Good horror unsettles—and it often leaves you scared out of your wits. That’s what most of us crave when we hit "play". Then again, sometimes a horror film is more on the campy side, or perhaps it aims to do something unusual with the typical tropes. Cabin in the Woods comes to mind. The film is deliberately outrageous, to the point where any scare factor accentuates the absurdity and, in turn, comes off as hilarious. Remember when A Nightmare on Elm Street took Freddy in a campy direction? How about what happened with Jason in Friday the 13th Part 3? It’s proof that horror has range; it can be comedic even as blood flows and the bodies pile up.
Here we take a look at some examples that demonstrate horror flexing its funny bone.
From Dusk Till Dawn
The Robert Rodriguez-directed, Quentin Tarantino-written cult classic is consistently listed as one of those breakthrough films that manages to get serious while also never seemingly taking itself seriously. The premise is, by now, iconic, involving criminals Seth and Richie creating a paper trail of robberies before they end up holing up in a motel. And let’s just say that’s where things just keep getting crazier and crazier. The film tackles some truly horrifying acts, yet manages to make it so unbelievable that when it first debuted, it had people talking all about it. Nowadays it’s a great example of horror and humor’s parity.
This insanely demented rendition of the classic story, “The Most Dangerous Game” by Richard Connell is one of those films that you think you know what to expect when you go in, but then it constantly surprises you. The story has been made timely by offering political undertones wherein working class individuals are kidnapped and brought to a secluded spot so that the rich can hunt them for sport. There’s much more to it than that, but even as the political undertones bleed into every scene, there’s this underlying absurdity to the entire film, as though it was pulled from a fever dream. When the film begins revealing its twists, particularly the surprise protagonist with a vengeance, the film descends into near-campy hilarity.
Happy Death Day
Take Groundhog Day and add in slasher elements: How can you go wrong? Well, depending on who you’re talking to about Happy Death Day, some may say it did no wrong while others will have a lot to say. It comes with the territory.
Happy Death Day aimed to walk that line between horror and hilarity, perhaps a little more like Cabin in the Woods than, say, Scream. It definitely works in becoming a dizzying descent into protagonist Tree Gelbman’s own living hell after she is murdered and forced to repeat the day of her death until she figures out how it all unfolded. The outrageousness was enough to warrant a sequel too, Happy Death Day 2U.
In the 2000s, zombies weren’t completely washed out and a tired trope. They were well on their way, but there was still room to have fun with them. And Zombieland surely did. It’s full of near-campy moments involving the awkward geek college student played by Jesse Eisenberg as he bonds up with an unlikely crew of survivors. Instead of having “normal” names, the survivors choose to go by the city they hailed from prior to the apocalypse. When he meets Witchita, Little Rock, and Tallahassee, in a standout performance by Woody Harrelson, the tone is set. Zombieland goes full post-apocalyptic absurdity until the end credits.
The concept of a sentient hand… it could be absolutely terrifying, yet for some, it could be downright ridiculous.
The 1999 film Idle Hands, about a stoner teen named Anton that ends up having a hand that becomes demonically possessed, is a great example of how absurdity lies in the concept itself. When the hand becomes initially possessed, there’s very little to it that could evoke any scares; however, its terror truly shines when it is severed from Anton’s arm and goes on a killing spree. Though Idle Hands is by no means “scary,” its balance of absurdity and horror tones makes for a great narrative ride.
Attack the Block
Back in 2011, before John Boyega starred as Finn in Star Wars, there was an absurd alien invasion film called Attack the Block. Donning the role of Moses, a quiet yet strong-willed teenage loner living in a low-income high-rise apartment complex in South London, viewers get to witness an alien invasion happening right in the middle of the city.
Attack the Block shines specifically because of its playful script, choosing to go the more empathetic route in between the action-packed alien attacks, while knowingly leaning on sci-fi and horror tropes to keep things absurd and ultimately more comedic, rather than apocalyptic, in its effect.