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Quality horror-comedy is back, and the UK is leading the charge

It's hard to do it right, but we're doing a pretty good job

Quality horror-comedy is back, and the UK is leading the charge

There’s a very dubious, perhaps unstable, history of the horror-comedy film – for every Braindead there is a Redneck Zombies; for every Idle Hands there is a Scary Movie V. They’re hard to do right, and so many try, but when they do hit the spot, you’re in for a good time. A gory time, a gross time, a literally gut-busting time. Only problem is, there’s so much shit to wade through to find the diamonds – so many have-a-go-helmers putting their inexperienced hands to what seems like a simple task.

Comedy-horror films, more than any other sub-genre, can be made on the cheap. Any budget-betrayal, like sloppy special effects, can be written off – it’s a comedy, things don’t need to be realistic, you’re there for a laugh, stop being a baby. They’re the cinematic equivalent of a shonky ghost train at a dodgy fairground – a little ropey, but massively fun, even in between the scares (if there are any).

So really, it should be easy, but the last decade hasn’t been too kind on the genre. Whereas in the ‘80s there were a good number of genuinely good comedy-horrors, like Gremlins, Evil Dead II, Beetlejuice, Killer Klowns From Outer Space and Return Of The Living Dead, it all started going downhill from there. Yeah, there were good ones in the ‘90s (Scream, The Frighteners) and 2000s (Shaun Of The Dead, Bubba Ho-Tep), but a lot less – things had slowed to a bloodless crawl, and lazy spoofs like Stan Helsing seemed to be the way things were sadly heading. 

I’m here though, to declare that they’re back, and that it’s the good ole U of K that is spraying out the best examples.

I was at The Horror Channel Frightfest last weekend, a film festival that shows the best in new horror from all over the world. We had indies, slashers, blockbusters, sequels, documentaries – you name it. Yet I found, on the evidence of the films I saw, that nearly all the traditional, ‘scary’, serious horror flicks were sub-par, whereas the light-hearted, haw-haw horror contingent consistently claimed ownership of the best films.

For example, only the second film to have ever received a standing ovation at Frightfest over its 17-year history, was Victor Crowley, a dumb (and I don’t think director Adam Green will mind me calling it that), fun, ridiculous slasher movie that is as much a farce as it is a gruesome horror. This rabid audience reaction seemed mostly to accompany the comedies on show: if your film was funny at this year’s fest, the audience loved it.

Along with Victor Crowley, you had Mayhem, an Office Space-alike orgy of violence; 68 Kill, a grindhouse-influenced road movie; Cult Of Chucky, the latest in the now-definitely-a-comedy Child’s Play series; Better Watch Out, a Christmas-themed home invasion flick and Tragedy Girls, a social media-savvy teen-com. All of these did gangbusters with the Frightfest punters.

Maybe it’s because horror fans are bored of the industry standard – jump scares, slow-moving killer, ugh, social commentary, and they need things shaking up a bit. Comedy is the perfect medium to do this – its self-reflexive nature enables it to take the piss out of the genre itself. It’s hard to give a light-hearted nod to a trope or cliche in the middle of a Texas Chainsaw film without it coming across a bit tongue-in-cheek, but that’s par for the course with a comedy. Stuff as many references and comments in as you want – it won’t throw the film off the rails or push the audience away.

And it’s this self-deprecation that makes the UK so good at doing horror-comedies. We’re famous internationally recognised as being “the funny ones”, and we’re also a bit weird, which is where the horror part comes in, I guess.

Of all the films I saw at Frightfest, my favourite three were British horror comedies:

Freehold, a surprisingly gore-light, but definitely horrifying film about a cocky estate agent who doesn’t realise a crazed maniac is living in his walls, is brilliantly funny, fiendishly clever, and give-me-that-fucking-Tesco-bag-I’m-gonna-sodding-puke disgusting.

Double Date, on the other hand, leans even further towards the comedy, with a typically British focus on awkwardness, and follows a bloke trying to lose his virginity before his 30th, as he gets involved with two women with a *trailer voice* DEADLY SECRET.

And finally, Attack Of The Adult Babies (stay with me here) is so good, and to be honest, it’s almost pointless me telling you what it’s about – I mean, you’ve just read the title, haven’t you? It’s got giant pigs, explosive diarrhoea and, well, other stuff. Just watch it, it’s great.

Each one of these films is typically British – Freehold has the garish rudeboys of London, Double Date has Michael Socha playing a Midlands nutter to a T, and Attack Of The Adult Babies has a bunch of old fat men in big nappies from oop norrth shouting northern things and doing northern shits in their northern nappies (a very British past-time).

The key is make them funny (obviously), but make them scary, too. It’s a difficult thing to do, but all three achieve it in different ways, and I think it’s the secret to their success. Freehold plays on the fear of someone intruding your house, from the inside (which is even worse), but works a good chunk of character comedy into the frankly vile situation. I mean, the relentless bodily fluids on offer in this film need to be punctuated with humour, otherwise it would amount to a pretty grim viewing experience.

Double Date works the scariness in by making the main character so likable, that you genuinely fear for his safety once the shit hits the fan – the antagonists are unhinged to the max, and that’s enough to instill a bout of extreme unease in your stomach. A bag of bile that is then thankfully diluted with regular laughs.

Now, maybe my theory falls apart here, because Attack Of The Adult Babies is too stupid to be genuinely scary, but its comment on the ruling class maybe brings the scares long after the film has finished (it’s that ‘social commentary’ thing again, whooo). Look, I’m clutching at straws – Adult Babies has gone the gross-out route, but you know that works, too.

And even if we look to the international entries, the scare/laugh seesaw is well and present, too. Cult Of Chucky is the straightest of the films mentioned, and merely nabs a slice of the comedy mantle simply because it’s about a talking doll who swears at people before killing them. Regardless of the fact that it’s played mostly for scares, it’s hard to get away from the ridiculous premise and snappy one-liners. It actually works though – it’s a great entry in the series.

Same goes for Victor Crowley – it’s a slasher at its bleeding heart, so the hulking central monster is a threatening and shocking presence, but Q from Impractical Jokers is in it, and there’s a fart joke, sooooo.

It’s getting more and more obvious that comedy is a safe, and welcome, way to go – nothing is scary anymore, bar the odd break-out, and horror fatigue has set in. Comedy gives filmmakers a great avenue to try new things and take risks, with less chance of an out-and-out failure. If you didn’t like it? IT’S A BLOODY COMEDY MATE, LIGHTEN UP etc. There’s a lot of leeway, and this is a good thing.

How many well-revered, Oscar-winning laugh-riots can you name? Not a lot, but how many fan-and-personal favourites fall under the comedy banner? A hell of a lot. Cult is where horror thrives, and so does comedy: a match made in Hell. 

So, is horror-comedy is back on the skew-and-broad? Are we trotting backwards towards a return to it’s ‘80s heyday? With the strength of what was on show at this year’s Frightfest – often a very accurate horror-cultural barometer – I’d say yes. And you only need look at the success (mainstream or otherwise) of recent films like Get Out, The Greasy Strangler and the UK-made Prevenge to see that it’s already started.

Also, I’m absolutely fine with more fart jokes. In anything. Keep ‘em coming.

Cult Of Chucky is out on DVD on 23 October, Double Date is out in cinemas 13 October, the rest are yet to receive release dates.

(Images: Clout Communications)