It’s like eating something sweet with a touch of salt. Or pleasure spiked with pain. There’s nothing like watching someone agonizing through misfortune, taken to the absurd in comedy. I love dark or black comedy, where satire meets a serious plot.
That beautiful edge of fright and delight takes the right combination of artful writing, acting and directing to make a good dark comedy. Without all three dark comedy is just another horror film – or camp, like the remake of The Stepford Wives. And a strong, put-upon character is essential to elicit sympathy through the absurd circumstances and misfortunes. In “A Fish Called Wanda,” it Michael Palin’s character, the put-upon Ken Pile. In “The Big Labowski,” it’s Jeff “The Dude” Bridges. In Arsenic and Old Lace, it’s Cary Grant’s Mortimer Brewster.
My list of favorites could never be a complete library. The Coen brothers and Monty Python films alone deserve their own category. I’ve provided a brief review of five you might not have seen that I highly recommend, followed by my incomplete list of more personal favorites.
I can’t even pronounce the word gazebo without mimicking character actor John McGiver’s glib pronunciation, “gaze-beau.” Glen Ford and Debbie Reynolds play a happy, loving couple. But Ford is driven to torment trying to protect his wife’s reputation, which leads to some of the funniest scenes in Ford’s film repertoire.
Ford is determined to protect Reynold’s past from destroying her career as a performer and puts himself through sheer torture, plotting the murder of her blackmailer. No matter how well he plots his crime, he’s just not cut out for the bad guy. There’s something about his every man quality in this absurd situation mingled with that farce of circumstance that lead to a laugh riot.
I Love You To Death
What could be darker than a botched murder for hire where the victim is nursed by the one who hired for the murder? And it’s based upon a true story. The fact that it’s based on real life just shows how truth can be as strange as fiction, and how life itself is often just this twisted between love and hate.
This dark comedy that reigns supreme thanks to its cast including Kevin Kline, Tracey Ullman, William Hurt, Keanu Reeves, River Phoenix and Joan Plowright. Kline is a despicable cheater and Ullman is his demoralized wife. So you can imagine who gets hit. But surprisingly (because its a true story) the bullet to Kline’s head doesn’t kill him. Ullman is now in a worse dilemma with a wounded husband and the less than helpful Plowright, as the strong but not that bright mother-in-law, Phoenix as a gentle love lorn lad and Reeves and Hurt as marginal human beings with little brains but a lot of heart. It’s desperately funny.
What a Way to Go
Here’s the list of actors in “What A Way To Go:”: Shirley MacLaine, Paul Newman, Dean Martin, Dick Van Dyke, Gene Kelly, Robert Mitchum, Robert Cummings. MacLaine got lucky with all those costars who all become her husband, but one. Poor MacLaine is repeatedly widowed by husbands who meet hilariously ego-based deaths, leaving her wealthier each time. If for no other reason than the 1960s’ male eye candy and (who else?), Edith Head’s spectacular costumes, it is worth watching. But this film of rich vignettes is edited with seamless transitions that carry your through MacLaine’s bitter-sweet story.
If you’re seeing it for the first time, you will enjoy the surprising twists and unexpected story lines draped in comedy, musical scenes, classic mid-century sets and those over-the-top costumes. MacLaine narrates her tragic story of one true love fter another, each ending in wealthy widowhood. A-list cast, A-list dark comedy, A-list pretty.
Death Trap has the charm of a much older film than its 1982 release. The Sidney Lumet film is a thick twisted thriller, combined with greed, deceit, jealousy, vanity, a wall of ancient weapons and a house full of sexual tension. It is set in a quirky house out in the country where almost no one can hear you scream. What could go wrong?
Michael Cane, Dianne Cannon and Christopher Reeve play three unlikable people so it’s hard to root for any of them and hard to know who is out to get whom. But the beautiful performances of these three makes this tail of murder and unfaithful lovers as funny as it is nerve-racking.
You want dark? Seven Beauties is filled with murder, body mutilation and a Nazi concentration camp. It is a Lena Wertmueller film with her favorite leading man, Giancarlo Giannini. Giannini plays an utterly despicable human with incomparable survival skills that make you fall in love with his pluck. Just when you hope he’ll pay for his crimes, you realize he might not be the worst human of all. Because, unfortunately for us humans, there can always be someone worse.
It’s the raw, primal need to survive that Wertmueller examines in Seven Beauties, as in much of her other work. Does anyone truly know themselves until they are tested to the limit? And at that moment we are tested, we draw upon our strengths, good or bad.
More of my favorites:
Arsenic and Old Lace
The Big Labowski
A Fish Called Wanda
Fried Green Tomatoes
Grosse Point Blank
Harold and Maude
Little Miss Sunshine
The Meaning of Life
Murder By Death
Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?
Rocky Horror Picture Show
So I Married an Ax Murderer
Stepford Wives (19 )
Waking Ned Devine
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe