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Sunday, November 18, 2007

Screams and Laughter (originally published 6/01)

Anyone who has taken a rollercoaster ride knows that screams and laughter harmonize remarkably well. This connection has not escaped the notice of moviemakers, who regularly blend the comedy and horror genres to good effect. The latest such film is the currently playing "Evolution," in which the prospect of humanity being terrorized by a rapidly evolving alien life form is played for laughs by director Ivan Reitman. If the fearful and the funny strike you as a good combination, look for these earlier examples of comic horror films on home video.

"Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein" (1948). By the late 1940s, Universal's roster of classic monsters had been trotted out so often that they could offer nothing new in the way of chills. With the studio's fortunes now riding high on the success of Abbott and Costello, there was a kind of poetic justice in the idea of incorporating the company's former cash cows into the films of the new breadwinners. Despite the title, this picture actually features Dracula and the Wolf Man in addition to the Frankenstein Monster, while Dr. Frankenstein himself is nowhere to be seen. Boris Karloff had long since moved on from the role of Frankenstein's Monster, played here by Glenn Strange, but the Wolf Man and Dracula are both played by the actors who originated the roles for Universal (Lon Chaney, Jr. and Bela Lugosi, respectively). In fact, although he played other vampire roles, this is Lugosi's only film appearance in the role of Count Dracula apart from the original 1931 "Dracula." The success of this film led to a series of Abbott and Costello monster pictures. Reproduced below is the film's promotional trailer, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies.

"The Ghost Breakers" (1940). Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard had teamed up in 1939 for a remake of the silent era's classic "old, dark house" thriller, "The Cat and the Canary." It was so successful that they made this sequel the following year. Goddard plays an heiress who has inherited a mansion in Cuba. The only problem is that the place is very haunted. Hope's character attempts to help her take possession, despite the fact that no one has survived a night in the house for 20 years.

"A Bucket of Blood" (1959). A year before making "The Little Shop of Horrors," B-movie maestro Roger Corman made this hilarious horror spoof. Walter Paisley (Dick Miller) is a frustrated artist. He envies the ultra-hip coffee-house crowd and the attention their poetry recitations receive. Although his artistic talents don't measure up, he stumbles upon a surefire technique for creating lifelike sculptures: all you have to do is kill the model and cover his lifeless body with clay. In addition to parodying the "wax museum" horror thrillers, the film also deliciously satirizes the "beat generation" of the 1950s.

"The Raven" (1963). In the early 1960s, Corman produced a series of low-budget films inspired by the works of Edgar Allan Poe. Most of them were scripted by Richard Matheson, one of the principle writers on the "Twilight Zone" television series. Eventually, Matheson wearied of writing one grim tale after another, and asked if Corman would mind if he lightened the next one up a bit. Corman agreed, and the result was this absolutely delightful send-up. Vincent Price and Boris Karloff play rival wizards, along with Peter Lorre as a bungling lesser wizard whom Karloff's character has transformed into a raven. The trio of horror stars appear to enjoy themselves hugely as they deftly parody their own screen personas.

"The Fearless Vampire Killers, or Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are In My Neck" (1967). Roman Polanski directed this stylish blend of comedy and horror. The story centers around the exploits of Professor Abronsius (Jack MacGowran), a vampire hunter. Abronsius appears to be very much in the Van Helsing tradition, except that he and his assistant, Alfred (played by Polanski himself), are a pair of bumbling idiots. Polanski has endless fun with vampire movie conventions, introducing, for example, a Jewish vampire for whom the cross holds no terrors. The film was initially released in America in a heavily edited version, but can now be seen on video as Polanski originally intended it.

Of course, Reitman himself has solid credentials in the horror-comedy hybrid genre as the director of "Ghostbusters" (1984). Even so, following in the footsteps of Bob Hope and Abbott and Costello has got to be a pretty scary proposition.

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