Favorite Campy Horror Films

What I find funny isn’t immediately obvious to a lot of my friends. They don’t know what I might or might not find hilarious, so are hesitant to introduce me to things THEY think are funny.

Plenty of movies make me laugh though, and I’m a huge fan of completely absurdist, campy (and occasionally tasteless) humor. Some of my requirements for making this list is that the plot is ludicrous, but at least one of the actors is taking the plot seriously, and at least one other actor recognizes exactly what type of movie they’re in and is just rolling with it. Sometimes the plot is deeply stupid, trashy (usually because of some implied sexual issue) and/or tastelessly over the top, but everyone in the movie plays it completely straight, or the plot is actually what’s serious and straightforward, but the actor’s reactions are exaggerated.

There is a thin line between Campy, Horror/Comedy, and Parody and not everyone can tell the difference. Sometimes there is a lot of overlap, but most people, even if they can’t describe what it is, know Camp when they see it. For example, Rob Zombie’s Halloween is trashy, but it isn’t Campy. The new Munsters movie however is all Camp. In a Campy film, things tend to be overdone. The color is more saturated, the acting is just a bit long, and the plot is just a bit too of whatever it is. There’s a fine dance of all these elements and too much of one thing, and not enough of another, can put a film in a different subgenre.

Here’s a list of the movies I thought were the most enjoyable and funniest. These are not in any particular order, but there are a number of them from the 80s, since that was the time period in which I first saw them, and quite frankly, I consider the 80’s the great age of Horror movies. As I once said, I think my Mom and I tried to watch every single Horror movie in that ten-year period. The Horror movies of the 90s were a lot less Campy than the ones from the 80s.

Fright Night (1985)

If I were making a numbered list this would definitely be in the top five. This movie was so much fun, and not just because the vampire, Jerry Dandridge, played by Chris Sarandon, was having so much fun in his role, but because of the addition of Roddy McDowell, who is a wonderful actor who has to play a has-been Horror movie actor who is also a failed television movie host, named Peter Vincent. Vincent is the one who thinks the situation is insane, but once he realizes it’s real and incredibly dangerous, wants no part of it. He starts out as an unethical and cowardly man who eventually steps up to the plate to become a brave and surprisingly compassionate hero. The movie is also enlivened by the performance of Stephen Geoffreys as a sympathetic and completely over-the-top villain named, appropriately enough, Evil Ed, which is more of a clue as to what type of movie this is. Actually, the only characters who take the plot at all seriously are the two leads, Amy and Charlie, played by Amanda Bearse and Wm. Ragsdale.

Death Becomes Her (1992)

I absolutely love this movie (despite its problematic depictions of fatness). Madeline (played by Meryl Streep) is a vain, insecure, formerly great actress, who keeps stealing the boyfriends of her childhood friend Helen (Goldie Hawn). Tired of this dynamic after Madeline steals yet another boyfriend, Helen embarks on a revenge scheme that involves taking a potion that makes her beautiful and immortal. She hatches a plan with her ex-boyfriend (an unrecognizable Bruce Willis) to murder Madeline. Unknown to both him and Helen, Madeleine also takes the potion, and hijinks ensue as the women find out the hard way that although they can’t die, they can be killed.

The movie has the feel of a comedy of manners, (because of the various misunderstandings and mix-ups), except no one in this movie has any manners. No one in this movie is at all serious about this utterly ridiculous plot, delivering their lines with a wink and a nod, with the sole exception of Isabella Rossellini as the potion provider, who acts as if she is in some grand gothic Horror cinema, while everyone else is in a torrid soap opera. This was my first exposure to Meryl Streep the comedian, and she is absolutely hilarious, as a character whose body has started to break down after she is murdered, but my all-time-favorite line is Helen telling Madeline (after Madeline breaks her neck in a fall) that she won’t speak to her until she gets her head on straight!

At the time the movie was released in 1992, the special effects were groundbreaking as it was the first time CGI had been applied to living, moving actors. This movie is now a Cult Classic in the LGBTQ community, btw. If you haven’t seen (or even heard about) this, it’s well worth watching.

Elvira: Mistress of the Dark (1988)

Anytime I have such fond memories of a movie that I start laughing when I hear the title, it definitely means the movie has made my favorites list! I absolutely love this movie and it’s Elvira who sells it with her patented blend of sexy and snarky, which is never mean-spirited. Most of the humor involves Elvira getting herself into silly situations about which she has to make smart-ass remarks before rescuing herself. In this, her first film, she inherits a small town Gothic home from her Aunt, and is menaced by her Uncle who is hunting for a Witch’s grimoire he thinks is hidden within it. This gives Elvira plenty of opportunity to deploy her snarky little side-quips (the bread and butter of the movie) against the self-righteous townsfolk. The movie is very deliberately Camp, but only Elvira seems to understand that’s the case, and she occasionally breaks the fourth wall with a wink and smile to the audience.

The actress (Cassandra Peterson) is also a true Gay icon as she recently came out in her Memoir, Yours Cruelly, where she confessed that she’d been in a relationship with her friend, Theresa Wierson since 2002.

Evil Dead 2 (1987)

If you enjoyed Multiverse of Madness and the first Spiderman trilogy you have to see where it all began, although technically Evil Dead 2 is a remake of the first movie Evil Dead by the same director, Sam Raimi. Everything that made Spiderman 2 so much fun to watch, and all of the Madness of the latest Doctor Strange movie has its foundation in this one.

I saw this movie when it was released (on a double bill with Robocop), at a ratty little downtown theater and I don’t think I have ever laughed so hard at a movie in my life up to that moment. Picture a 17-year-old girl sitting in a movie theater by herself, laughing uproariously as a man gets attacked by his own hand. Evil Dead 2 is a deeply stupid film, but only maybe two of its characters understand that. Ash, the hero of the movie is an over-the-top clown, but one of the other characters, a female scientist of some kind acts like she’s in a perfectly straight Horror movie. This is one of Sam Raimi’s greatest films. Everything in it is overdone, extremely loud, and unashamedly, unabashedly frantic, from the music to the dialogue, and even the camera work.

The movie is a lot, and despite all the colorful gore, is actually great for teenagers who like Horror movies that aren’t quite that horrible.

Big Trouble In Little China

The best character is the one who has no idea that he is not the hero of this movie, and that is the arrogant, self-referencing, and derpy Jack Burton, played by Kurt Russell. Most of the movie is shown from his point of view, he narrates the movie and thinks of himself as a lovable scamp, but the actual hero of the film is Dennis Dun as Wang Chi, who commits numerous heroic acts, saves the day, and the girl, and plays all of the ridiculous shenanigans in this movie completely straight. Kim Cattrall plays a breathless and overconfident Gracie Law, James Hong (from Everything Everywhere All At Once) is a Fu Manchu parody, and Victor Wong is a Chinese wizard named Egg Shen, which is all you need to know to know what kind of movie we’re dealing with here.

The plot is deeply silly, (and probably exploitative as well since this is the 80s) involving the villain (Lo Pan, aided by his awesome henchmen, The Three Storms) trying to become immortal by sacrificing a girl with blue eyes to his gods, and the only characters who take any of it seriously are the hero (Wang Chi) and the villain (Lo Pan).

Return of the Living Dead

Most of the characters do act like they’re in a serious movie, but this is a movie that knows it isn’t serious at all, as the plot becomes increasingly silly for the audience. We know the movie isn’t to be taken seriously mostly because of the dialogue, and c’mon, the name of the primary company in the movie is called Uneeda which sells cadavers for profit. It’s not the characters that give a sly wink to the audience but the director and writers.

Most of the movie takes place in two small buildings (one a crematorium) with most of the characters being shuttled back and forth between them as the zombies take over the area. The zombies are the fast kind brought about through chemical means, and they also talk. well okay, they only yell for brains, but still. However, the greatest camp moment of the movie is the scene above where the zombies use the ambulance radio to call for more paramedics – so they can eat them.

Return of the Living Dead has its tongue firmly planted in its own cheek.

Vamp

There were quite a number of Camp vampire films made during the 70s, most of them came from the Italian studios, and that put Hollywood off from making vampire movies for a while, but they seemed to rediscover their interest in the 80s, releasing quite a few as Horror comedies. Vamp is one of my top favorites from the era of, what I like to call, the Golden Age of Comedy Horror.

A trio of college boys in an attempt to get into a fraternity, promise to provide strippers for a party. In their search, they stumble across a goofy childhood girlfriend who is working for a millenia-old vampire Queen, and her bug-eating human servants, in the After Dark nightclub, along with a gang of albino bikers (and yeah, the bikers and the vampires get to duke it out!) The movie is a tragedy but what makes it a comedy are the great, blink and you’ll miss them, one-liners by the lead characters, but what makes it Camp is the utterly silent Queen vampire (played by none other than Grace Jones, in what is probably one of her most pants-shittingly frightening roles) giving the audience the middle finger at the end.

And, oh yeah, there’s a little bit of stripping and Grace Jones does something that could loosely be called dancing.

Frankenhooker

There’s a thin line between Horror-Comedy and Camp because the two tend to overlap. I consider a Horror/Comedy to be much more deliberately in-your-face funny. In a campy movie, the humor is just a little bit more subtle or has a sexual element that gives the dialogue, and/or horror scenes, a double meaning. Frankenhooker walks that thin line and works it! On the surface, it appears to be a typical Horror/Comedy, but it’s the sexual component of the plot that makes this movie a little-known Camp Classic.

Everything about this movie is utterly ridiculous, from every element of the plot (supercrack, and exploding hookers) to the acting (wooden), to its dialogue (melodramatic). From its opening scene of death by electric lawnmower to the iconic scene of Frankenhooker walking the streets of, where else but New Jersey, screaming at the top of her stolen lungs: “GOT ANY MONEY?!! WANNA DATE?!!”, this movie doesn’t let up for a single moment.

All of it is incredibly, stupidly, trashy!

The Howling

Some movies don’t seem especially Campy at first, except for a knowing wink and a smile to the audience, which is embodied here in one of the werewolf characters deliberately addressing the audience at the end of the movie. The Howling is one of my favorite werewolf movies and that’s because the Camp is so subtle and well done. Like most Horror movies of the 80s, the scenes are over the top and kind of ridiculous but, if you pay close attention to the dialogue you get that the characters are all smirking at you a little bit. Occasionally, one of the characters will say something as if they know they’re being watched by an outside audience, and the movie is shot in such a way that the creators (namely VFX artist Rob Bottin) want to make the maximum amount of spectacle out of watching someone turn into a werewolf.

For example, this is a process that starts about three times during the film. The first time we don’t get to see it in its entirety because the scene is set in a dark room and interrupted by gunfire, but the second scene, (and we’ve waited for half the movie to see this) is completed in all its closeup, gory, lumpy, squishy detail. The third time, we are all set for a repeat of the second transformation, but we don’t. We get interrupted again.

There’s nothing elevated about the plot, the characters, or the scenery. The characters are rural lower-class peasants, contrasted against sophisticated metropolitan outsiders. The 3 outsiders play everything completely straight as if they don’t know they are in a werewolf movie, but all the rural characters seem in on the secret and are laughing at them and us, and that’s a large part of why this movie is so much fun!

Runners Up

Studio 666

Slaxx

Hell Baby

Good Hair

Zombeavers

The Newest Addition:

Rob Zombie’s Netflix adaptation of The Munsters, which makes no secret of its Campiness, just putting it all out there as brazen as you please! This was released last week, and I really enjoyed it. It was as much fun as I thought it would be although looking at it can be a bit exhausting. It is extremely colorful. He seemed to very much capture the mood and aesthetic of the original. I could have done with more of the Herman and Lilly falling in love plot, rather than the no-count werewolf brother side plot getting so much airtime, but it turned out the plot is a prequel, so we understand why the family moved from Transylvania to Los Angeles.

3 thoughts on “Favorite Campy Horror Films

  1. Pingback: Lisa Marie’s Week In Review: 10/3/22 — 10/9/22 | Through the Shattered Lens

  2. Pingback: Favorite Campy Horror Films — Geeking Out about It – johnrieber

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s