The Old Dark Anachronism

SpooksI’ve been thinking about this genre we love, the horror-comedy, and while always pondering the places it’s been (the whole reason for this project) the notion of where it is going or even where it is now intrigues me as well.

The classic horror-comedies being examined on my Scared Silly blog fall into two categories: 1.) Famous (and not-so-famous) funny men (and sometimes women) get mixed up with real ghosts, monsters or other supernatural terrors (and sometimes gorillas and robots and mad scientists) and 2). Famous (and not-so-famous) funny men (and sometimes women) get mixed up with fake ghosts, monsters or other supernatural terrors (and sometimes gorillas and robots and mad scientists). 

Within that framework there are several scenarios. 

In the case of the “real” terrors, sometimes the comedy heroes are on an expedition in search of ancient artifacts, which usually ends up with them meeting a mummy or some similar indigenous folklore creatures, and sometimes the monsters or mad scientists kidnap our heroes and spirit them away to their castles or labs–usually to transplant their brains into monsters, gorillas or robots. Sometimes our heroes are in an old spooky house for one reason or another (usually due to the reading of a will and impending inheritance of the heirs involved) and they meet up with a real ghost. 

When it comes to the fake terrors, most of the time our heroes are in an old, dark spooky house where real murders are being committed (usually impending heirs being bumped off one by one) but the perpetrators are blaming those murders on (trumped-up) ghosts or other supernatural forces. And sometimes the will requires the heroes to spend the night in the spooky house just to get the inheritance, and those holding the purse-strings are merely trying to scare said heirs away before they can claim that inheritance, a story device that had been repeated to death in 1950s through mid-’70s sitcoms as well as cartoons like Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! and its many imitators.

So I’ve been thinking about this last scenario, the idea of the antagonists trying to “scare away” the protagonists, and I’ve been wondering if it could even reasonably be the premise for a modern-day movie – I mean in a pure, classic horror-comedy way where the most gruesome images on display and most risqué innuendos spoken are no more startling than the brief shock images and double-entendres found in 1963’s The Raven and 1966’s The Ghost and Mr. Chicken. But even more so, I’m wondering if the premise itself could even still be valid with a cast of characters who are supposed to exist in the “here and now” with present-day sensibilities.  And I think the answer is “no.”

Think about it. First of all, who is even still gathering in old creaky mansions to hear wills read anymore? These transactions are usually done in lawyer’s offices. Sometimes the heir doesn’t even have to be there.  So there’s the first convention that gets tossed out the window.  But secondly, can a movie audience buy that the characters on the screen would actually believe in the “cheap scares” that the villains are foisting upon them?  No. I believe the answer to that lies in the times – the times in which such stories initially flourished compared to the times in which they didn’t.

OLD DARK HOUSE, THE 1932The classic “Old Dark House”horror-comedy-mysteries all tend to derive from the following sources: the 1913 novel Seven Keys to Baldpate (which formed the basis of several movies, including the 1986 Gene Wilder/Gilda Radner spoof Haunted Honeymoon) by Charlie Chan creator Earl Derr Biggers; J.B. Priestley’s 1927 novel Benighted  (which yielded the 1932 classic movie The Old Dark House with Boris Karloff and its not-so-classic 1963 remake); and the plays The Bat from 1920 by Mary Roberts Rinehart (filmed with Chester Morris as The Bat Whispers in 1926 and again in 1959 with its original title as a Vincent Price chiller), The Cat and the Canary from 1926 by John Willard (also made into several films including the hit 1939 Bob Hope/Paulette Goddard horror-comedy), and Ralph Spence’s The Gorilla (filmed as a slapstick vehicle for The Ritz Brothers in 1939 and inspiring the 1937 Hugh Herbert/Allen Jenkins horror-comedy, Sh! The Octopus!). All feature some combination of the familiar hallmarks of the genre: hidden passageways, suspicious servants, old creaky houses, etc.  And all contain a lot of humor. Coming a little late to the party but adding the final template was the 1939 Joseph Kesserling playArsenic and Old Lace with Boris Karloff (and its 1944  film version with Cary Grant, Peter Lorre and Raymond Massey).

I think the gradual erosion of being easily able to tell this kind of story with contemporary characters can be traced back to how the world changed after the atomic bomb. Before the bomb, the horrors of characters like Dracula, Mr. Hyde and the Wolf Man were considered unimaginable and startling (this was especially true of the early movie audiences who saw such silent movie terrors as Nosferatu, The Phantom of the Opera and the original Frankenstein – superstitions about such creatures were much more prevalent in those times, often passed on from generation to generation among various people groups). And while such superstitions may have dissipated as the century progressed (it’s unlikely much of the audience for the second wave of Universal horrors took the films as seriously as those viewing the 1930s Dracula and Frankenstein sagas for the first time), moviegoers were still willing to spend time in the company of such film fiends. 

But after 1945, the classic monsters must have seemed quaint and almost absurd, and I would think that would go double for plots about people going to tremendous efforts to pretend a house is haunted to scare someone out of their inheritance. Not that the atomic bomb didn’t inspire creature features that seem patently absurd to us today: there are scores of giant radiated insect and dinosaur features from the 1950s that we laugh at now.  But I think you would have to transport yourself back to those post-Hiroshima days to find that those films weren’t all taken as silly nonsense, but played upon the very real fears of people over the “unknown” – the full effects of the bomb emerging little-by-little.  In fact, if you watch the original 1954 Japanese version of Godzilla, sans Raymond Burr, you realize how sobering and scary “real life” was for folks at the time.     

Ultimately, the erosion of the “old dark house comedy” as a viable set-up for a contemporary Hollywood film was furthered by the continual change of the nation’s mood, a loss of innocence if you will facilitated by fears brought on by conflicts with other countries (the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Vietnam, etc.), the tensions brought on by social and racial injustices as well as the generation gap fostered by the rise of the counter culture movement, the disillusionment of many in the wake of Watergate, ad infinitum. 

In that time, the horror films also became more horrific. It’s interesting to note that there’s an overlap between the “classic horror-comedy” coming to its end (represented by 1966’s The Ghost and Mr. Chicken with Don Knotts) and the new breed of horror tinged with black comedy (a la Jack Hill’s Spider Baby, which was filmed in 1964 but not released until 1968).  As previously mentioned, Mr. Chicken is firmly in the classic tradition, even though it includes a couple of edgier shock scenes, but Spider Baby is not a “ha ha” kind of funny. Spider Baby is psychologically disturbing. It elicits nervous laughter.

After George Romero’s 1968 Night of the Living Dead and the bloody rash of early 1970s fright flicks like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Last House on the Left made visceral and often cinema verite-styled scares the norm, it was hard to accept less realistic depictions of terror featuring contemporary characters as plausible  That doesn’t mean such films weren’t made – indeed, there were still some attempts at recapturing the old days from high-profile films like Neil Simon’s Murder By Death to quickie programmers like the Don Knotts/Tim Conway spoof The Private Eyes.  They still had more modern touches than the classic horror comedies, but they were indeed throwbacks to those good old dark house days.

HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL 1959The effect of the ‘70s horror films is still being felt to this day. Compare William Castle’s  House on Haunted Hill from 1959 to the 1999 remake. The original is a horror movie but has all the old dark house touches, and even some touches of humor (albeit acerbic) here and there. The remake eschews the kind of machinations found in classic old dark house films to add vicious demonic creatures and a murder-by-numbers slasher movie approach. 

Another result of modern horror sensibilities are the films of Rob Zombie. His House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects carry on the old dark house tradition of creepy families, but filtered through the influence of Spider Baby’s disturbing psychological elements colliding head-on with the relentless hopelessness of ‘70s shockers like Texas Chainsaw Massacre. What humor there is in these films is splattered in blood, and a long, long way away from Abbott and Costello, the Three Stooges and the Bowery Boys.

It’s an unfortunate truth, but the pure old dark house horror-comedy is an anachronism.  Maybe that’s not too unfortunate – since I consider it a finite entity with a beginning and an end it allows me to write a comprehensive book encompassing its history.  BUT…

…that doesn’t mean there are no more pure old dark house horror-comedies. There is one conceit that allows filmmakers to return to the form: parody. One of the premier practitioners of parody, Larry Blamire, has graced the world with what looks to be a splendid horror-comedy in the old dark house tradition: 2009′s Dark and Stormy Night.  How did he manage to pull it off?  By making it look like an authentic horror-comedy from Hollywood’s Golden Age. The film is shot in black-and-white and takes place in the ’30s, with period costumes and props. And in Blamire’s own words, he’s not afraid to be “absurd” and make films that are not grounded in reality. 

Of course, the vintage setting of Dark and Stormy Night only serves to prove my point. Perhaps the only director who could film a spooky old dark house mystery-comedy where the villains try to scare away the heroes, set it in modern times and actually pull it off is Wes Anderson (Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Fantastic Mr. Fox). It might all be in the characters’ minds – Anderson’s characters are nothing if not idiosyncratic – but are you going to tell them that their reality isn’t really happening? If a Wes Anderson character tells you he saw what he saw when he saw it, you’d best believe it. Don’t be a doubting Abbott!

Paul Castiglia has been writing and editing comic books and pop culture articles for 20 years.  Among his many credits are editing the Archie Americana series of classic comic book reprints, writing comic book stories featuring classic Tex Avery animation characters and contributing a chapter to a book of essays on Vincent Price. His website is Scared Silly: Classic Hollywood Horror-Comedies.

  • ganderson

    I guess I’m a little off-topic, but I have to confess a guilty pleasure in the recent horror sub-sub-genre of zombie comedies. Admittedly the zombie premise is almost a comedy by itself and it certainly cries out for satire and a little friendly rib-nudging. So, put me down for ‘Zombieland’, ‘Return of the Living Dead’ (1985), and ‘Shaun of the Dead’. I re-watch the first two regularly, whenever I need a good laugh, and less so for ‘Shaun’ (I’m still not sure that British comedy ever successfully crosses the Atlantic). “The first rule of Zombieland: cardio. When the zombie outbreak hit, the first to go, for obvious reasons, were the fatties.”

  • KarenG958

    I think you mean oxymoron, like military intelligence, or jumbo shrimp. Anachronism is something out of place in time, like a watch on Julius Caesar.

  • KarenG958

    I think you mean oxymoron, like military intelligence, or jumbo shrimp – horror comedy (Ghostbusters is also an example). An anachronism is something out of place in the time of the story, like a watch on Julius Caesar.

    • Bruce Reber

      Speaking of oxymorons, how about private life, adorable kids, easy money and perfect crime?

  • IceStormer

    While I can understand the focus on “old, dark houses”, I’m surprised that you didn’t really mention the creepy dudes doing creepy stuff genre of classic horror comedy such as “A Comedy of Terrors” (Price, Karloff, Lorre, Rathbone), and “Little Shop of Horrors” (the original, not the musical). Both are my amongst my favorites ever.

  • hupto

    Thanks for the DARK AND STORMY NIGHT shout-out! We’re all very proud of that film. (Mike Schlesinger, one of the producers)