Feature: "Die Laughing"
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Die Laughing

By D. Scott Apel

Special to OnVideo

Halloween used to be a time for ghosties and ghoulies and things that go bump in the night. Nowadays it's more a time for pranks and pumpkins and parties that go on well into the night.

In other words, fear has been replaced by fun. But for those of us who desire a dose of both, video provides a unique solution. Any number of feature films which combine the macabre and the mirthful have found their way to tape, and are just the trick for treating us to some eldritch laughter as the witching hour draws near.

Some are old favorites resurrected for the holiday; some, recent releases perfect for the season; others, buried treasures we've exhumed for your amusement. So fix yourself a zombie and experiment with one of these thirteen bewitching films (presented in alphabetical order). Be warned, however...we want to scare you silly, but you could die laughing.

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948; MCA; 83 mins.; unrated). Long before Gremlins, Ghostbusters, The Golden Child or Goosebumps, the horror comedy had already been perfected in this fun-filled farce -- the great-granddaddy of the horror-humor genre. Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi), with the Wolfman (Lon Chaney, Jr.) in tow, goes in search of a brain donor for the Frankenstein monster (Glenn Strange) and chooses...Lou Costello? Sounds like Drac needs a new brain himself! The boys bumble their way in and out of danger in this beautiful balance between chuckles and white-knuckles. (Incidentally, this is the only movie in which we ever actually witness Lugosi's Dracula turn into a vampire bat.) Still a scream half a century later.

Army of Darkness (1992; MCA; 1:17; R). The third entry in director Sam Raimi's Evil Dead series features housewares clerk Ash (Bruce Campbell) -- square-jawed, hyper-serious and as dumb as a box of hair -- tossed back in time to 1300 A.D. by the demonic force that's plagued him since the first film in the trilogy. In his quest to retrieve The Book of the Dead, his ticket home, he inadvertently awakens an army of skeletal undead, who attempt to go Medieval on him. The gleefully gruesome humor -- call it "Ray Harryhausen meet the Three Stooges" -- delivers the most blood-splattered fun to be found on film, and violence so maniacally overblown that it can't be taken seriously.

Beetlejuice (1988; Warner; 92 mins.; PG). Michael Keaton provides laughter from the hereafter as a gross ghost out to aid two timid spirits in ridding their house of an infestation of (ugh!) humans. Essentially Poltergeist turned inside out and upside down, director Tim Burton's wacky film boasts wild and surreal special effects, edgy humor and a delightful early performance from Winona Ryder.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (94; Fox; 98 mins.; PG-13). It's Valley Girl vs. the vampires in this send-up of genre flicks, as teen queen Buffy (Kristy Swanson) is informed by a mystery man (Donald Sutherland) that her destiny is to rid L.A. of its expanding vampire population. Well, OK -- as long as she doesn't miss cheerleading practice. Occasionally dark and serious, but often hilarious, this metaphor for maturation features fine performances from a cast that includes Luke Perry, Paul "Pee Wee Herman" Reubens and Rutger Hauer -- and proved so popular that it inspired a spin-off TV series.

Freaked (93; FoxVideo; 78 mins.; R). When a self-absorbed former child star (Alex Winter) insults the insane owner (Randy Quaid) of a South American "Freek Show," he quickly finds himself transformed into one of its twisted exhibits. This fast-paced grotesque-o-rama is in essence a live-action cartoon for arrested adolescents, full of outrageous, tasteless, rude, crude, sophomoric, bizarre, fringe humor -- as well as lots of Stooge-style violence, horrid puns, mind-bending special effects and inside jokes (that's an uncredited Keanu Reeves -- Winters' partner in the Bill and Ted movies -- playing "Dawg Boy," for instance).

Fright Night (1985; RCA/Columbia; 106 mins.; R). Vampires live in ghastly castles in Eastern Europe, right? Not in the local 'burbs, right? Wrong! When a teenager (Chris Sarandon) finds a real live bloodsucker living next door, he has trouble believing it himself, much less convincing anyone else. But when he manages to enlist the aid of a washed-up horror show host (Roddy McDowall) his real problems -- and our nervous laughter -- begin.

Ghostbusters (1984; RCA/Columbia; 105 mins.; PG). Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis are at the peak of their form playing a bizarre bunch of out-of-work psychic researchers who achieve overnight fame by bounty hunting spooks, demons, bogeymen and assorted apparitions. Director John Landis' high-"spirited" comedy, a perfect blend of manic menace, scary slapstick and seamless special effects, was for years the top box office comedy of all time, and it certainly deserves repeated viewings.

Gremlins (1984; Warner; 106 mins.; PG). They're cute, they're cuddly, they're wide-eyed little furballs of fun. But don't feed them after midnight, or they turn into vicious little fanged fiends. And don't get them wet, or the monsters multiply at a rate that shames rabbits. Chris Columbus' screenplay is a masterpiece of satire, full of in-jokes trashing such sacred American institutions as Disney, Christmas, The Wizard of Oz and dozens of other familial nicities. (Would Beaver Cleaver's mom have had the guts to stuff one of the little buggers into the blender, for instance?) Joe Dante's direction brings the mischievous minions to life, allowing us to hobnob with the hobgoblins that infect this wacky action epic.

Love At First Bite (1979; Warner; 96 mins.; PG). A lively spoof of vampire lore, including a sympathetic Count Dracula (George Hamilton), who flees from a Communist takeover of Transylvania to take up the "night life" in New York City. Once there, he becomes romantically involved with a neurotic model (Susan St. James) and a psychiatrist with bats in his belfry (Richard Benjamin) who is determined to stop the Count from flying off with his fiancee. Risque, hip and twisted, Bite succeeds wonderfully as a mirth-filled update of the myth.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975; CBS/Fox; 105 mins.; R). A conservative young couple (Susan Sarandon, Barry Bostwick) stumbles into a gothic den of alien transvestites and high-camp kinkiness in an outrageous musical which has become the ultimate in cult classics. This exuberant conglomeration of sci-fi, horror, hilarity, good-natured perversity and rock and roll inadvertently created a subculture of midnight movie mavens who still perform interactively with the film in many moviehouses around the country. While audience participation is the key to its popularity, even home alone it's a fun-filled freak show.

Scream (1996; Buena Vista; 111 mins.; R). Sure, it starts out like any of a dozen other teen hack-'em-up flicks. But the twist is that these are some savvy teens, well-versed in the "rules" of slasher cinema as practiced by Freddy Kruger, Michael Myers, Leatherface and Jason. But if the innocent know the rules, so does the stalker... Kevin Williamson's script is filled with clever cliche-breaking twists and genre in-jokes, and opens a vein of humor long overdue. Director Wes Craven, who helped create the form, redeems himself by helming this antidote to slasher silliness; as the escalating bloodbath eventually leaves everyone alive literally soaked in the stuff, the effect is so insanely over-the-top that cathartic laughter is the only reasonable reaction.

Theatre of Blood (1973; MGM/UA; 102 mins.; PG). What would Halloween be without Vincent Price? In this parody of Grand Guignol flicks, Price plays an aging Shakespearean actor who wreaks imaginative and apt revenge on the critics who trashed his performances throughout his career. Price, as the uncured ham, is wonderfully overblown -- a counterpoint to the low-key comedy of the lovely Diana Rigg.

Young Frankenstein (1974; CBS/Fox; 108 mins.; PG). Madman Mel Brooks wrote and directed this manic movie that does for early horror films what his Blazing Saddles did for (or to) the Western. Dr. F's grandson (Gene Wilder) reconstructs The Monster (Peter Boyle), massacring every horror cliche ever developed in the process. Much of the fun comes from watching the players -- including Marty Feldman, Madeline Kahn, Cloris Leachman, Kenneth Mars, Teri Garr and Gene Hackman in an uncredited cameo -- parody the overblown performances of vintage horror films in a slickly photographed visual imitation of the originals.

Even a "Top 13" list can't exhaust the genre. Other horror comedies we could recommend, depending on age, taste and access, would include: Edward Scissorhands, Casper, An American Werewolf in London, The Fearless Vampire Killers, The Stuff, Death Becomes Her, City of Lost Children, Evil Dead 2 and The Little Shop of Horrors.

D. Scott Apel is a former video columnist for the San Jose Mercury News and author of "Killer B's: The 237 Best Movies on Video You've (Probably) Never Seen."

Also check out: Film Noir: Build a library of some classic B-pictures.

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October 24, 1997