It Only Hurts When I Laugh or I.ve Got a Splitting Headache.
(Or take this Axe out of my head).
The genres of horror and comedy in film both tread a fine line as in being successful, horror movies can go over the top and comedy can be at times a little too alternative to appeal to the majority but put the two together and in most cases (not all) they can be a winning combination.
I tend to recall films such as Carry on Screaming, What a Carve Up, and to some degree the Frankie Howard vehicle The House in Nightmare Park when I remember horror comedies.
But of course there have been many examples, some of these not meaning to be comedies as they often started out as serious horror’s but ending up a mix of the two because of either bad fx or a banal and nonsensical script, that inspired underwhelming or just bad performance from the actors involved.
Blood Bath at the House of Death, is one such example, supposedly a comedy with horror elements or was it a horror with a touch of comedy? Either way it does not matter that much because it ended up being a bit of a fiasco, and even though it starred Vincent Price and featured the likes of Kenny Everett the British radio DJ, Pamela Stephenson, Gareth Hunt etc, it still fell short of the mark in both genres.
I suppose with these actors and artists being involved one should have guessed it was more alternative comedy than horror, especially when it was written by the late Barry Cryer, who took a small part in the movie as a police inspector. The films only saving grace was the musical score by Mike Moran and Mark London and this was not exactly a shining example of cinematic scoring. The movie was like a fusion of the Masque of the Red Death, various Agatha Christie plots, and Cluedo with elements of well? I’m not sure really thrown in (literally)! But it became agonizingly uncomfortable as it progressed becoming steadily sillier and sillier as the plot developed, if there was indeed a plot?
In recent years we have been treated to movies such as Lesbian Vampire Killers, which was passable as both a horror and a comedy and contained a magnificent gothic sounding score by Debbie Wiseman. And to be fair the movie was an enjoyable romp, with some real moments of gory horror. Wiseman’s score however outshone the movie and its storyline, the composer playing it totally straight underscoring moments of comedy and horror, the music supporting and elevating the unfolding madness on screen.
Then there was Shaun of the Dead, again equal amounts of comedy mixed in with more than ample horrific and gore that became an instant box office hit.
There are also lesser-known movies like Cockneys vs Zombies, again comedy, horror and a fair amount of foul mouthed one liners, all held together by a really silly plot which in the end was surprisingly entertaining. The film also contained a great soundtrack by Jody Jenkins (Composer Carl Jenkins son) which contained a spaghetti western like lilt to it.
Then there was Scary Movie 1, 2 and 3, (they should have stopped at 1 or maybe before), What we do in the Shadows the film and its subsequent TV series which is still attracting fans now. The Evil Dead series of movies and Beetlejuice. Plus, we must not forget An American Werewolf in London, The Dance of the Vampires, Gremlins and Gremlins 2, The Burbs, Piranha, The Howling, and Fright Night the 1985 version, to name but a few.
Most of the films I have mentioned all contained good scores, some being the work of what are or were referred to as A list composers, such as Jerry Goldsmith on Gremlins and The Burbs, Elmer Bernstein on An American Werewolf in London, Danny Elfman on Beetlejuice, Pino Donaggio on Piranha andJosephLoDuca on the Evil Dead films. Trying to combine the two genres can be a little hit and miss and if you get the combination wrong then you might as well release the movie straight to DVD or throw it in the bin. But, if you get the formula right you are on a winner as audiences love to laugh and equally also love to be scared to death, so doing both Horror and comedy simultaneously is a bonus.
The Scream series of movies also verged upon comedic horrors as there were various scenes or one liners and characters within that series that really should not have been taken seriously.
Composer Marco Beltrami’s scores for the original movies were supportive of the action on screen but were too entertaining musically away from the images, the composer achieving operatic musical moments within his scores that are now looked upon as classics. These slasher escapades were for all intent and purpose, bloody and violent films that should have been looked upon more seriously at attempts of being gory horrors, but they also had to them an aura and a content that leaned towards a dark and nervous humour.
The same can be said of Joe Dante’s Piranha which combined a then contemporary style and fused this with the flavours and notions that were employed during the 1950’s and 1960’s in films such as Them for example, where nature is altered as a species is mutated into something that is menacing and dangerous, or in the case of the Piranhas more deadly. Dante also achieved this in The Howling, in which he brought the legend of the Werewolf into a modern setting. Both Piranha (1978) and The Howling (1981) were effectively but intelligently scored by Italian Maestro Pino Donaggio, who during this period was much in demand after scoring Don’t Look Now (1974) the horror thriller Carrie (1976). The latter being directed by Brian De Palma with whom Donaggio also worked on movies such as Home Movies in 1979, Dressed to Kill in 1980 and Body Double in 1984. He was during the latter part of the 1970’s and the early 1980’s being hailed as the new Bernard Herrmann, and to a degree one could see or more to the point hear why, with dark and low foreboding strings and bellowing horns and other brass frequenting the scores he was involved with, but all the time maintaining a richness and overwhelming thematic air to his scores.
The Evil Dead movies as directed by Sam Raimi are a prime example of comedic moments fusing well with the horror side of things, and the composer Joseph LoDuca is a master at underling the action with music that walks that very fine line between serious and somber, action, and comedy.
His best score in the series must be Army of Darkness, which was the third in the series, in which we are treated to a tour de force of thematic material that overwhelms and tantalizes when listening to it away from the movie and supports, enhances, and acts as a musical punchline to many of the amusing moments in the film. The score is a robust and lush sounding work filled with epic moments and lavish orchestrations that sweep the narrative along at great pace adding a mystical and sumptuous quality to the unfolding storyline, as in the composition Building the Deathcoaster.
It is also overflowing with a romantic and gothic sound that comes to the surface in tracks such as Give me some Sugar/Bone,anza.
Its comedy musical moments too are effective and at times as manic as the central character, in cues such as Ash Splits and Little Ashes. The score stands as one of the composers best, alongside his work on Brotherhood of the Wolf.
The score also included March of the Dead which was written by Danny Elfman. There are a few movies that cross over the genre line in more ways as in Sundown the Vampire in Retreat, which was a Horror/Comedy/Western, albeit a western set-in contemporary times. And a more recent excursion into the western/horror in the form of Gallowalkers which starred Wesley Snipes, and although was not a comedy apart from its rather offbeat combination of zombies, bounty hunters and gunslingers, but maybe the lines are a little blurrier in this case.
Regarding Sundown, (its original title) it was again a case of the music penned by composer Richard Stone being far superior to the movie it was written for. Sundown tells the story of a community of vampires that have hidden away in the small desert surrounded town of Purgatory. The reason they have hidden away is because they have turned their back on the old ways and are kept alive by drinking synthesized blood. But there are certain members of the community who think they should return to the old ways and become predators once again and feed upon the blood of humans. These elements led by Ethan Jefferson (John Ireland) plan to stage a revolution of sorts and force the head vampire Joseph Mardulak (David Carradine) to either return to being a vampire proper or die. Jefferson’s followers plan to wipe out any opposition they meet using wooden bullets no less. Directed by Anthony Hickox the movie never got a theatrical release on the big screen, although it did have screenings at film festivals in Cannes, Seattle and Palm Springs but was soon relegated to late night showings on television which became few and far between.
Sundown was to be the last movie produced by Vestron Pictures and a year after its release was issued on VHS and later onto the DVD format in 2008. Although the movie was not a great success it has since gained something of a cult following. The music contains numerous references to western scores from the past and was a fusion of both Italian or Spaghetti western sounds and the more traditional Americana as written by Elmer Bernstein and Jerome Moross etc with Stone utilizing some impressive trumpet solos to support the gunfight or showdown scenes and expansive lyrical passages in the style of The Magnificent Seven and a definite hint of Bernstein’s rousing and Copeland inspired The Comancheros theme to enhance the chases and other action scenes. He also added female soprano which was a gentle nod to the scoring prowess of Ennio Morricone and elevated this style with the addition of a rich and lush string section courtesy of The Graunke Symphony Orchestra – thus bringing together familiar and popular music components from both European and Hollywood versions of the western genre. The CD opens with “Overture and Shane’s Ride” which has a proud, anthem-like opening with horns playing out an imposing and infectious Elmer Bernstein inspired theme. The horns are interspersed and supported by trumpets as the composition builds into what becomes the foundation theme and core of the composer’s work. I suppose the best way to describe this opening cue is that it is a take on the Comancheros main title with a slightly more up-tempo background; strings woods and brass being the mainstays of the cue.
Track two “The Gathering” is more of a dramatic/horror sounding piece with the composer utilizing the string section to great effect, creating a sense of suspense and later in the cue introducing a sweeping and dramatic lushness. Brass also plays a large part in the composition as does woodwind and there is also effectual use of organ which helps to create that sense of a more traditional horror sound, whilst bells and percussion embellish the composition further, with Stone bringing all the elements together to invent a striking and commanding piece of music. Track three “Van Helsing Drops In” is a mixture of atmospherics and mood. At first, it’s something dramatic with shrill woods underlined by brass but the mood alters swiftly to something more subdued and has an underlying sinister sound, performed by woods and strings. The mood alters again as solo flute takes on the score’s central theme in a particularly haunting and romantically laced rendition. Strings join the proceedings and wash delicately over the flute, making the piece even more poignant and emotive. The string section melts away giving precedence to a heart-rending gypsy violin which brings the track to its conclusion. Track four “Night Flight” is again full of drama and is carried mainly by the string section with bold horns and booming percussion punctuating and mingling with these to create a menacing atmosphere. Track six “Count Mardulak” makes use of harmonica, woods, and string section, all of which are underlined by faint use of organ throughout, punctuated momentarily by the sound of a bell. Track seven “Shane in Pursuit” is, as the title suggests, a more upbeat cue.
Brass and urgent strings combine to bring the listener the fullest rendition of the central theme thus far. Woods are also utilized in this wonderful homage to the Hollywood western theme. Track nine “Morts Duel in the Sun” is where the composer goes Spaghetti on us and does it in style. Martial sounding timpani opens the cue, which is underlined by sinister strings and a rattling and menacing harmonica solo supported by woodwind which echoes and at the same time pays homage to Ennio Morricone’s “Man with the Harmonica” composition from Once Upon a Time in the West. Add to this already contagious mix, a trumpet solo which could be out of any Spaghetti western from the 1960s. In fact, on this occasion, I would say it is more like Michele Lacarenza or Francesco De Masi than Morricone as it has a truly rich and retro infectious sound which I for one associate with numerous non-Morricone scored westerns such as The Wrath of God (1968). The remainder of the score is excellent as the composer brings into play various hints that are musical mementos from past sagebrush saga soundtracks, whilst adding his own style and sound to the proceedings, creating fresh music that has to it a familiar sound.
Going back to Gothic horror and to Roman Polanskis 1967 movie The Fearless Vampire Hunters or Dance of the Vampires. Which successfully combined comedy and horror, although at times I have to admit some of the scenes fell a little flat and lacked the snap and timing that they should have had. I first remember seeing The Dance of the Vampires as it was called in the UK on TV. It must have been a long time ago as I watched it on a black and white set that my parents had. I am sure it was on BBC late at night you know the last movie of the weekend when they played the national anthem and reminded you to unplug the set. The edition of the film I saw that night was the cut that included the animated introduction, which is the one and only time I have seen this edit.
One of the things that struck me about the movie was the music, it was certainly atmospheric if nothing else, and seemed to strike a balance between horror and comedy. The composer Krzysztof Komeda penned a very innovative sounding soundtrack to accompany the rather chaotic and madcap adventures of the two vampire hunters which the story focuses upon. Komeda’s score is essentially a serious one but does however contain a few lighter interludes. After the animated intro the famous MGM lion turns into a green vampire/goblin character with its fangs dripping blood as this imagery begins so does Komeda’s wonderful choral main title at first it sounds off key or slightly out of kilter but as the credits roll and the drops of blood fall the music grows and develops, establishing the core theme for the score which re-appears at key points within the movie, and is especially effective as we see Count Von Krolock (Ferdy Mayne) on his way to claim a victim later in the movie.
It is a very modern sounding piece and even today sounds like it was written recently and could be the work of the likes of Philip Glass, and Ennio Morricone but it is attractive in a sort of weird and grotesque way.
The composer supports the lead vocalising with harpsichord and percussive elements which in turn are enhanced by guitar and a kind of warbling choral sound. On first seeing the movie I must admit I found it a little hard going, I had after all been used to the gothic horrors from Hammer and the old black and white Universal tales of the macabre and the fantastic. Polanski’s approach was totally different from anything I had witnessed before and I have to say that it was not until a few years later when I sat and watched the movie again that I fully appreciated the comic and ironic appeal of the picture and the inventive score by Komeda. The score was released some years later in the late 1980, s onto Compact disc, with The Fearless Vampire Hunters taking second place to the then more popular Rosemary’s Baby which was also scored by Komeda for Polanski. Both scores received separate releases in the early 2000’s and are available on digital sites. The Fearless Vampire Hunters score runs for approx: 30 minutes, Komeda and Polanski choosing use the music sparingly, in fact, after the music for the animated intro and the main titles there is no music for at least the first half an hour. It is in this opening 30 minutes or so that the director introduces the central characters to the audience. Komeda’s score does not return until the scene where the hunchback who is the Count’s assistant and bodyguard takes the Vampire to attack the innkeeper’s daughter Sarah played by Sharon Tate, the vampire sitting in a sleigh in the chill of the night being taken to his victim. The music for this sequence is striking and sinister, with wailing voices being prominent. The focus then switches to the beautiful girl sitting in a bathtub filled with an abundance of bubbles. As she bathes, she notices that snow is falling indoors and looks up to see the evil Count coming through the skylight to abduct her.
All that is left are the bubbles that are now stained with droplets of blood. Komeda’s music is highly effective within this scene and gives it an urgent and dark atmosphere which is greatly aided by the utilisation of the Japanese bamboo flute called the Shakuhachi and the effective use of voices. Sarah’s Father played by Alfie Bass is bereft at the abduction of his daughter and chewing handfuls of garlic sets off into the frozen night to rescue her, in the morning he is found frozen and drained of blood. The vampire hunters decide it would be best to stake him there and then, but the innkeeper’s wife won’t have any of it. The vampire hunters decide to go down in the dead of night to finish him off, but they bungle the job, in a scene that is purveyed via their silhouettes attempting to stake the innkeeper. The now vampiric innkeeper escapes and makes a B line for the maid’s room, shocked at her once employer being a vampire and wanting to bite her, she shows him a crucifix, the innkeeper laughs because being Jewish the crucifix has no power “You’ve got the wrong Vampire” he says.
Then there is the camp vampire who is the son of the Count, who is more interested in Alfred the vampire Hunters assistant than any maiden from the village and chases the manic young man in the hope of turning him into one of the un-dead. The chase sequence is hilarious, evoking the style of the old silent movies, it is scored masterfully by the composer who utilises choir, harpsichord and guitar which are all punctuated and supported by timpani. The timing of the music within this scene is crucial and without it the scene would probably not have worked, we can hear certain similarities to the music of Morricone within this cue as in the way it is structured, orchestrated and placed.
This is a lesson on how to score a movie, the music being striking, because of its originality and the composers atmospheric use of voices in places. It also at times takes on a more subtle and understated style with the composer allowing the images and dialogue to do their job without getting in the way. Komeda was a great talent and his working relationship with Polanski was also a fruitful one.
Jerry Goldsmith was a master at his craft and scored his fair share of both horror and comedy films, Goldsmith worked with Joe Dante on a handful of horror/comedies the most well-known being Gremlins (1984) which is well deserving of the iconic label.
The composer also worked on The Burbs (1989), which starred Tom Hanks, now for me The Burbs was a movie that fell way short in comedic departments, but it contained a handful of horror sequences that I thought were worthy of a mention, as in the manic digging in the back garden of Hanks’s mysterious and creepy neighbours, which was quite dark and menacing that was scored frantically by the composer.
Then there were sequences that the composer scored by including parodies of his earlier scores such as the theme from Patton for the character portrayed by Bruce Dern, it was a frenzied madcap outing, at times the audience not knowing if they were coming or going.
Goldsmith had also worked with director Dante on the sci-fi/comedy adventure Explorers, in 1985. And then the composer and filmmaker collaborated on Gremlins 2, The New Batch in 1990.
Much in the same way that stand-up comedy works, and comedy in general its all about the punchline or the timing or even in the way the lines gags etc are delivered, and to a certain degree it’s the same with the music in a comedy and indeed a horror movie, the timing must be spot on, or the joke, the moment of horror and the overall effect will be lost. Goldsmith was by the time he began to work with Dante a seasoned film music composer, he fully understood the importance of split-second timings, and how crucial it was for the music to support and underline a scene, a line, or a sequence.
As was Elmer Bernstein, which is reflected in the music he composed for An American Werewolf in London, and although the score was quite sparce compared with other horror scores, Bernstein’s music shone, considering that the soundtrack also included a peppering of songs. I’m not sure if An American Werewolf in London can be categorised as a comedy/horror, or is it a horror that includes some lighter moments? Or is it a send up of all the vintage Werewolf movies that went before it, with all the cliches from these older productions touched upon throughout at some point?
Any-how, the score by Bernstein is one that works and works well.
Staying with the Lupine theme and The Howling, directed by Joe Dante, with the wonderful music of Pino Donaggio, for me the score for The Howling, is one of Donaggio’s more accomplished works from this period of the early 1980’s.
Again, is it really a comedy/horror, or just an out and out horror, with gentle nods to the legend of the werewolf as depicted in so many Hollywood flicks?
And these acknowledgements were seen as comedic slants by audiences and critics alike. The film itself contains some pretty scary moments, that are effective on screen and affecting as far as the watching audience is concerned.
One film that is often overlooked is Young Frankenstein, this Mel Brooks movie was a homage to the old black and white horrors as produced by Universal during the 1930’s, and it evokes many of the Boris Karloff Frankenstein storylines, Brooks filmed it in black and white, and cast the genius Gene Wilder in the central role, Wilder made the part all his own, and was supported admirably and suitably insanely by Marty Feldman, Madeline Kahn, Teri Garr, and Peter Boyle as the Monster.
With appearances by Gene Hackman as the Blindman and Brooks himself as the Werewolf. The music for the movie was by Mel Brooks long time musical Maestro John Morris, who had also created the music and songs for The Producers which was the beginning of a collaboration that was to last many years and include twenty movies. Many people in the world of film and film music mention great composer director collaborations such as Sergio Leone and Ennio Morricone, Spielberg and Williams and Herrmann and Hitchcock, but maybe they should focus upon the Brooks/Morris partnership also. It is a partnership that has produced numerous moments of excellence within cinema history, where music and film just come together to create stunning and memorable combinations.
Young Frankenstein is one of those movies where one feels, sees, and hears the composer and the director are in tune with each other totally. Brooks creating his own take on a classic horror film, and Morris scoring the comedy led movie with music that at times is less than comedic but is more melodic and haunting. Morris too paid his own homage to the Universal years with a score that had many nods to composers such as Hans J Salter and Roy Webb who worked on monster movies and others for the studio. This romantic, melodic, yet dramatic approach can be heard within the composition which has become known as The Transylvanian Lullaby, a composition that became the core theme for the soundtrack, the composer introducing the piece within the opening track that played over the films main title credits.
Morris utilised the lilting and melancholy sounding theme performed by a fragile and heartfelt solo violin as the theme for the Monster, which was a masterful way of accompanying Frankenstein’s creation, giving it heart and drawing the watching audience in and having them feel empathy for it.
The movie is something of an acquired taste, but then if you have seen anything by Mel Brooks, I am sure you know what I mean, and I have to agree with the film maker when he says in interview many times it was not his funniest movie, but probably his best. The movie itself influenced other productions and considering the film was in essence a comedy or a satire on a classic tale, composer Morris played it straight when it came to the music, and although there were a handful of punchline musical moments, for example when Frankenstein meets Igor and when Wilder declares he is indeed a Frankenstein. For the most part the composer scored away from the comedic content, the music becoming the straight man to the director’s funny man approach which came across wonderfully when the music and image fused and became one as it were.
We felt the anguish and the confusion of the Monster within the score, the music purveying a sense of not belonging and at the same time it underlined the comedy element and probably made that even more prominent because the music was serious and at times over the top dramatically in the good old Universal fashion. It is without a doubt John Morris’s Masterpiece. We could I suppose gone on forever, and discuss horror comedies or comedy horrors, but for now lets stop and ponder the genre that is a combination of two and also an entertaining, inventive and sometimes a nonsensical form of cinema.