary is the question of taste. Some of the films listed can be and have been criticized for being too mean-spirited or showing bad taste at parts. That’s a valid perspective, and in darker forms of comedy, balance is an important factor to consider to keep the humor in a comfortable place.

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  • Xander

    You gave some very good examples, but I’m surprised you didn’t mention the more recent example of Shaun of the Dead, which billed itself as a romantic comedy with zombies but played the zombie aspects nearly perfectly straight other than at the very end where the zombies were put to work.

    Another example that I love is Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn, which is genuinely creepy and unnerving but has some great comedy beats, as well.

    • Steven Birkner

      Your first suggestion is a good example, I think the second one is darker than the kind of tone I was looking at for the others.

  • Kenneth Morgan

    You forgot the best horror/comedy of them all: “Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein”.

  • MichaelANovelli

    I think the reason horror and comedy can work so well together is that, unlike other genres, these two really on *emotional* logic instead of *story* logic.