The combination of horror and comedy may seem like a relatively new cinematic concept with the virtual explosion of the subgenre during the 1980’s all the way up to now, but it actually originated with the silent film era. One of the first to mix both elements was a now lost picture called The Ghost Breaker (1914).
Some others that were released during that era include One Exciting Night (1922), The Headless Horseman (1922), and The Bat (1924). It would seem that both of these elements would work well together as they require the viewer to suspend belief and enter a world of fantasy. They also provide the viewer with more than one type of experience by being sent on a rollercoaster of emotions, laughing one minute and screaming the next.
There are various examples through each decade. The 1930’s saw films like The Bat Whispers (1930), Sh! The Octopus (1937), and the beginning of comedy team ups with Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard in The Cat and the Canary (1939). The 1940’s and 1950’s saw more comedy duos getting involved in horror settings, most notably the series of movies in which Abbot and Costello meet the various iconic Universal monsters characters.
The 1960’s had low budget producer Roger Corman come up with Little Shop of Horrors (1960) and several other horror-comedies, while British studios spoofed the genre with What a Carve-Up! (1961) and The Horror of it All (1963). There were also the dark humored Vincent Price horror pictures that were based on Edgar Allen Poe stories, as well as other ones that ended up carrying on into the 1970’s.
The 1970’s was an era that brought on the more exploitative movies often featuring nudity, gore, and sometimes a little music with the likes of The Horror of Frankenstein (1970), Flesh for Frankenstein (1973), Blood for Dracula, Young Frankenstein (1974), and The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975).
The 1980’s was when the subgenre truly exploded as there were more production studios copying what was popular and there was also more of a demand in the market with the popularity of video rentals. This included a slew of movies such as An American Werewolf in London, Ghostbusters, Gremlins, Fright Night, Return of the Living Dead, Re-Animator, Evil Dead, Toxic Avenger, Killer Klowns from Outer Space, and so many more.
There were many more through the 1990’s and 2000’s such as Dead Alive, Scream, and Shaun of the Dead. Many of the iconic horror characters such as Freddy Krueger and Chucky have become more comedic over time. The subgenre is still going strong with the likes of Final Girls, Deathgasm, Cooties, Dead Snow, and What We Do in the Shadows.
This list contains a little bit of everything, with at least one film from every decade between 1940 and 1990. This list is a varied collection of cult films and trashy pictures; all ranging between being critically hailed, being exploitative and controversial, and being considered so bad that they are great.
[Author’s Note: This list is not meant to be an all inclusive list or a best of list; it is simply fifteen cult movies that may be worth your time.]
1. Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)
“Jeepers! The creepers are after Bud and Lou!” . Abbot and Costello play freight handlers delivering several packages that are supposed to contain wax figures of Dracula (Bela Lugosi) and Frankenstein (Glen Strange) to a local house of horrors. But it turns out that they are actually alive and Dracula is trying to resurrect Frankenstein with a new brain.
The Wolfman (Lon Chaney Jr.) shows up in order to try and stop Dracula from succeeding in his diabolical plans. The end features an appearance from the Invisible Man voiced by Vincent Price.
It silliness meets horror in this horror comedy spoof of the Universal monsters series. This was the first of seven movies in which the comedy duo would meet famous Universal characters, and it is widely considered the comedy duos best film and one of the quintessential horror-comedy pictures. It provides great comedy scenes that are truly funny and horror scenes that would have been considered truly scary at the time.
The monsters play true to their characters and don’t get into any burlesque or comedic dialogue except for one scene with Frankenstein being frightened by Lou Costello’s character. Other than that, the integrity of the monsters is maintained and they play their roles straight like they had done in their previous pictures.
2. Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla (1952)
“Brooklyn Chumps Become Island Monkeys in a Jungle Full of Laffs!” . A pair of entertainers falls out of a plane on their way to perform at a war show and end up on an island in the Pacific Ocean. There they meet a primitive tribe and also a mad scientist (Bela Lugosi) located one on the island that ends up turning one of them into a gorilla. Horror, comedy and musical numbers ensue.
The film is notable for the appearance of the comedic team of Duke Mitchell and Sammy Petrillo, who were imitating the musical comedy team of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Petrillo resembled Lewis and had been imitating him in gigs and eventually joined up with Mitchell, who could sing, to perform at clubs and in Las Vegas.
This was the only movie that they would pair as a duo together, but both would go on to make a series of pictures. Martin and Lewis were reportedly furious over the team imitating them and threatened to sue.
A deal had been discussed about selling the negative to Paramount Pictures so that they could destroy it, but that deal never ended up happening and it was released. Lugosi hadn’t done much work since appearing in Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein in 1948. He had been ill at the time of production and was known to have an addiction to morphine, but was said to have conducted himself professionally on the set.
3. A Bucket of Blood (1959)
“You’ll be sick, sick, and sick – from laughing!” . Dick Miller stands out in his lone starring role as a ridiculed busboy at a Bohemian café that is frequented by local artists. When he accidentally kills his landlady’s cat, he covers it in plaster and calls it a sculpture titled “Dead Cat.” The artists hail him as a genius and he proceeds to kill off people in order to create new work.
This was director Roger Corman’s first black comedy and it was shot quickly over five days on a $50,000 budget. His next project would be the comedy Little Shop of Horrors, which was shot in only two days. The film is in the public domain and had a remake released in 1995 and a musical production that took place in Chicago in 2009.
4. Spider Baby (1967)
“Spider Baby will give you nightmares forever!” . This is a dark-horror comedy about the caretaker Bruno (Lon Chaney Jr.) who cares for three orphaned siblings who suffer from a disease that makes them mentally, socially, and physically regress when they start to reach puberty.
The three siblings all act in unusual ways. Ralph (Sid Haig) cannot speak and uses leers and grunts to communicate. He moves around the house using a dumb-waiter. Virginia (Jill Banner) is obsessed with spiders, walking around like a spider and stalking bugs and other unsuspecting victims.
Bruno had been able to keep the siblings exploits a secret up until a group of distant relatives show up with a lawyer and his secretary to kick them out of their home. Then the trio shows how demented and dangerous they are when they attack the unsuspecting victims in various gruesome and disturbing ways.
This is basically the more insane and weirder version of the Addams Family, with some awesome performances from Chaney, Haig, and Banner. Because of bankruptcy issues with the production company, this wasn’t released until after Chaney had died who gives one of the greatest performances of his career. Chaney also performed the theme song, which was meant to be a parody of “Monster Mash.”
It is widely considered director Jack Hill’s masterpiece, who was responsible for such cult hits as The Big Doll House, The Big Bird Cage, Coffy, Foxy Brown, and The Swinging Cheerleaders. The picture didn’t do well initially and went through multiple title changes, being billed as The Liver Eaters, Attack of the Liver Eaters, Cannibal Orgy, and The Maddest Story Ever Told.
5. Theatre of Blood (1973)
“It’s curtains for his critics!” . Shakespearian actor Edward Lionheart (Vincent Price) takes revenge on all of the critics who gave him bad reviews. After he kills each critic, he recites lines from Shakespeare plays.
This one is just dark campy fun. Vincent Price is hilarious in what he had “often cited …as one of his favorite films” . Because of such a great script, the producers were also able to get “some of the best actors in England for supporting roles” . There is blood and gore in this, including a memorable scene involving a critic having to eat his pet poodles. If you like Vincent Price or black comedies than this is essential viewing.
6. Attack of the Killer Tomatoes (1978)
“A New Musical-Comedy-Horror Show” . This is a totally insane horror spoof that you’ll either find totally hilarious or totally ridiculous. Somehow tomatoes have become sentient beings and are going around killing people.
The government puts together a special team to investigate that includes the leader Mason Dixon, a disguise expert that dresses up as Abraham Lincoln, Adolf Hitler, and George Washington among others, a navy diver that’s wearing diving gear, an Olympic swimmer, and a parachuting soldier.
It’s ridiculous and dumb Airplane style humor at its best, featuring a great opening theme song, multiple musical numbers, a spoof of the Jaws water attack, tomatoes killing and attacking people, a big helicopter crash, ridiculous dialogue, tons of little jokes and bits, a spoof of Lois Lane and Clark Kent, and so much more. The popularity of this film led to three more sequels, a television cartoon series, and several video games.
7. Piranha (1978)
“Then… you were shocked by the great white shark – Now… you are at the mercy of 1000 jaws!” . This was a rip off and somewhat spoof of Jaws from Producer Roger Corman’s production company New World Pictures, mixing elements of horror and comedy. In this version, piranha that have been bioengineered by the army are accidently released into a river and terrorize a kids camp and resort. A drunk and a skip tracer are the only people trying to stop them from killing more people.
This has to be one of the best of the Jaws rip off films, combining horror, jokes, comedic dialogue, some stop motion animation, violence, blood, nudity, and some gore. They are able to achieve scares and intensity with quick cuts and the music. There are many elements from the Jaws movie that are used in this; including an opening nude swimming scene, a person getting killed on a small fishing pier, showing the underwater viewpoint of the fish, a guy in a canoe attacked, and a large group of people being attacked in the water.
It was written by John Sayles, who would go on to become a prolific director. It was one of the first films directed by Joe Dante, who would go on to direct The Howling and the Gremlins films. It featured minor appearances by Kevin McCarthy, Dick Miller, Paul Bartel, and Barbara Steele.
Universal Studios were going to sue New World for spoofing Jaws, but dropped the lawsuit after Steven Spielberg saw a pre-screening of the film and loved it . The piranha effects were done using rubber fish that were attached to poles . The film was shot over thirty days on a budget of $660,000 and ended up being one of New World Pictures most successful films .
There is an in joke at the beginning of the movie when the female lead is playing on a Jaws arcade videogame. The poster for Piranha is pretty much a replica of the original jaws poster, with a giant piranha going after a woman that is partially in the water.