Happy October! This month means it’s time for plenty of horror film viewing and content. Along with all the usual horror films out there, there’s also a wealth of horror comedy content. From Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein to Shaun of the Dead, the two have always mixed well. Familiar tropes are played upon for comedy, genres are parodied. The two often make a perfect match, and that’s not even counting the horror films that provide unintentional comedy. But what are the origins for this genre mashup?
1932’s The Old Dark House may be the most highly regarded early example. Directed by a top horror man of his day, James Wale, the film works as both a horror film and a dark comedy. But also interesting is that it manages to parody the old dark house style of horror film, with the tropes of that type of film already well established by 1932. Even this film wasn’t the first to do that.
The Cat and the Canary (1927) features a standard old dark house plot, where a family must spend the night in a haunted mansion in order to get an inheritance. Based on a black comedy play, the humor remained in this film version. The play would serve as the basis for three more direct adaptations in the 30s, and The Laurel and Hardy Murder Case (1930) seems to have taken some inspiration from the idea as well.
In fact, comedy horror films adapted from stage plays was quite common around this time. The Gorilla, another old dark house play, premiered on Broadway in 1925. Film adaptations were made in 1927, 1930 and 1939. The 1930 version featured Walter Pidgeon. The film is lost, so the world may never get to see Mr. Gruffydd stalked by a man in a gorilla suit again. The Monster (1925) and The Bat (1926) were also adaptations of black comedy plays. 1925 also featured an early direct parody, the Stan Laurel vehicle Dr. Pryckle and Mr. Pryde.
It’s hard to say for sure, but the earliest feature length horror comedy might be The Ghost Breaker. The question is which version of the film was the first comedy. The play was adapted in 1914 and 1922, both of which are now lost. The 1922 version was definitely made as a comedy and marketed as such. The 1914 version is much sparser in the area of information. Most sources list it is as a drama. And seeing as it was directed by Cecil B. DeMille and starred HB Warner, it probably wouldn’t have been a barrel of laughs even if they tried.
But what is the actual first example of horror comedy? Like so many other things, the answer may lie with Georges Méliès. Many of his earliest “trick” films, along with the work of others around the time, could certainly be considered a mix of horror and comedy. As far back as The Bewitched Inn (1897) and A Midnight Episode (1899), Méliès used elements of the supernatural to create comedic effects in his films. And he wasn’t the only one either. The Haunted House (1899) and The Haunted Curiosity Shop (1900) are works by other directors that also fall along the same lines. So where did this mashup and horror of comedy begin? It shouldn’t be a surprise that this also goes right back to the beginning of film itself.