Alexander Bennett

Alexander Bennett

Frightfully funny

Stand-up Alexander Bennett shares some of his favourite moments that combine comedy and horror

Genuinely blending horror and comedy is a really hard thing to do, but they go so well together. Both make use of suspense, taboo, timing, surprise, characters in stories being trapped in a situation and afraid, establishing an idea then unexpectedly subverting it, questioning societal norms… I could go on. It's no coincidence we laugh at things we're afraid of, it's part of human nature, a way of making terrifying things palatable so we can assess the danger.

A genuine blend of horror and comedy is rarely achieved though. There are a good few fantastic films that are funny and use the tropes and conventions of horror (usually gore), for example; Evil Dead 2, Tucker and Dale VS Evil, Gremlins, Young Frankenstein, Braindead. I love these films, but they don't frighten me. They don't unnerve me, their dark moments don't linger in the back of my head.

Here is a very personal list of things in comedies I found genuinely scary or troubling on some deeper level. Some things from out-and-out comedies, some things from very funny horror films, and some stuff from films I feel define the horror-comedy subgenre. But first? Children's cartoons

Trap Door: The Little Thing

Trap Door is an utterly charming stop motion animation about some monsters that live in a castle in service of the never-seen, terrifying monster, The Thing Upstairs, made for ITV and voiced by Willie Rushton.

The series was aimed at kids under ten, but the character designs are often genuinely eerie and the series contains the ever-present sense of evil (under the trap door) most people simply wouldn't allow in a show for very young kids.

Also, the theme tune is so fucking brilliant they dedicate an entire episode to playing the full version of it.

The episode I'm talking about here, in my mind, is all leading up to one moment. Our hero, Bert, chases an annoying pest from the trap door into the bedroom of The Thing Upstairs. In the dark, beside his sleeping master, Bert searches for the creature to stop it waking his boss.

Then, a flash of lightning gives us the briefest glimpse of the hitherto unseen horrible, fleshy, giant mass The Thing Upstairs really is. I probably saw this when I was eight, I've never forgotten it.

Courage The Cowardly Dog:You're not perfect

Something strange happened when at the end of the 1990s at Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network. They chose to give the alternative, intellectual creative casualties of the decade money to make cartoons for kids.

This resulted in some brilliant shows, the first of which worth mentioning here is Courage The Cowardly Dog. Created by John R Dilworth, the show centres on a cowardly dog trying to save his owners from various monsters that come to their farm in the middle of nowhere (they live in a town literally called 'Nowhere').

It's a cartoon for children that contains serial killers, domestic abuse and someone with one of those shaving fetishes. The pilot of the show was nominated for an Oscar, an unusual moment in which the Academy unwittingly facilitated the exponents of sexual deviancy.

Here is the show using different styles of animation to unsettle the viewer; remember this is a children's show and the following clip appears with no context and is never explained

Invader Zim: Bad, Bad Rubber Piggy

Invader Zim is one of the funniest TV shows I've ever seen. It is inventively stupid and brilliantly cruel, and I think Richard Steven Horvitz as Zim gives the funniest vocal performance in any animation, constantly barrelling from childish enthusiasm to shrieking rage.

Jhonen Vasquez's show is about an egomaniacal alien from a warrior race sent to conquer earth because they all hate him and it's very far away. The leaders of the alien race are in charge because they're taller than all the others, that's the only reason.

It's a brilliant show, it is often gross and weird and occasionally it slipped in quite creepy ideas, certainly there's a lot of mad and stupid people with a lot of power and authority in the show, which I always find scary.

However, there's an episode in which Zim uses a time machine to physically cripple his nemesis, Dib, in the past. This show was made for kids who had just started puberty, which is when I saw it, so anything body-horror related really plays on the hormone addled mind of a tween, and it stuck in my head.

The League Of Gentlemen Christmas Special

The LOG are huge horror fans and their TV shows are riddled with horror tropes and references. Season 3 of the League Of Gentlemen is pretty weird and dark, but I think the most genuinely frightening thing they did was the show's Christmas special, a full on anthology horror.

Papa Lazarou is meant to be a scary character, he exists to invade people's homes and kidnap women, but in the Christmas special this is combined with childhood trauma and not really played for laughs.

Out of the blue he cuts short the redemption of a damaged woman he traumatised, and steals her away for some unknown malevolent purpose.

Jam: Smart Pipes

Chris Morris's Jam is a genuinely creepy comedy show. The ambient music, the subject matter in a lot of the sketches and particularly the very mannered performances created an uneasy, nightmarish quality.

The whole point of the show is to test the moral values and squeamishness of the viewer. Smart Pipes is both genuinely funny and genuinely unpleasant.

Dog Soldiers: The Cow

Now, here's something interesting, a well-constructed jump scare that depends on a joke.

I don't know if you'd quite call Dog Soldiers a horror comedy, it's certainly a very funny action horror, but there's a particular scare that sticks in my head. After Sean Pertwee's Sgt Wells tells his men the story of a man killed in battle the mood is tense, then one of the men, Spoon, goes to diffuse this tension with a joke.

As we, the viewer, anticipate the punchline, our expectations are somewhat subverted. Brilliant technique (best seen in a cinema).

Scream: The Opening

Scream is a black comedy and satire on slasher movies, whilst still being a very good slasher movie. It gets a bit silly and overblown, but there's something, I think, very real about a lot of it. It's essentially a mad person wearing a mask grabbing a knife and killing people. That does happen, my 3am Wikipedia searches confirm it.

The opening to Scream is brilliantly put together, the clichés it's using aren't commented on glibly, they are an active part of what makes the thing scary.

Groundhog Day: The entire premise

There's a reason Phil Connors kills himself repeatedly in Groundhog Day. If you had to live the same day, over and over, never moving forward, never growing, never going anywhere new, with no one around you remembering it or having the same experience, you would want to kill yourself. 

It's existentially terrifying (funnily enough, Happy Death Day is currently in the cinemas, which is essentially a horror movie version of Groundhog Day). It's also one of the best comedy movies ever made.

Shaun Of The Dead: Killing Barbara

Also one of the best comedy movies ever made, and one of two films I think define the horror-comedy subgenre. Back when Shaun Of the Dead was released, zombies were not popular nor overused.

One of the key achievements of the film, I feel, is that they manage to do funny things with the zombies but they never stop feeling like a proper threat. The film has a profound 'sense of dread' a phrase the BBFC love using when rating films.

Sean Of The Dead has excellent performances, is brilliantly directed and has as good a script as you'll find in any film made in the last 20 years. 

There's one moment that stands apart from the rest of it, a moment that some audiences did not like, the filmmakers were unsure of, but for me consolidates the full extent of the horror of the protagonist's situation.

When it looks like the world is ending, Shaun goes to protect the two people he cares most about in the world, his ex and his mother. He has to kill his own mother.

An American Werewolf In London: Dream Sequence

The second film I feel defines the horror-comedy subgenre. I have read countless accounts of people seeing this scene whilst young and it traumatising them. I urge you to watch it in the full context of the film, as out of place it can appear a little goofy. Again, this film is genuinely funny and genuinely scary. The special effects work is fantastic, and it's beautifully shot. One sequence at first appears to be a flashback to happier times, but then turns into a metaphor for the change happening inside the protagonist's body and soul. It's sudden, horrifying, loud, violent and unexplained. It is then immediately followed by a joke/jump scare playing on the idea of dream sequences.

An American Werewolf In London can be read as a commentary on the post-war Jewish experience, and viewed in this context, the dream sequence's level of meaning is made all that more horrific.

 

• Alexander Bennett's Terrifying Smile' is being recorded the Bill Murray, in Islington, North London, 5pm on November 11. Tickets are free, with donations at the end. It's not about horror, more the horror of my personal life. Gig details.

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Published: 30 Oct 2017

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