By Bob Freville
When some of us hear the word “dark,” it conjures up things like the Dark Tower movie, based on Stephen King’s iconic book series, or Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, but others among us immediately picture something completely different.
Dark comedy movies haven’t always been popular, but they’ve always been distinct from your run-of-the-mill Hollywood comedy. Where so-called comedy classics typically rely on fart jokes and gay panic humor, black comedies depend on something more nuanced.
Operating in much the same way as a horror movie does, the black comedy plays on our fears, prejudices and inadequacies to craft something that is both irreverent and arresting. Many of these films are light years ahead of their time.
For every Fargo that ends up being immediately embraced by pop culture, there are a dozen flicks like Rubin & Ed or The Cable Guy that slowly find their fanbase over a period of decades.
Here are a few of the very best black comedies around, all of which I challenge you to quote off the top of your dome.
Neighbors (1981, Avilsen)
No, I’m not talking about that appropriately sophomoric frat comedy with Seth Rogen and Zac Efron, nor am I talking about its egregious sequel that served as little more than an excuse for Hollywood to once again sexualize child star Chloe Grace-Moretz.
No, we’re talkin’ John G. Avildsen’s manic, macabre adaptation of the equally weird Thomas Berger novel. This demented tale about a sexless suburban businessman (John Belushi in an uncharacteristically subdued performance) who lives on a deserted cul-de-sac beside a dangerous electrical tower explores upward-mobile ennui like few others.
Neighbors concerns what happens when the life of a bored middle-aged couple is disturbed by the arrival of a strange, swinging twosome (Dan Aykroyd and Cathy Moriarty) with a penchant for lies, manipulation, loud music and shotguns.
The role of Vic is easily Aykroyd’s greatest role to date with his oddly disquieting contact lenses, gold tooth, cheap bottle blond dye job and towering presence. The movie is made that much stranger by Bill Conti’s anachronistic theremin score that seems pulled from an old Ed Wood alien movie.
Straight to Hell (1987, Cox)
Alex Cox had already proven himself a pioneer with the punk rock pastiche Repo Man when he and Clash frontman Joe Strummer decided to make a sort of pseudo-concert movie together. This psychedelic spaghetti western isn’t exactly Quadraphoenia or Tommy: The Who, but it’s certainly a roundup of the most interesting acts in punk rock from the time.
The rag tag cast of rugged characters includes Cox regular Dick Rude as well as the members of The Pogues and a pre-nose job Courtney Love. The plot is half-baked at best (a group of inept bank robbers tear up a desert town full of derelicts when they’re not swilling coffee or slicking their hair back with gasoline), but the real treat is the manic passion of its eclectic cast.
In his book, X Films: True Confessions of a Radical Filmmaker, Cox talks about what a nightmare it was trying to coax a performance out of the very wooden Jim Jarmusch, a noted indie auteur in his own right and an occasional character actor.
Today, Straight to Hell has achieved cult status, but at the time, this shoestring action-comedy slipped through the cracks, no doubt in part because of its bizarre blend of gallows humor and over-the-top ensemble.
How to Get Ahead in Advertising (1989, Robinson)
Before Bizarro became a literary genre, filmmakers like David Cronenberg and Terry Gilliam gave us weird visions unlike anything we’d seen before or have really seen since. One such filmmaker was Bruce Robinson.
The British director is best known for the Gonzo drunks on holiday picture Withnail & I. Weird and wild in its own right, ‘Withnail’ is best remembered for the brilliant and infinitely quotable performance of Richard E. Grant as the titular souse who spouts proclamations like “I feel like a pig shat in my head” and “We want the finest wines known to humanity. And we want them here and we want them now!”
Grant returned to top form for this forgotten gem, a film Robinson fondly or not-so-fondly refers to as “The Boil.” Grant plays Dennis Dimbleby Bagley, a shrewd young marketing exec struggling to hatch an ad slogan for a new pimple cream.
Dennis’s frustration ends up growing into a boil on his neck, a boil which soon transforms into an even more repulsive version of him. To say any more would be to spoil a movie that is every bit as relevant and weird today as it was on the cusp of the Nineties.
Meet the Applegates (1990, Lehmann)
This one is up there with underrated greats like 1985’s Transylvania 6-5000 and 1989’s The ‘Burbs when it comes to twisted black comedies. After he delivered the pitch black anti-rom-com Heathers but before he gave us the armed rock n’ roll wannabes comedy Airheads, Michael Lehmann infested movie theaters with this smart satire about American mores.
Meet the Applegates is the story of Dick, Jane, Sally and Johnny Applegate, a foursome of giant, killer bugs from a South American rainforest who pose as a Leave it to Beaver-style suburban family in order to take down a nuclear power plant.
Of course, things don’t go as planned and blood is spilled as the Applegates eliminate the “homo sapien scum.” A fun and fucked up little romp, Meet the Applegates holds up in 2018 because its subject matter remains a problematic issue in the age of fracking and toxic shock.
Rubin & Ed (1991, Harris)
Some will recognize Crispin Glover’s Rubin from his now-notorious appearance on Letterman, but it was here that audiences (you know who you are) really got to know the guy with the long, bushy hair, ill-fitting bellbottoms and platform boots.
It’s really impossible to describe this zany, unpredictable flick without doing it a disservice. Yes, it’s a satire of self-help gurus, a riff on ancient cultures and a portrait of the awkward bond that develops among men. But it’s also a movie about a cat who can eat a whole watermelon.
Writer-director Trent Harris (Plan 10 from Outer Space) is currently crowdfunding a spiritual sequel to Rubin & Ed called Echo People. To learn more about it, you can click here.
The Dark Backward (1991, Rifkin)
Easily the strangest story about stand-up comedy ever committed to celluloid, The Dark Backward follows the journey of Marty Malt (a career-defying turn by Brat Packer Judd Nelson), the world’s worst stand-up comic. Marty is a garbageman whose only fan is his obnoxious and manipulative co-worker Gus (the late-Bill Paxton at his most unbridled).
Marty and Gus live in a trash-strewn world illuminated in queasy green and brown hues, a world that feels perpetually blighted by grease and decay. When Marty grows a third arm out of his back, Gus tells him he’s a “weirdie,” but he also suggests that this might be the big break they’ve both been dreaming of.
When a sleazy third-rate talent agent named Jackie Chrome (Wayne Newton with a John Waters mustache) learns of this deformity, he decides to leverage it as a gimmick to get Marty and his accordion-playing garbage buddy a gig on a daytime variety show.
This doesn’t begin to cover the highs and lows of grue and grotesquerie on display in Adam Rifkin (Look, Detroit Rock City)’s debut film, but it does scratch the grotty surface. Viewers will be treated to plenty of oddball humor and unforgettable lines like, “Well, pickle my tongue!” They’ll also watch legendary actor James Caan (The Godfather) play the screen’s worst doctor.
The Dark Backward is the darkest of comedies, but it’s also one of the absolute best. Watch it on repeat for all of the Blump’s easter eggs hidden throughout.
The Vagrant (1992, Walas)
Bill Paxton was back for another bugfuck black comedy with this psychological quagmire. The Vagrant follows Graham Krakowski (Paxton), here pronounced “crack house ski,” a young professional who buys a house in an unnamed city and sets about living the high life before a peculiar hobo sets up shop across the street and begins driving Crackhouseski up a fucking wall.
Graham believes that this slobbering, deformed vagrant is not only taunting him but actually breaking into his home. As paranoia mounts and his friends turn their backs on him, Graham becomes obsessed with a mysterious paperback book left for him in his bathroom.
The book may just hold the key to figuring out who the vagrant is and what his intentions for poor Mr. Crackhouseski are. This one is a wild ride with a gloriously batty original score and the kind of inimitable production design pioneered by The Dark Backward before it.
Ed & His Dead Mother (1993, Wacks)
Steve Buscemi is one of the godfathers of the black comedy, having appeared in everything from Barton Fink and Fargo to In the Soup and Living in Oblivion, but this early-Nineties bizarrothon is one of his weirdest.
In the pic, Buscemi plays a sexless mama’s boy who runs the family hardware store and mourns the passing of his beloved matriarch…until John Glover shows up looking like Mephistopheles…if Mephistopheles dressed like Tom Wolfe.
Glover works for the Happy People Corporation, a spurious entity that carries an LLC on its name (of course). Glover says that his company is in the business of making people happy and swears that, for a nominal fee (everything Buscemi’s got), he can bring mama back from the dead, “good as new.”
Mama comes back alright with a taste for cockroaches and a case of blood lust. If that doesn’t sound crackers enough, just you wait. You’ll never think of a John Deere the same again.
Lucky (2004, Cuden)
Nope, this isn’t the introspective 2017 drama starring Harry Dean Stanton, rather it is a microbudget horror fantasy with a decidedly demented sense of humor. Following the floundering life of alcoholic cartoon writer Millard Mudd, Lucky presents what happens when a loser’s claustrophobic world collapses in on itself, giving way to delusion.
In the flick, Millard’s whole world turns around with the arrival of a talking dog whose name is Lucky. Lucky’s presence in Millard’s life leads to Millard meeting the love of his life. But Lucky has a plan for Millard’s future and there is no room in that plan for a love interest.
Lucky’s warped visual and tonal perspective is best represented by the sheer volume of empty beer cans strewn around Millard’s apartment in impressively huge piles. Everything about this film is oversized and outrageous, but this excess is expertly rendered in a measured way.
This one predates the exceptional talking animal Ryan Reynolds comedy The Voices by ten years, but it’s every bit as awesome as its successor.
God Bless America (2011, Goldthwait)
Bobcat Goldthwait is, perhaps, the best and most original independent filmmaker working in America today (check out his genre-bending anthology series Monsters & Misfits on truTV). It is only fitting that he should make a movie with America in the title.
Fed up with his shitty family, his shitty neighbors and the shitty culture that would exploit the oblivious for laughs, Frank Murdoch (played by the woefully unsung Joel Murray) fantasizes about murder until one too many egregious reality TV shows sends him running for the gun closet.
What follows is a misguided murder spree with a damaged teenage girl as the self-appointed Bonnie to his disgruntled and middle aged Clyde. In interviews, Goldthwait has said that he likes to make comedies out of the material that would normally be used for drama which explains this colorful mashup of Badlands, Bonnie & Clyde and Harold & Maude.
If you’ve ever dreamed of mowing down inconsiderate teens who talk during a movie screening or imagined how satisfying it would be to take down a spoiled cunt in a tiara on MTV’s My Super Sweet Sixteen then this is the black comedy for you. Bloody good stuff!
There are many excellent black comedies that didn’t make this list, but it’s not for lack of quality. If you’ve already seen all these incredible titles, consider checking out Steven Soderbergh’s Schizopolis, Derek Jarman’s charmingly wacked Jubilee or Peter Berg’s underrated yet highly influential Very Bad Things.