British Comedy Horror

The phrase “comedy horror” is basically nonsense. True horror isn’t remotely funny. This explains why Lesbian Vampire Killers is far less amusing than you’d expect.

However, the British horror tradition has always included a heavy dose of comedy, as embodied by perhaps the greatest British horror comedy of them all, Carry On Screaming. There are only two drawbacks with this renowned masterpiece. The first is the absence of Sid James (although Harry H Corbett deputises admirably), and the second is the absence of any actual horror. Movies in this vein are basically pure comedies, that use the tropes of horror cinema, made ridiculous, to illicit laughs.

The other approach is to insert some jokes into what is actually a pure horror film. Perhaps the most successful British example of this would be Dog Soldiers. It’s a full-blooded werewolf horror, with plenty of shocks, gore, danger and unruly examples of man’s best friend gone rogue. However, it’s also hilarious. The laughs here come from placing characters in extreme situations, and letting them react with incredulity. The people think the situations are ridiculous, but the narrative itself doesn’t present them as such. Plus, come on though, Sean Pertwee is a comedy genius.

On the smaller screen, the League of Gentlemen have proved themselves to be masters of this latter sub-genre. Initially with their titular TV show, and particularly the terrifying creations demon butcher Hilary Briss and demon circus-owner Papa Lazarou. Then one half of the league (Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith) split off to create Psychoville and Inside Number 9. All of these shows are stupendously amazing, and if both League and Psychoville eventually tail off, partly crushed by their own complicated dynamics, then Inside Number 9 is all the more remarkable an achievement. It’s consistently incredible from first moment to (what I sincerely hope is not the true) last episode.

The tensions in play with comedy horror can be very hard to judge. So for every Carry On Screaming there is a House on Nightmare Park and for every League of Gentlemen there’s a Doctor Terrible’s House of Horrible. But when you get it right it’s worth the pain of all the flops you had to sit through. Yes, even Lesbian Vampire Killers.

Chris Denton.
Chris is co-presenter of the podcast A Very British Horror.

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