This article was originally published on Subtitled Online May 2013
If there’s a single thing filmmakers working in Britain and Ireland do well it’s black comedy. Perhaps you can blame the awful weather – you have to find brightness in something if you seldom see actual sunlight. What follows is a list of my favourite films that make you laugh at situations that, by all rights, really shouldn’t be funny.
SIGHTSEERS (UK, 2012)
SIGHTSEERS is probably the blackest British comedy in recent memory, directed by Ben Wheatley (the depraved mind behind KILL LIST) and written by and starring Alice Lowe and Steve Oram as a couple on a caravanning trip in the north of England. Both are mentally unsound to say the least, and begin a killing spree of “undesirables” (litterers and tabloid readers among others) that gets increasingly out of control. At first the killing is accidental, then it is part of a misguided moral crusade, but in the end Chris and Tina seem to be getting a kick out of it. The film makes for quite a refreshing take on on-screen relationships – Tina and Chris might be psychotic, but they have real chemistry, and are completely believable as a couple…who kill people.
Darkest Comedy Moment: When confronted by a high-and-mighty rambler for not clearing up after her dog, Tina in a moment of panicked lapsed judgement accuses him of making an improper proposal to her, encouraging an enraged Chris to incapacitate and smash the rambler’s head into a large rock. The couple’s first squelchy kill, where they accidentally reverse over a chronic litterer is also pretty funny.
THE GUARD (Ireland, 2011)
The story of an Irish Garda (Brendan Gleeson) working with an out-of-his depth FBI agent (Don Cheadle) to track down a dangerous gang of criminals (led by a growling Liam Cunningham) in rural Ireland, THE GUARD is very funny, and has a smart script with an incredibly dark streak running through it. The Guard is essentially an Irish take on a buddy cop movie (think LETHAL WEAPON meets FATHER TED) with the addition of a particularly striking western-style shootout at the end.
Darkest Comedy Moment: It’s a toss-up between Gleeson’s Gerry not giving a murder victim entirely respectful treatment when his body is found, and his claiming that “I’m Irish. Racism is part of my culture.” And, though it’s by no means a dark comic moment, Gerry is shown later in the film to enjoy an afternoon swim in the sea, and the sight of Brendan Gleeson packed into a wetsuit is hilarious.
SUBMARINE (UK, 2010)
Richard Ayoade’s directorial debut is a tale of falling in lust, falling out of love, coping with grief and being consumed by depression, all taking place in South Wales. These are pretty heavy themes for a restrained suburban comedy-drama, but Ayoade balances them with a liberal dose of black comedy and an arty, colourful aesthetic, reinforced by a great bittersweet soundtrack from Arctic Monkeys’ Alex Turner. Newcomers Craig Roberts and Yasmin Paige prove themselves to be names to watch, and a solid supporting cast of independent film veterans (Noah Taylor, Sally Hawkins and Paddy Considine) help to make an already striking film memorable.
Darkest Comedy Moment: Young Oliver trying to reignite his parents’ passion for each other by forging and sending highly sexually suggestive notes to both, signed by the other. Also in contention is Oliver somewhat optimistically imagining his own funeral as a well-publicised national tragedy – it’s very BILLY LIAR-esque.
SHALLOW GRAVE (UK, 1994)
Danny Boyle’s big-screen debut is the story of a trio of Edinburgh flatmates (Ewan McGregor, Kerry Fox and Christopher Eccleston) who have to secretly dispose of the body of their shady, suddenly departed new tenant. This morally dubious act has a profound effect on them all, but especially on Eccleston’s David, who takes to living in the attic and acting all creepy, eventually going fully psychotic. Even this early in his career, Boyle has a very distinctive style and boundless energy, and regular collaborator John Hodge’s screenplay is razor-sharp and funny.
Darkest Comedy Moment: Whilst many fondly remember the increasingly cruel but funny interviews with prospective flatmates at the beginning of the film, for pure black comedy, you’d have to go for the scene where the trio come to the conclusion that they have to dismember the corpse, and squabble about who gets this “grave” responsibility.
THE LADYKILLERS (UK, 1955)
This classic entry from Ealing has a criminal mastermind (Alec Guinness) and his gang of misfits (including Peter Sellers and Herbert Lom, soon to be of THE PINK PANTHER fame) masquerading as a string quintet to fool a sweet old lady into using her house as a base of operations for a planned heist. It sounds so easy, so what’s the catch? They’re all idiots, of course! (apart from, arguably Guinness’ ‘professor’ Marcus, who’s more a mentally unhinged intellectual than outright stupid). The film is quite justifiably considered a comedy classic and a particularly important record of the social state of post-war Britain, and is in a whole different league to the Coen Brothers’ woefully brash American remake from a decade ago.
Darkest Comedy Moment: The whole final act involves the gang being killed in increasingly bizarre and amusing ways, but the best of the bunch is definitely the demise Guinness’ Professor Marcus, who, as the last criminal standing and thinking he is home free, is taken out by a railway signaller hitting him in the back of the head.
FOUR LIONS (UK, 2010)
FOUR LIONS is a biting satire about wannabe suicide bombers from Sheffield. Written by BRASS EYE’s fearless Chris Morris with PEEP SHOW’s Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain and directed by Morris, the film’s subject matter makes for deliberately uncomfortable viewing. Luckily for the would-be-victims of terrorism, this particular Sheffield-based terrorist cell is composed of complete morons, and hilarity ensues from their ineptitude at planning, organisation and bomb-making and from their frequent arguments with each other.
Darkest Comedy Moment: The film’s finale takes place during the London Marathon. Police snipers are called in when one of the would-be-terrorists (dressed as colourful children’s characters) detonates early, and after mistakenly shooting an innocent costumed runner, has a heated debate with his colleague about the difference between bears, the Honey Monster and Wookiees.
BUNNY AND THE BULL (UK, 2009)
Despite being written and directed by Paul King, the man who kept the zany cult TV comedy THE MIGHTY BOOSH on track, BUNNY AND THE BULL is surprisingly downbeat. It has a very Boosh-esque surreal visual style, and memorable cameos from Julian Barratt and Noel Fielding, but this comedy goes to much darker places than the TV show that preceded it. Essentially. it’s an elaborate road trip, told in flashback as the severely depressed, shut-in Stephen (Edward Hogg) tries to overcome his grief at a tragedy that befell him the year before.
Darkest Comedy Moment: Barratt’s cameo has him playing a crazed Polish drifter who’s into bestiality and drinking milk from his numerous dog companions. Seeing Barratt, with a daschund pressed to his face and milk pouring down his beard is a vile, but side-splitting sight to behold.
Keep an eye out for part 2 of Fifteen Shades of Black – there’s still plenty of slightly uncomfortable British and Irish comedy to come! SSP