Whether it be classified as black comedy, gallows humor, or morbid humor, dark comedy is a special film genre. It blends two worlds, dark and comedic, into a seemingly weird but perfect match. Dark comedy is a genre due for longevity thanks to the harmonious relationship between misery and humor. Death, human depravity, violence, social injustices, sexuality, and more are all topics that black comedy boldly and unapologetically tackles. While some may see morbid humor as glorifying bad taste, dark comedy addresses grisly subjects with meaning and important commentary.
With more critical successes falling under the category of gallows humor, it is fun to watch and examine the films within the dark comedy genre that may have been overlooked by the masses. Dark comedy has established an intensely relevant presence in the world of cinema and because of this, here are the “great dark comedies you’ve probably never seen.”
1. Harold and Maude (1971)
While most consider Dr. Strangelove a staple of dark comedy, Harold and Maude is an overlooked, essential film of the genre that should be watched by any supporter of morbid comedy. Harold and Maude follows the romance between Harold (Bud Cort), a disillusioned, death-obsessed young man, and Maude (Ruth Gordon), a free-spirited 79-year-old woman. Through this relationship, Harold and Maude provide the audience with a unique take on the meaning of life question asked by so many.
Director Hal Ashby captures the hilarity and meaning behind death. While death can be a ghastly topic, Ashby uses the idea to create a quirky yet inspirational source of humor and purpose. The dark comedy is quickly present as Harold’s dead pan demeanor and exaggerated suicide stunts throughout the film are combined with his mother’s unimpressed attitude towards his actions. Viewers cannot help but chuckle at the unphased manner of Harold’s mother towards her son’s consistent fake suicides. At one point, Harold sets up a hanging for himself and his mother simply says, “Dinner at 8 Harold and try to be a little bit more vivacious.”
Another element that makes Harold and Maude a gallows humor classic is Maude’s characterization. Her drive to live life to the fullest makes for hilarious and comically dangerous antics that not only allow for laughter but also allow Harold to have an amazing arch, inserting the perfect amount of humor into the complexity of existential drama. In the end, these characters make for a dynamic duo that transcends their notable age difference, and thanks to the skillful writing of Colin Higgins, strong performances from both leads, and expert directing from Ashby, Harold and Maude is a dark comedy masterpiece that simply gets better with age.
2. Raising Arizona (1987)
This would not be a proper “great dark comedies you’ve probably never seen” list if a Cohen brothers’ movie did not make the cut. Joel and Ethan Cohen gave moviegoers a gift with their 1987 film, Raising Arizona, which tells the tale of a desperate couple made up of an ex-convict, named H.I. (Nicolas Cage) and barren police officer named Ed (Holly Hunter) as they go to hilarious and illegal lengths to obtain a child in order to make their family complete.
This film thrives on the darkly comedic qualities that the Cohen brothers’ unique filmmaking style provides. There is blackmail, distinct dialogue, Anti-Nihilist themes, ambiguity, mood whiplash, standout minor characters, and the reuse of actors. These seemingly serious elements are turned into humorous events, and even if they are reoccurring Cohen brothers’ tropes, they are still insanely entertaining.
Along with the Cohen brothers’ storytelling, Hunter’s more subdued humor is mixed in well with Cage’s unpredictable acting style. Their chemistry combined with the direction is so funny it even provides one of the most hilarious car chases since The Blues Brothers. It is also important to note that Cage successfully plays a man lacking intelligence but finds a way to make the character’s struggle between his criminal ways and the need to settle down with his wife and newly kidnapped child comedically poetic. The supporting cast, which includes an apocalyptic-looking bounty hunter (Randal Cobb) and a pair of bumbling, escaped prisoners (John Goodman and William Forsythe), strengthens the film and provide great humor. Raising Arizona is everything dark comedy fans and fans of the Cohen brothers want.
3. Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995)
Welcome to the Dollhouse is a coming-of-age black comedy that derives its humor from its simplicity. The plot of Welcome to the Dollhouse depicts a day-in-the-life of an unpopular girl, Dawn Weiner (Heather Matarazzo), in junior high. Her desperate need to fit in and be understood by the kids and adults in her life convey an amusing yet heartbreaking story that enthralls its viewers.
Sometimes simplicity can hinder a film, but in the case of Welcome to the Dollhouse, it works with surprising ease. There is a realistic type of funny and much-needed levity in the unclever way students tease Dawn about her last name, her neon outfits, and her large glasses. There is also the factor of a low-budget feel and the lack of styled, witty lines that can make viewers of the film sympathize, laugh, and relate with Dawn. Welcome to the Dollhouse’s distinctive approach to the struggles of a junior high girl trying to navigate her existence is something that lovers of dark comedy can appreciate.
4. The Voices (2014)
The same director who brought audiences Persepolis proves she has wide range with The Voices. The Voices answers the age-old question: ‘What if Dr. Doolittle had a murderous mind and an unquenchable bloodlust?” Ryan Reynolds plays a man named Jerry who hears imaginary voices coming from his cat and dog. Unfortunately, these voices trigger him to act more homicidal than hospitable to the people that come in his path.
Unlike the previously mentioned films, there is an aspect of this movie that both helps and hurts it. The film’s dark moments become extremely sad and sinister, which makes it difficult to root for Jerry. While the excessive gore can become humorous and seem reminiscent of the extreme comedic gore in Evil Dead II, the tone is also affected by its heavy moments that at times overshadow the humor. However, the extreme darkness does mean that the film does not feel restricted. Therefore, it goes for the gore, does not excuse Jerry’s actions, and addresses the tough idea that he might obtain pleasure from killing.
It is also a genuinely funny concept to have Jerry’s cat and dog be the symbolic devil and angel on his shoulders. Lastly, Reynolds gives a powerful performance that does give humanity with a dash of humor to the character even through his wicked deeds. The Voices may have flaws, but it is an underrated dark comedy that needs its chance to shine.
5. The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967)
With a title like The Fearless Vampire Killers, or Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are in My Neck, viewers of this film should know they are in for a good time. In the story, Professor Abronsius (Jack MacGowran), a vampire hunter, and his assistant, Alfred (Roman Polanski), are traveling through Transylvania where they stop at an inn. Unfortunately, the innkeeper’s daughter, Sarah (Sharon Tate), is kidnapped by Count von Krolock (Ferdy Mayne). Abronsius and Alfred must rescue her and kill the Count before it is too late.
There is a dynamic structure to the film as its comedy includes parody of the tropes of the vampire and Hammer horror genre while playfully inserting physical humor into the mixture. After watching the prat falls and exaggerated facial expressions, one forgets he or she is watching a movie from a director better known for his disturbing horror films like Repulsion or Rosemary’s Baby. The choice to turn the professor, a common Van Helsing character, into a Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin type with an only slightly more competent assistant is brilliant. Finally, there needs to be mention of Sharon Tate as this film is a reminder of her beauty and charm before her tragic end. Comedy and horror successfully co-exist in this genre-spoofing farce.