What it is about a delightfully dark comedy that we enjoy? While comedy comes in many forms–romantic, slapstick, buddy, slobs vs. snobs, surreal–only dark comedy seems to cut to the core of what makes something funny–which is that comedy is ultimately a response against the darker, sadder, and ultimately mortal elements of our existence.
So it’s far better to watch someone else suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune than ourselves. As Mel Brooks once said, “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.”
So better you than me, dark comedies seem to suggest: watching a man’s life fall apart either slowly or quickly can be a riot, after all, especially if the person it’s happening to is completely confounded as to what’s going on. In this sense, dark comedies approach ultimately horrifying ideas of death, suffering, depression, and the things we try not to think about are totally out of our control in life, and makes fun of it.
Daring, weird, but ultimately cathartic, dark comedies are often like looking at a gravestone with the phrase, “Have a nice day,” etched into it. You don’t want to laugh but ultimately you do because it’s either that or shudder. With that in mind, here are 10 great dark comedies from the 1980’s you may have missed.:
1. After Hours (1985)
Although stereotyped for making violent mob movies, Martin Scorsese has had a long and varied filmmaking career. From tackling the period piece in movies like Dangerous Liaisons and Gangs of New York to the musical with New York, New York to making some just plain weird movies like King of New York and Bringing out the Dead, Scorsese’s dabbled in every genre over his nearly 50-year career. But the one outright comedy he made was perhaps darker than most fans of the genre expected.
After Hours follows one long night in the life of Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne), who meets a young woman (Rosanna Arquette) and soon finds himself stranded in the unfamiliar streets of SoHo without any money and finding himself in one tense, unfortunate situation after another. Fans of cringe comedy and black humor will find the film rather entertaining, while many may be turned off by the increasingly terrible and mostly undeserved situations Paul ends up in.
While many of Scorsese’s movies have a lot of humor in them, from the dark humor of Goodfellas to the surprisingly funny Wolf of Wall Street, this was the only outright comedy he ever attempted–and while it’s “funny,” its inherent grimness and paranoia gives it a far darker edge than most comedic films.
2. Motel Hell (1980)
Just your run of the mill story about a brother and sister who run Motel Hello and also cannibals who sell smoked meat to unsuspecting customers. The two capture their victims, bury them from the neck up after cutting their vocal cords so they can’t scream for help, and then fatten them up before killing them.
Between the pig head wearing, chainsaw-wielding brother and a macabre romantic triangle that develops between one of the murderous siblings and his brother, the local sheriff, with a young woman who’s staying with them after a motorcycle accident (and is unaware that her boyfriend is being fattened up for slaughter), it’s almost perverse to refer to it as a comedy–but Motel Hell is a surprising satire on the horror genre, and an early example of this now-established genre.
Released in 1980, Motel Hell successfully married comedy with splatter horror like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, turning it into a dark horror-comedy (a subgenre that itself is difficult enough to pull off). Having turned into a cult classic, with the image of one of the characters wearing a pig’s head while wielding a chainsaw having become iconic in the genre, Motel Hell is a hell of a funny horror movie–if you’re in the mood to mix your laughs with some grotesque images.
3. Consuming Passions (1988)
A chocolate factory prepares to launch a new luxury line of chocolates, but just before the line is sent out a worker falls into the machinery. While initially the owners rush to stop their release, once they realize what a hit the chocolates–now laced with human flesh–are with the public, they attempt to replicate the formula. But using animals don’t produce the same effect, so they realize the only way to continue making the chocolates everyone loves is by finding human bodies to add to the mix.
This dark British comedy was adapted from a television play by Michael Palin and Terry Jones and while not as ultimately successful as their initial endeavor, the film’s very British sensibilities and dry humor–along with a strong lead performance by Jonathan Pryce–provides a darkly humorous satire on consumerism, predicated on potentially how delicious human flesh and chocolate are when combined.
4. Withnail & I (1987)
Two unemployed actors, slowly losing their minds in their filthy apartment while on the dole in 1960’s London, con their way into taking a trip to an uncle’s old country home for a holiday. But once they arrive, the outrageous narcissist Withnail (Richard E. Grant) “and I” (Paul McGann) are out of their element as the cottage has no food, no wood for a fire, and neither of them are seemingly capable of taking care of themselves.
Fuelled by alcohol and simmering tensions between the two friends, the tentative peace between them breaks when Withnail’s wealthy, looney, and closeted gay uncle shows up and Withnail throws “I” at him, lying to his uncle that he’s also gay. The fallout between the two suggests the end of a friendship.
And this would be sad if it wasn’t so bleakly humorous, particularly Grant’s portrayal as Withnail, a cruel, sharp-tongued alcoholic who berates everyone around him endlessly, particularly his “friend” I. This unbelievably British comedy mostly takes place in the much-heralded English countryside, only to depict this setting as a rainy, cold, generally unpleasant place filled with residents hostile to outsiders.
Of course, if you’re a person like Withnail, there’s plenty to be hostile against him for. A well-made smaller picture that approaches its neurotic protagonists with the little dignity they deserve, Withnail & I is a darkly humorous cult classic.
5. Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1989)
Now for a little romantic comedy where a young man meets up with an old flame and they rekindle their passion for each other, with amusing obstacles in their way throughout.
However, in Pedro Aldomovar’s Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, the young man in question, Ricky (Antonio Banderas) is has been recently released from a psychiatric hospital, and the old flame is an actress he once slept with years before that has since moved on from pornography to act in mainstream films but is also battling a drug problem. And they “rekindle” their relationship by having Ricky literally hold her hostage, tying her up, and trying to convince her that they should be together.
A strange mixture of a romantic comedy and horror film, Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! Doesn’t play like a traditional movie, particularly with its own characters, with the domantic dynamic reflecting the sort of Stockholm Syndrome relationship between Belle and The Beast in Beauty and The Beast than a straightforward romance.
Considering the violence and physical restraints that Ricky puts the object of his desire into, to imagine that she would ever capitulate to sincerely loving him is a far-fetched one. Yet, through humor and a very sideways look at romance, Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! ends surprisingly happily ever after. After all, love is strange.