10 Outstanding Dark Comedy Films of the 20th Century The second man to set foot on the moon, Mr. Buzz Aldrin, is the unexpected candidate to sum up humour correctly. He defines humour as the blending of the “genuine” with the “absurd.” This quote has stuck with me ever since I first heard it in Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Ali G In Da USAiiii” interview with Aldrin because, of my opinion, it perfectly captures the central tension in comedy. The essence of comedy typically arises from the collision of the real and the ludicrous, whether it be a mismatched pair or a character negotiating their way through incredibly perilous and frightening situations.
The best comedic examples from the category of dark comedies, which in my opinion offers the most insight into the human condition, will be discussed in this essay. Dark Comedies confront them head-on, blurring the boundary between laughter and grief, and providing insight into the more repressed comedy that dwells within us. Typically, people seek to comedies as an escape from their problems and faults. Please take a seat and carefully consider my perspectives on the following since the instances are not presented in any particular order and are, of course, my subjective opinion.
Table Of Content
An American Werewolf In London (1981)
In John Landis’ masterwork, two teenage travellers are pursued over the Northern English moors, until they encounter a werewolf and one of them is ripped to pieces. When David, the protagonist and survivor, awakens in a London hospital, he discovers that his dead friend’s decaying ghost is haunting him and that, at the next full moon, he will turn into a werewolf. The movie is noteworthy for its skillful blending of horror and comedy, its grimy approach to the ludicrous meeting the real, and its horrific body horror scenes.
Strangely, this creates a type of “shock phase” that lines up the humorous relief as sudden moments of gloomy darkness and surprising disorientation (with one dream sequence lending a homage to Naziploitation flicks) counterbalance the comedic moments. The interplay of this tension is achieved practically through the film’s use of sound, editing, and—most significantly—its special effects, which were directed by Rick Baker. Micheal Jackson famously saw the film and wanted to hire Baker for the Thriller video after seeing it, and the result is a picture that Edgar Wright referred to as “the film that changed my life” due to its extreme nihilism and occasional moments of scathing humour.
Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil” is a memorable extravagant and absolutely ludicrous epic that takes place in an alternate version of the 20th century in a dense, dark, and nameless metropolis retrofitted with archaic technologies. The movie transports us to a fantastical vision of a society that may have been created by futurists in the 1930s, but this society has been abandoned to age, rust, and degrade over time. The story alternates between Sam Lowry’s (Jonathan Pryce) nightmares in which he sees himself as an angel soaring to save the woman of his dreams and his day-to-day life as an office clerk in this rotting megacity under continual terrorist danger.
It combines elements of Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis,” Orwell’s vision of a totalitarian society, and Kafkaesque bureaucratic nightmare. The unnamed metropolis is a huge fusion of Art Deco, Modernism, and Brutalism; it is a steamy labyrinth that seems to emerge from nightmares. The movie is a sharply funny attack on the folly of corporate oligarchies, the irrationality of excessively designed bureaucracy, the snobbishness of high society, the problems of overproduction, the menace of oppressive politics, the shock of domestic terrorism, and the atomization of society. The film tackles heavy sociopolitical subjects with a stylish and amusing zeal, creating a classic of not only dark comedy but of cinema itself. It features a very subtle supporting ensemble, including Bob Hoskins and Robert De Niro (who plays a zip-lining, pistol-wielding handyman).
Death Becomes Her (1992)
When they both attend a Broadway play starring Helen’s “frenemy” Madelyn (Meryl Streep), Ernest becomes enamoured and quickly leaves Helen to elope with Madelyn, marking a departure from his tough-talking action hero typecast. In this scene, Bruce Willis plays Ernest Menville, a nervous plastic surgeon who married aspiring writer Helen (Goldie Hawn). Helen plans her retaliation on her ex-friend after becoming devastated, morbidly obese, and institutionalised. All is not as it seems when the two ladies cross paths again seven years later; Madelyn is jealous and wants to learn Helen’s secret because she appears to be an unbelievably young and attractive Athenian new woman.
It’s a kitsch comedy that plays with the camp, the odd, and the occult while being essentially a Faustian narrative similar to The Picture of Dorian Gray where a “deal with the devil” is formed. Mortality Becomes Her is a singular outlier within the comedy canon that dwells on themes of death, vanity, the passage of time, plastic surgery, and beauty standards in a society that seeks to keep women as perpetually youthful. It combines aspects of body horror, slapstick humour, and fairy tale. It’s a movie with commentary that’s still relevant today, comedy that still works, and oddity that still rules.
Dr. Strangelove (1964)
Dr. Strangelove was released in theatres at the height of the Cold War, when the threat of nuclear annihilation hung heavily in the air, and it criticised the incompetence of a society that had developed the capacity to destroy itself. The movie follows what happens right after U.S. Air Base Commander General Ripper (Sterling Hayden) suffers a mental collapse and orders—without getting permission—an irreversible preemptive nuclear strike on the USSR. This is supported by Ripper’s psychotic fantasy that his “precious bodily fluids” are being sought after by Russian Communists.
The movie is a laughable collection of cunningly timed jabs that portrays the anxiety surrounding American nuclear policy in the 1960s as a sign of a more fundamental fear of attack, which justifies invading first. We witness the real-time collapse of logic caused by the stupidity of a government that has unintentionally sparked the end of the world in its delivery, which is completely deadpan. Peter Sellers expertly balances three different roles, and Stanley Kubrick’s directing gives the tragedy a monochrome gloss. The subject matter and humour are so utterly grim as to make the idea of a nuclear holocaust hilarious. The movie is possibly the best dark comedy of the 20th century, liberating in all its cowboy-riding-a-nuclear-warhead lunacy.
Harold & Maude (1971)
Harold, a nihilist 19-year-old boy who is completely preoccupied with death, is the subject of the most macabre yet wholesome love story ever told. He spends his days making fun of his mother and the staff while ‘committing suicide’ in various ways because he comes from an affluent family that is keen to see him get married. He attends funerals for strangers when he isn’t staging his own demise. Here he meets Maude, a 79-year-old carjacker and pianist with an unquenchable thirst for life (who also crashes funerals). The central theme of the story is the contrast between Harold and Maude’s relationship with life and death.
Despite being young, Harold yearns for death and is fixated on the rituals, violence, suffering, and shock associated with death as a phenomenon. On the other hand, Maude, who is close to death, approaches it in a lighthearted and flippant manner, ignoring societal conventions, breaking the law, speaking her mind, and living her life as she sees fit. Harold discovers significance and perspective in Maude’s way of looking at things. A truly gothic love story with the most morbidly optimistic presentation you’ve ever seen. Harold & Maude is a memorable and surreal classic because to its gorgeous score, fantastic direction, and endearing performances.
Risky Business (1983)
What should one do with so much freedom, though? He cautiously contacts a call girl on his friend’s awful advice, and when she doesn’t disappear, he gets more than he bargained for. The movie epitomises the 1980s, and Cruise, with his cherub-like features and flawless casting, plays the compliant but eventually corruptible Joel. The sexy and sinister call girl Lana, played by Rebecca DeMornay, is being chased by her repulsive and aggressive ex-pimp Guido. All of this is accompanied by Tangerine Dream’s cosmological and heartfelt OST.
The extreme contrast that this sliced-white-bread overachiever finds himself profiting from the illegal prostitution business in his parent’s home creates the comedy in the movie. The story of Lana’s entrance parallels Joel’s last few weeks of high school and his business enterprise classes, weaving all three events together into a peculiar neoliberal coming-of-age lesson. Joel enters the hazy markets of adulthood and responsibility while first experiencing the competitive aspect of capitalism, which shapes his approach to business.
The Cable Guy (1996)
After The Mask, Dumb & Dumber, and Ace Ventura, this much-maligned dark comedy showed moviegoers a Jim Carrey they just didn’t want to see at the moment, breaking Jim Carrey’s winning run. The Ben Stiller-directed comedy, which centres on an obsessed stalker whose real name is never revealed, confronts obsession and harassment in a 90s fever dream of bizarre social interactions and delirious moments of unvarnished craziness.
The primary focus is on Matthew Broderick’s Steven, a man moving into a new apartment after experiencing a temporary breakup with his fiancée Robin (Leslie Mann). He runs into The Cable Guy at this new home, who makes it his mission to become friends with Steven at all costs. The movie plays out as a sort of mash-up of 90’s zeitgeist, from the utopian monologue about the potential of satellite cable (“YOU CAN DO YOUR SHOPPING AT HOME…OR PLAY MORTAL KOMBAT WITH A FRIEND IN VIETNAM!”) to the side story about a celebrity trial of “The Two Stans” (both played by Ben Stiller), which reflected the national obsession of the O.J. Trial. It speaks to
The Full Monty (1997)
The Full Monty shattered UK box office records and was the highest-grossing movie in the UK at the same time. It was a national sensation at the time of release and eventually evolved into one of the cheeky top-shelf VHS cassettes that were off-limits to children (until Titanic dethroned it). a peculiar movie that, of all places, finds humour in Sheffield, England. a post-industrial city in the heart of the North that lost its sense of self when the powerful steel industry was demolished and thousands of men were left without work as a result of outsourcing.
The movie centres on Robert Carlyle’s character Gaz, an ex-steelworker who is out of work, well-intentioned, and penniless who could soon lose custody of his kid if his unpaid child support payments are not resolved. He decides it’s an easy way to make money and enlists a group of former steelworkers to come up with a strip routine in order to raise the money to keep his son in his life. He is desperate for money and was inspired by a sold-out Chippendale stripper performance at a local working men’s club (during a women’s only night). What follows is a very funny and endearing comedy that, with masterful sensitivity, a lovely soundtrack, and an impeccable ensemble, tackles the deepest subjects of suicide, loneliness, body image, divorce, and unemployment.
It introduces us to Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor), a 26-year-old heroin addict whose philosophy surrounding consumerism drives his anti-society style of anarchic nihilism. This zeitgeist-encompassing movie is in a league of its own as a highly energetic, incredibly dark, and subversive Scottish nightmare. In this genre-defying melancholy of pain and joy, they sway through the days of robberies and toilet diving in Edinburgh with his larger gang of fellow junkies.
The movie resonated in a unique way for the 1990s as a counter-cultural grunge picture, and it served as an inspiration for subcultures like the “heroin chic” fashion movement. It was the kind of morally subversive movie that, in spite of its horrifying subject matter, made heroin appear improbably “cool,” as if a life of negativity and addiction were a protest unto itself against the commercial excesses of neoliberal rule in the middle of the 1990s. It was the movie that catapulted filmmaker Danny Boyle’s international reputation as a disruptor, a director unafraid to approach black comedy with a canine bearing, sardonic smile. At times cripplingly amusing and other times truly painful.
Vampire’s Kiss (1988)
We meet Peter Loew, an immoral womaniser by night and literary agent by day, in the last hours of a New York evening as darkness falls over the “city that never sleeps.” Hot-tempered, aggressive, and competitive, Peter finds a woman to sleep with while out at night. What follows is a protracted filmic delusion that Peter enters into, where he thinks the woman was actually a vampire and bit him. and he himself is gradually turning into one.
The film stands out from other examples of the subgenre because of the ridiculousness that Nicholas Cage’s maximalist portrayal of Peter creates. The movie, which famously gave rise to the “YOU DON’T SAY” meme, depicts Peter’s spiral into mental anguish as he sadistically harasses his intern, loses his grasp on reality, climbs upon tables, dons plastic vampire teeth, and wails into insanity. blurring the borders between humour and terror, occasionally extremely unpleasant, and constantly veering towards outright mockery The radical movement in Cage’s performance is away from the sombre simplicity of the method approach and into a highly energetic breakdown that vaporises convention.
Being a binge-watcher himself, finding Content to write about comes naturally to Divesh. From Anime to Trending Netflix Series and Celebrity News, he covers every detail and always find the right sources for his research.