VOL. 2. No. 29
Mixing Comedy & Horror Began in the early days of movies By RON MILLER of TheColumnists.com
WHAT'S SO FUNNY
Wacky scientist Boris Karloff (right) uses former boxing champ
Maxie Rosenbloom as a guinea pig as Peter Lorre (center) watches in the 1942 horror comedy "The Boogie Man Will Get You."
DON'T GET the silly notion that the two "Scarey Movie" movies were doing anything fresh and new when they decided to spoof the horror genre and make a couple of "horror comedies" for the 21st century.
Truth is Georges Melies, the pioneer French filmmaker who was active as early as the late 19th century, probably started it all when he made those short silent films in which ghosts and goblins appeared out of thin air to scare scantily-clad French dancers or "magicians" startled their audiences by conjuring monsters out of sealed trunks or poofs of smoke.
The horror comedy seems to be a genre that never has earned much respect, but can't be killed by beating it with a stick. What's the appeal that has kept them going as a genre for more than a century? Probably the same appeal that crowds find in carnival "spook houses": A chance to scream without guilt in public because you know you're going to wind up laughing at yourself anyway.
As a genre, the horror comedy is mostly a blot on cinema history because so many of the films are just plain awful like "The Bowery Boys Meet the Monsters" (1954) or "The Ghost and Mr. Chicken" (1965). But then there have been some remarkably entertaining ones, too, like the all-time most successful horror comedy--"Ghostbusters" (1984), a laugh riot enhanced by bid-budget special effects.
Almost all the great horror stars did at least one or two horror comedies--some of them even intentionally funny.
Boris Karloff did "Abbott & Costello Meet the Killer" in 1949, then "Abbott & Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" (1953). He teamed up with Bela Lugosi and Peter Lorre in "You'll Find Out" (1940), with Lorre in "The Boogie Man Will Get You" (1942) and with Vincent Price, Basil Rathbone and Lorre in "The Comedy of Terrors" (1963). Lugosi did lots of unintentionally funny horror films, but his "Old Mother Riley Meets. the Vampire" (1952), which is also known as "My Son, the Vampire" and "Vampire Over London," surely started out to be a comedy because it co-starred British female impersonator Arthur Lucan as Old Mother Riley. Lugosi also did the dreadful "Bela Lugosi Meets A Brooklyn Gorilla," co-starring with the dubious comedy team of Duke Mitchell and Sammy Petrillo, who were absolute copies of Martin & Lewis. Lon Chaney, Jr., did "Ghost Catchers" (1944) with the Olsen & Johnson comedy team and "Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein" (1948). Price did "Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine" (1965) and "Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs" (1966) while Christopher Lee did "Uncle Was A Vampire" (1959) and so on.
Charles Laughton, right, was a
bashful ghost, failing to scare
Robert Young and Margaret O'Brien in the delightful 1944 ghost comedy, "The Canterville Ghost."
If you were a comedian with a movie series, you almost were required to do a horror comedy. Bud Abbott and Lou Costello started early in their career with "Hold That Ghost" (1941), before "meeting" Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster, The Wolf Man, The Invisible Man, The Mummy and Jekyll-Hyde in various "meet the" movies. But other comedy teams did it first, including Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey in "Mummy's Boys" (1936), while lots of individual comics--like Joe E. Brown in "Beware, Spooks" (1939)--had made horror comedies before World War II. In 1953, the comedy team of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis made "Scared Stiff," one of the few remakes of a horror comedy, Bob Hope's "The Ghost Breakers." Hope earlier had done a horror comedy version of a classic silent "old dark house" thriller, "The Cat and the Canary" (1939). Even Francis, the Talking Mule, got into the act with his final film, "Francis in the Haunted House" (1956).
Most of the horror comedies of the 1930s through the 1950s featured the same sort of "spooky" cliches: The painting with cutout eye holes that the killer could look through from behind the wall; the bookcase that revolved, leading to a secret room; the chair that dumped you into the basement if you sat on it--and, of course, the gorilla who paced the secret corridors of the haunted house.
Perhaps the most tired of all the horror comedy plotlines was the one in which "kids" invade the neighborhood haunted house and rout the "ghosts," often enemy agents or crooks of some kind who pretend to be ghosts to scare trespassers away. Leo Gorcey, Huntz Hall and their overaged "East Side Kids" and "Bowery Boys" sidekicks did a truckload of these, starting with "Boys of the City" (1940), then "Spooks Run Wild" (1941) with Bela Lugosi, "Ghosts on the Loose" (1943), also with Lugosi; "Spook Busters" (1946), "Master Minds" (1949), "Ghost Chasers" (1951), "The Bowery Boys Meet the Monsters" (1954) and, finally, "Spook Chasers" (1957), which Gorcey skipped.
Ghastly Michael Keaton stirs up a good scare for "normal" ghosts Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin in "Beetlejuice"
If you want to look at a fairly respectable group of horror comedies, here's a good starter list:
1. TOPPER (1937) is the immortal Thorne Smith story about a pair of trendy young hell-raisers (Cary Grant, Constance Bennett) who die in a car crash, but come back as spirits to bedevil wimpy Topper (Roland Young). This is a comedy classic, followed by two worthy sequels.
2. THE GHOST GOES WEST (1936) is a nice eccentric British horror comedy about a ghost who haunts a Scottish castle that's been brought to America, stone by stone, by a descendant of the original ghost. Oscar-winner Robert Donat stars with marvelous Eugene Pallette and Elsa "Bride of Frankenstein" Lanchester. Directed by Rene Clair.
3. THE GHOST BREAKERS (1940) with Bob Hope is one of the comedian's all-time funniest films. Gorgeous Paulette Goddard inherits an old mansion on an island in the Caribbean and Hope helps her claim it, even though there's a creepy zombie (Noble Johnson) stalking the premises. Very atmospheric with some genuinely frightening moments in the middle of all the frivolity.
4. GHOST CATCHERS (1943) starred Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson of the infamous "Hellzapoppin" stage show and film. These were truly nihilistic screwball comics who stopped at nothing. In this wacky film, they run a nightclub next to a haunted house, peopled by all the Universal studios B-acts of the day, including Gloria Jean, Andy Devine, Ella Mae Morse and Lon Chaney, Jr.
5. THE CANTERVILLE GHOST (1944) stars Charles Laughton as a ghost who's all bluff--and actually a little cowardly--when American soldiers occupy his castle during World War II. He's cursed until somebody helps him perform a heroic deed. Willing helpmates: Robert Young and child star Margaret O'Brien. Sheer delight. Directed by Jules Dassin ("Never on Sunday").
6. ZOMBIES ON BROADWAY (1945) is the best of the RKO films by the comedy team of Wally Brown and Alan Carney. They are sent to Haiti to find an authentic zombie to be the star attraction at a new voodoo-themed night club in Manhattan. Naturally, they run into Bela Lugosi, who's busy raising the dead. Some very funny moments.
7. THE TIME OF THEIR LIVES (1946) is one of the most unusual--and perhaps the best--of the Abbott and Costello comedies. Chubby Lou and cheeky Marjorie Reynolds die in revolutionary times and come back as ghosts to haunt the estate of the current occupants, including Bud Abbott. Truly funny--and missing much of the too familiar routines the team employed in other films.
8. YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (1974) is the best-ever horror comedy sendup, done by Mel Brooks as an inspired takeoff on the early Universal Frankenstein pictures with Gene Wilder as the modern descendant of the original mad doctor. Peter Boyle as the revived Monster (who becomes a song and dance man), cockeyed Marty Feldman as the demented assistant and all the usual Brooks co-conspirators, i.e. Madeline Kahn, Teri Garr, Gene Hackman (satirizing the famous blind man sequence from "Bride of Frankenstein.")
9. GHOSTBUSTERS (1984) put "Saturday Night Live" alumni, including Dan Aykroyd and Bill Murray, to work as ghost-exterminators in the big city with hilarious results, thanks to Ivan Reitman's great comic direction and the impressive special effects that helped make this a highly entertaining box office sensation.
10. BEETLEJUICE (1988) features Michael Keaton in an all-stops-out performance as a wacky and outrageous spirit who helps recently deceased ghosts Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin drive out the awful family that has taken over their former house. Deliciously vulgar and broad, but enormous fun.
© 2001 by Ron Miller. Photo from "The Boogie Man Will Get You" © 1942 by Columbia Pictures. Photo from "The Canterville Ghost" © 1944 MGM studios. Photo from "Beetlejuice" © 1988 by Warner Bros.
You can comment on this column or contact Ron Miller with an email to: firstname.lastname@example.org
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