This past weekend saw the release of Chris McKay’s “Renfield” and Ari Aster’s “Beau Is Afraid” (which is expanding to more theaters this weekend), two new entries into the proliferating list of 2020s horror comedies. Both are vastly different films from one another outside of featuring horror and comedic elements in their presentations. But before we talk about what might have caused the critical and audience resurgence of horror comedies in recent years and these two exciting new releases, let’s press rewind and briefly consider the history of other genre-mashing movies in pop culture.
When most people think of the horror-comedy genre, they likely think of the Wayans brothers’ terrifically raunchy “Scary Movie” franchise. A product of the horror movie landscape that, at the time, was heavily saturated by cheesy slasher movies, the first “Scary Movie” plays more like a straight-up comedy than an actual horror movie as it specifically satirizes those famous slashers of the 90s for exclusively comedic effect. The catalytic force that ultimately spurred the “Scary Movie” franchise was Wes Craven’s 1996 masterpiece of meta-horror, “Scream.” The iconic meta-slasher film delicately toes the line between pure comedy and horror, combining witty commentary on horror film tropes with truly unsettling scares. In fact, it’s no coincidence that the original script of “Scream” was titled “Scary Movie,” a title that was ultimately vetoed by the film’s producers who wanted to title it “Scream” as a reference to a Michael Jackson song released just a year prior.
“Scream” and “Scary Movie” popularized the view of the horror genre as played-out and formulaic, an idea that empowered the many horror-comedy movies that followed to exploit horror movie tropes for laughs rather than screams; what could be funnier than laughing at people in peril, scared out of their minds? While the “Scream” and “Scary Movie” franchises dominated the horror-comedy landscape for the better part of 15 years—an ironic twist of fate since the sequels they spawned are products of the exact lack of originality issue the first movies in those franchises were satirizing—the genre-blend largely faded away in pop culture consciousness. Still, it is starting to show signs of a significant revival lately.
The first bubblings of the horror-comedy comeback started to surface in 2017 when Jordan Peele released the modern Academy Award-winning masterpiece “Get Out.” Peele’s background on the “Key and Peele” comedy sketch show and his long-standing love of horror primed him perfectly to bring horror comedies back into the mainstream. While “Get Out” is indeed a horror movie and not a horror-comedy, a position that Peele himself has taken, you can see Peele’s comedic sensibilities peeking through the seams. He recognizes the similarities between comedy and horror, specifically that they both rely on the subversion of expectations to make audience members either burst out in laughter or tense up in fear.
Even more recently, Zach Cregger of the comedy troupe “Whitest Kids U’Know” made his directorial debut with a devilishly grotesque yet unsettlingly funny movie, “Barbarian.” By putting horror and comedy elements into conversation with each other in a single film, screenwriters can keep audiences on the edge of their seats while also commenting on social and cultural issues that are notably present in the larger society. Writer-directors like Jordan Peele and Zach Cregger used their comedic sensibilities to craft unbelievably horrific movies that resonated with audiences and critics alike. But why are horror comedies starting to make such a significant comeback in the last two years, specifically?
The best answer to that question is the COVID-19 pandemic. Along with the rest of the world, the movie industry took a massive hit during 2020 and 2021. Following those two years of isolation and disconnectedness, audiences have sought in-theater experiences that allow them to find comfort in fear. No genre can fit that niche better than horror-comedy, letting audiences laugh at otherwise terrifying situations, putting the horrors of the pandemic behind them, and turning fear into a tool for comedy. So with audiences starting to head back to theaters in greater numbers during 2022 and the start of 2023, horror-comedies have been creeping toward the forefront of popular culture.
Zach Cregger’s “Barbarian” already belongs to the new guard of recent horror comedies released in the previous couple of years that have captured audiences’ attention and imagination. Other noteworthy horror-comedies from the last two years include: “The Menu,” “M3GAN,” “Bodies Bodies Bodies,” “Fresh,” and even “Cocaine Bear.” Aside from Elizabeth Banks’ kill-comedy “Cocaine Bear,” all these horror-comedy movies are directly rooted in tackling important issues in the modern world. “The Menu” is unapologetic in its eat-the-rich ideology. “M3GAN” turns fears about artificial intelligence into a hilarious teen-slasher. “Bodies Bodies Bodies” pokes fun at reactionary Gen Z attitudes. And “Fresh” puts a comedic twist on the terrors of online dating.
That leads us to “Renfield” and “Beau Is Afraid,” the two newest additions to the horror-comedy revival. “Renfield,” a neon-lit, depraved vampire flick, is entirely a product of the times. The film follows Renfield (Nicholas Hoult), the now-unfaithful servant of Dracula (Nicolas Cage), as he attempts to free himself from the grips of his nefarious employer. A vampire comedy that depicts the horrors of an omnipotent being who thrives on the sorrow and blood of the innocent could not be a better story for post-pandemic audiences to project their frustrations onto in the form of laughter. There is a therapy support group, corrupt police, gratuitous violence, and a dentist’s office chair repurposed as Dracula’s throne framed by an ominous mosaic of blood bags. Such topics and imagery are sure to resonate with audiences following nearly two years of shuttered theaters while they lived through their own personal horror stories.
Where “Renfield” invites viewers to sit back, relax, laugh, and enjoy the mayhem, “Beau Is Afraid” insists on a deep sense of discomfort in the viewer yet still manages to transform that uneasy feeling into twisted humor, the perfect recipe for an unhinged horror comedy. The latest from auteur filmmaker Ari Aster, “Beau Is Afraid,” is a more challenging movie for audiences but still manages to find its own unique space in the horror comedy genre. The film, which follows the titular Beau (Joaquin Phoenix) through an entirely subversive journey back to his childhood home, is fueled by indelible performances from Joaquin Phoenix, Patti LuPone, Amy Ryan, and Nathan Lane. It takes viewers into deranged territories, commenting not only on the psychological damage that comes with familial trauma (a topic often explored by Aster) but also pointing a looking glass at broader society to elevate flaws into frightfully comical situations. The way this movie blends frenetic anxiety with absurdist humor should resonate with post-pandemic audiences as it allows them to identify with, or at least feel sorry for, Beau as an isolated soul struggling to work his way through difficult times.
In just the first three and a half months of 2023, movie-goers have been treated to four notable horror-comedies in “M3GAN,” “Cocaine Bear,” “Renfield,” and “Beau Is Afraid.” Following the COVID-19 pandemic, the double-edged genre is undoubtedly making a comeback in popular culture, and for a good reason.
Do you agree with this sentiment? What has been your favorite horror comedy as of late? Have you seen either “Renfield” or “Beau Is Afraid” yet? If so, what did you think of them? Please let us know in the comments section below or on our Twitter account.
You can follow Simon and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @crmblngtgthr