Most comedies are light in terms of tone, but there are a number of bold films that fall into the category of black comedy. Classics like Heathers, Dr. Strangelove and Fargo all depict horrible crimes and terrible people, but there isn’t a mean-spirit to them. They are meant to be satires and as dark as they are, they do not come across as needlessly cruel.
Then there are movies that are filled with characters that are so despicable and do such horrible things to each other that it is actually mean-spirited. These movies have plots that are often driven by characters intentionally being cruel and harming other characters, often for no reason, other than because they wanted to.
The results are often bleak, which isn’t a term often associated with the comedy genre. Also, while these movies are mean-spirited, they work in varying degrees of success. Some of the films are excellent and their aggressive sadism works wonders for the films, while others are so objectionable that they become notorious.
15. Problem Child (Dennis Dugan, 1990)
This children’s movie features a sadistic and psychopathic child, Junior (Michael Oliver), who was abandoned as a baby and has been kicked out of every foster family he has ever been placed with. With good reason too, the kid belongs in some type of treatment facility. For example, in one of his stunts, he bulldozes a foster family’s home while laughing about it. But instead of treatment, he’s taken in by a man named Ben (John Ritter) who needs a son to impress his father and can’t conceive with his wife.
Ben wants to impress his father so that his father will pass the business down to him. Which is a great premise for a comedy, because there is nothing more likable in a character than being the type of person who is willing to exploit an orphaned child for his own financial gain. Once taken in by Ben and his wife, Junior goes around committing various acts of arson and assault, including beating other little league players with a baseball bat. Oh, and his pen pal is a serial killer.
The movie is incredibly dark and what is really odd was that it was directed at children. What if the script had stayed the same, but it was made into a horror movie? More people would have adopted Damien from The Omen than Junior. Junior is insanely cruel and sadistic; not words you associate with a protagonist in the comedy genre.
14. Citizen Ruth (Alexander Payne, 1996)
Alexander Payne has carved out a niche for himself amongst auteurs for his acidic comedies. They often follow characters that aren’t exactly likable, but are fairly relatable. Payne’s first movie features one of his more ugly characters – Ruth Stoops (Laura Derns).
Ruth is an alcoholic and drug-addict with four children, none of which she has custody, and she finds herself pregnant again. After she is arrested and charged with endangering a fetus, the judge encourages her to get an abortion, and if she did, the courts might go easier on her. When she is in prison, she happens to get involved with a pro-life group who convince her that she should have the child, for no other reason than it is what God wants.
Then a pro-choice organization gets a hold of her and tries to convince her that an abortion is the way to go. Meanwhile, Ruth, who isn’t very bright and fairly oblivious, is manipulated by both sides and it eventually leads to Ruth being bribed by both groups.
Throughout the film, Ruth, the heroine, constantly pounds booze and huffs toxicants, all while pregnant. She is unrepentantly self-centered, but so are the other characters in the film. It’s a scathing look at fanaticism and you should hate every single character in it.
13. The To Do List (Maggie Carey, 2013)
29-year-old Aubrey Plaza plays Brandy, a recent high school grad who was the valedictorian of her class. Knowing that she is off to college next year, she feels that she is vastly inexperienced sexually. So she makes a list of sexual things that she wants to do before heading off to college.
In comedy sex-quests featuring males, there are many obstacles for them to overcome and that is where the story and the jokes are derived from. When an attractive girl wants to do the same thing, there aren’t exactly the same complications that the males face. With that being said, there is nothing wrong with a sex-quest from a female’s point of view; in fact, that premise could be really unique and interesting.
The To Do List just hit all the wrong notes because it is too mean-spirited. The characters, especially Brandy, are all shallow, cruel and mean to each other for no-discernible reason. As a result, it’s hard to make a connection with any of the characters. They continually use and torment each other and then can’t seem to grasp what went wrong.
12. Teaching Mrs. Tingle (Kevin Williamson, 1999)
Leigh Ann Watson (Katie Holmes) has the second highest grade average in school. The difference between whether she becomes valedictorian or not comes down to the mark she’ll get in History from the sadistic and vile Mrs. Tingle (Helen Mirren). Mrs. Tingle hates Leigh Ann, seemingly only because she is smart and pretty.
When Leigh Ann faces expulsion because Mrs. Tingle found her exam answers in Leigh Ann’s bag, she and two friends kidnap Mrs. Tingle and tie her to a bed. Over the next few days they hold the teacher hostage and try to figure out what to do.
What if this movie wasn’t played up like a comedy? The movie would come across more like Alpha Dog or Bully, where the atmosphere is uneasy and death lingers in the air because the characters have already gone too far.
If they are already holding her hostage, then they are better off killing her because at least if she’s dead, she’ll never be able to talk. And while it may look like the film will end in death for someone (or everyone), the ending is actually more twisted than a simple killing.
11. Project X (Nima Nourizadeh, 2012)
Project X’s plot line is pretty simple – a teenage house party gets out of hand. The movie, which is told through found-footage, details the night when three seniors threw a birthday party that quickly spiraled out of control.
While it sounds like a plot borrowed from Porky’s or Weird Science, Project X sets itself apart because of how mean it is. For example, the characters just want to get wasted and party and nothing else matters. They are horrible, disgusting people that the reviewer from Empire called “sub- Kardashian.”
So when they do things meant to elicit a reaction from the audience, like stuff a little person into an oven, it’s not funny, it’s sociopathic. They continue to party and cause millions of dollars’ worth of damage with little concern, because, whatever man, they had a night that was EPIC.
It’s a deplorable movie about ugly characters doing mean things, all in the sake of getting wasted. It’s a sad statement on youth culture that applauds pointless mayhem and a lack of consciousness.
It is a celebration of all the things that older generations loath about the impressions they get from young people; that they are irresponsible, shallow, drunk, high, destructive, amoral, and attention obsessed.
10. 40 Days and 40 Nights (Michael Lehmann, 2002)
40 Days and 40 Nights is about a guy who agrees to no sexual contact with anyone, even himself, for the titular 40 days and nights. By doing so, he learns some things about himself and falls in love with a young woman that he meets. So while it may not exactly be the most original, or even an interesting premise for a rom-com, it had this odd mean streak that sets itself apart from other movies in the young adult sex-comedy genre.
For example, it is an odd premise that seems to suggest young men are slaves to their hormones. The characters, especially the main character Matt (Josh Harnett), have no other drives, or other interests, other than getting laid. Then when Matt makes a connection with a woman, he’s amazed that he connects with someone if he just talks to her.
While the movie may not be exactly profound, it doesn’t make it mean. Where the mean streak comes from is that all the characters are just awful. They are never honest with each other and they want other people to suffer, for no other reason than just trying to be cruel and screw up each other’s lives. You only usually get that type of conflict in a Michael Haneke movie.
9. Surviving Christmas (Mike Mitchell, 2004)
When making a comedy, even a black comedy, you need a character you can connect with or make the character so over the top evil that the audience can laugh at it. When you make a character that is just so plainly ugly and unlikable, it’s hard to care what happens to them. Which brings us to Surviving Christmas starring Ben Affleck as Drew Latham, a wealthy advertising executive who has no friends and isn’t close to his family.
Realizing he has to spend Christmas alone, he decides to return to his childhood home, where a new family lives, in the hopes of liberating some of his old ghosts. Then, for some bizarre reason, he decides to proposition the family living in his old house. He will pay them $325,000 to pretend to be his family and when his girlfriend’s family and her parents arrive, mean-spirited wackiness ensues.
Most of the movie feels like a home invasion flick, but instead of being armed with a gun, Drew holds money over the heads of a middle class, blue-collar family. So based on that fairly despicable premise, it leads to an ending where no one is really likable and the audience is left wondering how such a vile movie could have been made. Not even the overly sentimental conclusion, seemingly mandatory in Christmas films, could save the film from its mean-streak.