History of Horror: Week 3 – The horror comedy

Photo courtesy of Cohen Film Collection

Story by Brandon Black / Contributing Writer 

Hello there, friends. During the month of October, I will be writing a film column every week that focuses on early horror and the beginnings and development of clichés, makeup and types of horror. We’re going to be covering movies from 1920 to 1958, and I’ve divided each week into a different category of exploration. They are also in chronological order, apart from two that I moved around to fit each theme. I hope you guys have a blast reading, and I’m looking forward to learning more about a genre I have very little experience in. Hopefully, readers will be able to garner more of an interest in old horror. With that said, on to week three.

This week’s topic of exploration is the “horror comedy” and is easily the portion of the series I’ve been looking forward to the most. Filmmaking utilizes almost the exact same techniques for laughs that it does for scares, which allows the two genres to work together phenomenally. Both genres rely on a setup, which ultimately produces tension as the audience realizes the film is going for either a joke or a scare and the eventual release as we laugh or scream at the on-screen events. It’s actually my favorite film genre, period, and I couldn’t be more excited to look at how it kicked off.

Disclaimer: I originally planned to watch a movie called “A Bucket of Blood” for the fourth film this week, as I thought it was released in 1943. It turns out it’s from 1959, which means there would be a whole lot of new techniques, types of horror and clichés introduced that I would miss. I watched “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein” from 1948 instead, as I knew that was a horror comedy that definitively added something brand new to the genre.

“The Old Dark House” (1932)

If I had been alive and kicking in the great year of 1932, “The Old Dark House” would’ve been my go-to slumber party movie. Bringing together an ensemble of eclectic characters reminiscent of “Clue” (1985) and trapping them in a confined space, not unlike those seen in “The Cabin in the Woods” or the “Saw” movies, “The Old Dark House” lays the groundwork for not only a myriad of horror comedies in its dialogue and camerawork but for the horror genre of the future as well.

The setup is remarkably simple, which is a primary factor in how effective the film is. Five people, some strangers and some already acquainted, wind up taking shelter in a decrepit mansion during a massive nighttime storm. Once in the house, we are introduced to its inhabitants, a brother and sister and their butler, Morgan, portrayed by our good friend (hopefully, by this point) Boris Karloff. That’s another huge thing “The Old Dark House” has going for it. This is the first time we’ve seen multiple stars from previous movies in the same feature, in Karloff and Charles Laughton, who played Dr. Moreau in “Island of Lost Souls.” Not only that, but James Whale, the legendary director of “Frankenstein,” was the man behind the camera, so this was truly a star-studded production. It’s fascinating to watch old movies and actually recognize people from their other projects and is easily one of my favorite parts of this series.

Laughton is incredible in his own right, using the charming aspect of his malevolence from “Island” and a sense of humor to cover up the shell of a sad, lonely man. Each character is allowed the space for their performances to breathe, with genuine comic timing making an appearance relatively often, and that’s a credit to Whale. There’s legitimate, witty banter as characters bounce off one another and learn more about each person they’re forced to share the house with.

At some point though, the horror begins to reveal itself in the form of two new clichés: the chained-up monster that can’t be let out of its chamber and the incorporation of punishment directly being associated with the characters’ past sins. The owner of the house is super religious and recites a monologue to one of her guests about what lies in store for her and her friends throughout the evening. There are some crazy, innovative shots utilizing mirrors and the twisting of facial features that provide some of the film’s eeriest moments and clearly pave the way for scenes in movies like “An American Werewolf in London.” We also find our characters performing the old chestnut of splitting up to explore various parts of the house. While this may be a bit of a cliché, it allows the characters and their dynamics to be explored in new and different ways based off who they’re paired with, so it’s a worthy one.

The comedic elements within “The Old Dark House” are present from the first scene, as the camera stays still on a bickering couple in the front seat of a car before panning to the backseat for a reveal that made me laugh out loud. Not every joke is going to be inherently funny to a 21st-century viewer, but there was a large number of moments where, although I may not have laughed, I noticed how clever many of the lines and jokes were. The movie even has running gags that it thoroughly commits to.

“The Old Dark House” is everything a horror comedy should be. It’s a solid blend of laughs and scares, which, although they may be tailored to a 1930s audience, are decidedly clever as the film keeps a genuinely fun vibe throughout. This is one of my favorites on the list so far, and I’d highly recommend a watch.

“The Invisible Man” (1933)

The year 1933 brought us yet another classic Universal monster movie with James Whale in the director’s chair, only this time, the movie’s monster provides a few laughs along with his frights. That’s what happens when your monster isn’t really a monster. He’s just a guy who you can’t see, and while a hefty dose of madness allows him to be our most dangerous monster so far, the fact that he’s naked every time he’s invisible can make him a tad difficult to take seriously.

Like I said, while the invisible man himself isn’t as visually terrific as his horror classic contemporaries, his alarmingly clever mind allows him to be the most physically dangerous villain in our current horror history hall of fame. Seriously, the body count in this film is astounding. Griffin, the token invisible man, derails trains, launches cars full of people off cliffs and suffocates and beats a large number of innocent bystanders to death. Why, you may ask? It’s because his invisible, naked glory makes him better than all of them. It’s a pretty obvious reason, really.

Before we get too much further, we need to lay out what this movie is actually about. The audience primarily follows the aforementioned Griffin, already in his stealthy state, as he attempts to kill people (the rich and the poor, he says, to show he’s not targeting anyone), rob banks and generally cause as much chaos as he can. That’s pretty much it. The movie sticks to a fairly basic plot, but it gets as much mileage as it can out of it.

If there’s any reason to see this movie, the storyline is not it. The special effects, however, are out of this world, and if I had seen this movie in a 1933 theater, it’s very possible I would have lost it. Obviously, movies are significantly more impressive now, but this film was made 85 years ago and managed to impress me with its effects that still look straight-up excellent. They legitimately hold up as objects fly across the screen or are lifted off the ground, clothes are put on and taken off by their own accord and as the man reappears before our very eyes. This must have been a tremendous step forward for horror and movies as a whole and opened up new avenues for every genre.

While “The Old Dark House” noticeably contains the roots of the modern ensemble, gag-driven, witty form of comedy, “The Invisible Man” takes a wildly different approach. It leans heavier into horror than “The Old Dark House” as well, but its comedy aspects are grounded in concept. Just as movies like “Evil Dead 2” would go on to do, “The Invisible Man” knows the idea of people and things getting tossed around by nothing is pure slapstick by nature, and both films utilize their camerawork and special effects, which allow a comic attitude to inform almost every scene. For heaven’s sake, the movie establishes that every time Griffin is invisible, he’s naked. I wasn’t throwing that in earlier for no reason.

Before we conclude, we’ve got to talk about some clichés. The mad scientist idea is in full force here, as Griffin is by far our maddest doctor yet. But this is also the first time law enforcement is in pursuit of the villain for a good chunk of the movie, so we finally see a genuine force pushing back against these movies’ ever-present villainy. And they’re just as bumbling as you’d hope.

“The Invisible Man” isn’t as directly connected to modern comedies as “The Old Dark House,” but there’s still fun to be had, and its value to the advancement of the horror comedy is still remarkably clear.

“Bride of Frankenstein” (1935)

“Bride of Frankenstein” caps off this week’s accidental trilogy of James Whale films and proves that Whale was an absolute pioneer in the horror comedy genre. In our previous two films, new aspects of horror and comedy were introduced that have a clear connection to modern fright fests and “Bride” is no exception. It handles its tone very well, and while it still manages to garner some laughs, there’s no question that this is a member of the horror family.

First, I need to set something straight. It took me until after the movie was over to realize that, even though there is a bride created for Frankenstein’s monster, the title “Bride of Frankenstein” refers to Frankenstein’s wife, because the bride of Frankenstein is not a monster. This was a real breakthrough for me. Thank you for taking time to experience this moment of clarity with me.

“Bride of Frankenstein” utilizes what just may be the most enduring and annoying cliché of all time: the dreaded horror movie sequel. It’s the reason there are 11 “Halloween” films and 12 movies that take place on Friday the 13th. It’s why “Annabelle” is going to have a third movie, even though no one asked for the first one. But no one has a problem with this when the sequel is actually good, and luckily “Bride of Frankenstein” expands on its predecessor’s ideas exactly as it should and, against all odds, justifies its existence.

Not only does it justify itself, “Bride” does so from its first scene. It takes the “Halloween 2” approach, in that the story picks up right as the first film ends. Frankenstein is presumed dead, and his body is brought back to his bride-to-be (Valerie Hobson plays Elizabeth in Mae Clarke’s place, and although she is terrific, she introduces a pattern that goes along with the horror sequel: recasting), while the monster escapes the burning windmill where he was left to die and embarks on his own adventures.

As I said before, the reason “Bride” succeeds as a sequel is that it naturally builds on the story that came before it, in a way that’s unforced (in contrast to its central monster), and it is able to go bigger without sacrificing what made the first film enticing. The audience’s core protagonist isn’t Frankenstein himself, but his monster yet again. Boris Karloff (what a career this guy had) manages to attain our empathy once more as he imbues his monster’s barbaric side with genuine heart. He’s like a kid trying to find someone who will accept him, and when he finally does, it’s perhaps the most touching moment in any film we’ve seen so far. It’s adorable, unsettling and heart-wrenching all at once.

You may be wondering where the comedy elements come into the movie considering this week’s subject matter, but “Bride of Frankenstein” isn’t necessarily a comedy. While “The Old Dark House” was a legitimate comedy with horror elements and “The Invisible Man” found humor in its concept, “Bride” takes the Marvel movie approach to comedy, or at least the beginnings of it. There isn’t quite as much wit, and the jokes don’t fly as fast, but the movie has a few fun gags in addition to its fair share of camp, especially in its earlier scenes. Even though it was only three years after the initial film, “Bride” is smoother, faster paced and bigger in every way, which allows the moments of comedy to play more naturally than they would’ve been able to in “Frankenstein.” Who wouldn’t crack a smile at the sight of Frankenstein’s monster smoking a cigar and doing shots in front of a fireplace? Exactly.

Frankenstein’s second outing is an improvement in every way from the first, with better sets, an additional creature, a more heartfelt story and a commitment to the monster as the film’s protagonist. “The Old Dark House” is still the one to beat this week, but “Bride” holds its place in horror history’s upper echelon for a reason.

“Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein” (1948)

If there’s one thing “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein” doesn’t do, it’s clarify the difference between Frankenstein and his monster. I’m sure by the time this movie came out, many audience members were already confused by this practically eternal question. Considering Lou Costello’s Wilbur calls the monster Frankie multiple times, I’d assume that it was lost on the people making the movie too. It’s strange how easily that error continues to be made.

Regardless of the random thoughts that popped into my head during the movie, there is a heck of a lot that “Abbott and Costello” is able to fit into less than an hour and a half. Frankenstein’s monster isn’t the only horror legend present (albeit played by someone other than Karloff), with Bela Lugosi returning as Dracula and the Wolfman playing a significant role as well. Seeing these horror icons take the screen together must have been an absolute blast for 1948 audiences, and with Abbott and Costello’s signature style of gags piled on top, it retains its energy and charm in addition to its stellar creature design, even today.

The story doesn’t center on Frankenstein’s monster all that much, electing to let Dracula take center stage as the film’s villain. Chick and Wilbur (Abbott and Costello, respectively) are two postmen tasked with bringing two hefty containers directly to a museum’s house of horrors due to their wild irresponsibility with packages. Within the containers lie the real Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster, who manage to escape and devise an evil plot, as some vampires and monsters are wont to do. Eventually, the Wolfman shows up, and while he’s a nice fellow most of the time, his rampant turning into a werewolf when the moon comes out, unfortunately, derails his ability to lead a normal life. He has also made it his responsibility to hunt down Dracula, and Chick and Wilbur end up in all sorts of shenanigans with Universal’s iconic horror characters.

Surprisingly, “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein” introduces a whole lot of clichés and tropes into our series. For heaven’s sake, it’s the first horror parody, ever. That’s pretty cool. Granted, it’s also the reason the “Scary Movie” franchise exists, but I think it’s fair to take the bad with the good. It’s also the first time we’ve seen a crossover film on our list, and even though it’s not the first attempt – that would be “Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman” from 1943 – it is the first ensemble monster movie, with four of cinema’s creepiest taking up screen time.

It’s like “The Avengers” but with monsters, and they never become friends. Dracula and the Wolfman do fight though, and that’s a non-negotiable positive. This movie also has one of those shots where the camera pans over to an empty space, then over to a character, and when it pans back there’s something there, so that was fun to see.

Let’s go back to the horror parody. What I mean by that is that the movie takes established tropes and characters and self-consciously utilizes them to make a point. This movie has significantly more of a plot and is significantly less lazy than any modern parody, but the concept is literally two famous comedians interacting with famous movie characters. There’s nothing original about any of the movie’s ideas from a filmmaking or storytelling standpoint; everything is simply exaggerated but to admittedly charming effect.

This is the type of film that would’ve been referred to as an experience back in the ‘40s, with the number of stars, legendary characters and that “aw shucks” sense of humor that old movies have. While it doesn’t touch the best horror comedies out there, if I was a kid in 1948, you better believe I’d have gone back to the theater more than once.

This series has been a tremendous ride, but it’s not over yet. For our final week, we’re going to be upping the ante by experimenting with the beginnings of sci-fi horror. The movies that eventually led to “Alien,” “The Thing” and “Cloverfield” are coming up next week, as we watch “Creature From the Black Lagoon,” “Them!”, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1956) and “The Fly” (1958).

To contact Lifestyles Editor Sydney Wagner, email lifestyles@mtsusidelines.com.

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