If you watch horror movies regularly, there are certain things you come to expect. Our favorites are filled with killers that return from the dead, seemingly un-killable monsters, and one last character standing at the end, bruised, bloody but victorious. These recurring themes are called tropes, and the horror genre is full of them.
Over the past few decades, the filmmakers who love and create scary movies have become pretty self-aware, and they often get a kick out of making fun of the very plot points that they end up using. In fact, some of the best horror movies we’ve watched recently have thrown more than one wink toward the audience. In doing so, they often end up perfectly blending humor and horror, and thus upping the ante on their film’s entertainment value. Here are five horror films that also do a great job of not taking themselves too seriously.
1. The Cabin in the Woods
It seems that everything in this 2012 horror-comedy is a reference to another movie — even the title itself. But somehow, Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon’s The Cabin in the Woods still feels like one of the most original horror movies in years. It follows a group of typical teenagers, each of which fall under a general horror character stereotype; the jock, the ditz, the virgin, the nerd, and the stoner. They embark on an idyllic weekend camping trip, but soon encounter just about every kind of terrifying creature a person could encounter in a horror movie.
As an audience member, you can’t help but laugh, even as you cringe at the sometimes absurd levels of gore and terror that the characters face. And you’ll lose track of the nods to other classic films in the genre. The twist in the film is too good to give away, but we can easily say that The Cabin in the Woods sets the bar very high for all future meta-horror movies.
2. Evil Dead II
The original Evil Dead was a tour-de-force in low-budget horror filmmaking. Its sequel, which in many ways is a satire of the original, is all that and more. Evil Dead II takes the original film’s plot — a group of friends venture out to a cabin in the woods filled with evil spirits (sound familiar?) — way further. In doing so, it puts the movie’s protagonist, Ash (Bruce Campbell), through the ringer as he battles reanimated appendages, satanic books, and a whole host of creepy creatures.
But while Evil Dead II often emulates B-movie traits — over-the-top acting and crazy special effects — it’s far funnier in every way because you know that director Sam Raimi and the rest of the crew are in on the joke the whole time.
Like Evil Dead II, James Gunn’s directorial debut is in many ways a loving homage to the B-movie genre. Slither follows the horror that unfolds in a small town that’s overtaken by an infestation of alien slugs that turn citizens into zombies.
As the name would suggest, the film is full of creepy crawlies and sequences designed to make your stomach turn. It never holds back on the gore, and seems to relish in its wholly unrealistic premise. Plus, Slither benefits from pitch-perfect performances from its cast, led by Nathan Fillion and Elizabeth Banks, who help sell the ridiculous story and solidify the film as a crowd-pleaser.
By the time this thriller hit theaters in 2009, it was clear that the entire undead subgenre had hit a bit of a slump. From Night of the Living Dead to 28 Days Later, it seemed like zombies had been overdone to death. Zombieland plays on this, by presenting a world in which fighting off reanimated corpses almost seems to become mundane.
It takes that premise and presents it through the perspective of a nervous, incredibly underprepared teen (Jesse Eisenberg) who makes it through the world by creating a list of rules to live by. Throw in top-notch performances from a rough-and-tumble Woody Harrelson and tough-as-nails Emma Stone and you’ve got one of the most entertaining zombie films of the 21st century.
While Scream wasn’t the first film to call horror movies out on their predictability, it was still groundbreaking in a lot of ways. This 1996 teen slasher movie, about a serial killer who stalks high schoolers and quizzes them on horror movie trivia before murdering them, took the idea of self-referential humor to a whole new level.
Scream tells you, in real-time, exactly what horror movies it’s emulating by dropping dozens of references to the classics that came before it, from Psycho to Carrie and everything in between. And with a whip-smart script from Kevin Williamson and Wes Craven’s stellar directing that repeatedly pays visual homage to the genre, Scream finds the perfect balance between hilarity and horror.
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