Neil LaBute's remake of Death at a Funeral opens this week, and it got me thinking as to how much mirth has been generated over the years by the demise of some poor onscreen sucker. Think of the advantages these corpses have. They make the perfect straight man and they never flub a punchline. And, if handled correctly, a dead body can flop out of a coffin or roll down a hill with comic aplomb. Hence, here are seven comedies centered around dead bodies:
1. The Trouble with Harry (1955, Alfred Hitchcock)
This is actually my favorite Hitchcock film; it's one of only two flat-out comedies the Master made, and the other one (Mr. and Mrs. Smith) is more like a standard screwball. This one is rich with the kind of sinister black humor that the director included in his coming attractions trailers and TV shows. It also has a truly gorgeous Technicolor autumn countryside setting, with a button-cute Shirley MacLaine in her film debut (as well as young Jerry Mathers, who would go on to play the title role in TV's "Leave It to Beaver.") The title character is the dead guy, and the trouble he causes is that no one is exactly sure how he died and who might have contributed. Just imagine seeing this in a cinema in the 1950s...
2. Weekend at Bernie's (1989, Ted Kotcheff)
You just can't say the title of this in mixed company without a shy grin, but you may be surprised to find how many others share your guilty pleasure in this stupid comedy. Andrew McCarthy and Jonathan Silverman have to pretend poor Bernie is alive for an entire weekend to prevent being killed by gangsters. What this movie does have going for it is that Terry Kiser may actually give the all time best performance as a corpse.
3. National Lampoon's Vacation (1983, Harold Ramis)
"She can't weigh more than 100 pounds," muses Clark W. Griswold (Chevy Chase), trying to figure out how to deal with a minor setback -- the death of Aunt Edna -- during his family's road weary pilgrimage to Wallyworld. I won't give it away, but the sheer cruelty of it, accompanied by the family's incredulous reactions, is nothing less than hysterical.
4. Little Miss Sunshine (2006, Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris)
Just in case you didn't catch this gigantic word-of-mouth hit and Oscar winner, I won't say who dies in it, but the decision of what to do with the body seems like a direct homage to Vacation. Although, the family in this movie (including Abigail Breslin, Greg Kinnear, Paul Dano, Alan Arkin, Toni Collette and Steve Carell) is certainly a good deal nuttier and more dysfunctional.
5. The Butcher Boy (1997, Neil Jordan)
Neil Jordan's adaptation of Patrick McCabe's novel is absolutely one of the most twisted black comedies ever made, with a terrifying, knockout performance by Eamonn Owens as young "Francie Brady." Poor Francie isn't quite right in the head, and his behavior just keeps getting crazier and crazier. He reaches his peak when his dad (Stephen Rea) dies in the living room chair and Francie keeps him there, tending to him and swatting away the ever-increasing swarm of flies...
6. Waking Ned Devine (1998, Kirk Jones)
This is one of those sweet, crowd-pleasers along the lines of The Full Monty that actually works. It takes place in the Scottish village of Tully More, population 52. Word quickly spreads that one of the villagers wins the lottery. When our heroes discover the identity of winner, Ned Devine, he's sitting in a chair, dead as a stone, with a smile locked on his face, clutching the ticket. The problem is that the winner needs to collect the cash in person...
7. Death at a Funeral (2007, Frank Oz)
Frank Oz's original film features a talented British cast, and -- for my money -- could have been a bit drier and deadpan to balance out the huge, slapstick-influenced jokes. Among the ensemble that gathers at a funeral, we have an old man struggling with a bowel movement, a man who mistakenly takes hallucinogenic drugs, and another character who -- surprise! -- turns out to be gay. But regardless, people seemed to like it enough to warrant the new remake.
Runners Up: Arnold (1973), Clue (1985), Don't Tell Mom the Babysitter's Dead (1991), Ed and His Dead Mother (1993), 8 Heads in a Duffel Bag (1997), Enid Is Sleeping (1990), Eulogy (2004), The Gazebo (1959), Grand Theft Parsons (2003), S.O.B. (1981), Sin City (2005)