It would be fair to say that British comedy team Monty Python – Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michel Palin – are not usually associated with horror. While their brand of often surreal humour would go on to influence generations of comedians, they rarely strayed outside the comic. At least not entirely. But there is a streak of horror than runs through their work, especially their movies. Their use of wild excess and gleeful offensiveness would later inform films such as Peter Jackson’s Bad Taste, keeping the connection going.
In the original Monty Python’s Flying Circus TV series (and the subsequent sketch film And Now for Something Completely Different), the Pythons took aim at all sorts of societal stereotypes and taboos. While sometimes rather dark in nature, it rarely crossed over into horror, though some sketches had those elements – the milkman seduced by lingerie-clad Carol Cleveland, only to find himself locked in a room full of other aging or dead milkmen is a funny punchline but also a rather black slice of humor, while the man taking his dead (but still young) mother to a funeral parlor, only for her to be classified as ‘an eater’ played on taboos about cannibalism as effectively and ghoulishly as any genre film.
Similarly, the Architect Sketch starts innocently enough but it isn’t long before John Cleese’s architect character begins to describe the “rotating knives”, “heavily soundproofed” corridors and how “the blood pours down these chutes”, as he reveals that he normally designs slaughterhouses rather than residential blocks of flats. It’s a shockingly dark comic moment and although nothing is seen, viewers imaginations are easily fed the gory images of slaughtered tenants.
Elsewhere, there were simple monster movie spoofs of horror genre stereotypes, such as Carol Cleveland being chased in the desert by a grinning piano monster, with strategically placed giant cacti that cause her clothes to be ripped off.
What’s more, Terry Gilliam’s animated linking sequences often played with horror movie themes and imagery, such as decapitations. In fact, Gilliam provided the opening credits for two AIP horror movies, Cry of the Banshee and Scream and Scream Again (though the latter was nixed by Jim Nicholson.
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However, it was the team’s first first ‘proper’ film that saw them heading deep into horror territory. 1974’s Monty Python and the Holy Grail is a sketch-based retelling of the Arthurian myth, done in a very dark, atmospheric manner. The humour remains archetypal Python – needlessly argumentative characters, the pricking of pomposity – but the atmosphere and look of the film often comes close to the British folk horror of the era – The Wicker Man, Witchfinder General, The Blood on Satan’s Claw and so on.
As King Arthur and his knights travel across Britain in search of the elusive holy grail, they encounter many characters straight out of a horror movie. There’s the witch trial, the plague victims, the Black Knight (who has his limbs chopped off in spectacularly gory style), the Knights Who Say ‘Ni’, the Killer Rabbit of Caerbannog and the Bridge Keeper at The Bridge of Death – as sinister a character and creepy location as any you’ll see.
While Holy Grail is essentially a spoof of medieval dramas, the look of the film – authentically grim and filthy – certainly owes much more the genre films than the costume dramas of yesteryear – coming at the end of the gothic era, the film certainly seems informed by Hammer films and the Universal horrors that preceded them.
While their next film, Monty Python’s Life of Brian, was a spoof of both biblical epics and religious fanaticism, and featured no real horror elements (though an animated aliens science fiction moment was crowbarred into the story), the final Python movie, The Meaning of Life, was awash with horror references and imagery. The team’s most extreme film, it was viewed as something of a disappointment in 1983, given that it was a return to sketch-based humour, but it’s stood the test of time extremely well.
The film might be called ‘The Meaning of Life’ but it’s very much about death. We see a hapless man bloodily carved open by doctors who want his liver, whether he is dead or not; a man who has lost a leg to a tiger; a surreal and disturbing ‘middle of the film’ slot; and a man who is chased to death by topless women.
Then, there is Mr Creosote, one of cinema’s most disgusting creations – an obese figure who vomits his way through a gargantuan meal before being made to explode after one final ‘waffer thin mint’. This is splatter cinema par excellence, as grotesque and gory as any video nasty of the era. The sketch is directly followed by a beautifully shot and very atmospheric scene where Death visits a dinner party held by the world’s most self-important people. Funny as the skit is, there’s no denying either the creepiness of the early moments of the effectiveness of the Death character.
None of this is accidental. You can only create such potent images – scenes that both reflect the style of the genre while spoofing it – if you have a love and understanding of horror. We’ve all seen enough awful horror comedy to know that.
Outside Python, animator Terry Gilliam has remained closest to the dark fantasy humour shown in these films. His 1977 solo debut Jabberwocky is an unofficial follow-up to Holy Grail, again playing on medieval themes and again mixing horror into the humour. The title character is a rather low rent puppet that would look laughably bad in a straight horror movie. But the fact that this is a comedy film ironically makes the creature more effective – mixed with Gilliam’s impressive camera movement and editing, the attacks by the beastie are frenetic, straight-faced and bloody – something viewers almost certainly didn’t expect.
Gilliam would explore dark fantasy with hints of horror again in Time Bandits, but it is Brazil, his dystopian masterpiece, that shows what he is capable of. The humour here is more restrained, as Gilliam reinvents George Orwell’s ‘1984’ for a new generation, mixing futuristic totalitarianism with a real sense of menace – Michael Palin’s smiling, jobsworth state torturer remains one of the most unexpectedly frightening figure in cinema history, if only because Palin always seems such a decent bloke.
It was Palin’s Ripping Yarns that saw the other post-Python dip into horror. This series of boy’s own adventure spoof shows included The Curse of the Claw, a tale of… well, a curse involving a claw. Mixing elements of Sax Rohmer and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, this was a cheerfully absurdist tale of mystery and infectious disease that once again showed a real love for the material being spoofed.
While Python and its individual members never went all the way into horror (or comedy horror) except for John Cleese who had a straight role in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the genre nevertheless plays a major and influential role in their work. If you’ve never looked at Holy Grail or The Meaning of Life through they eyes of a horror fan, then take another look – you might just see them in a whole new light…
David Flint, moviesandmania.com, with additions by Adrian J Smith
NB. In David Konow’s Reel Terror: The Scary, Bloody, Gory, Hundred-Year History of Classic Horror Films book he cites Peter Jackson’s approach to horror as being inspired directly by Monty Python:
“Jackson loved the scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail where the knight is dismembered piece by piece, as well as Monty Python’s Sam Peckinpah sketch, which turned into a bloodbath.”
Furthermore, Jackson is quoted as saying: “That sketch did more to steer my sense of humour towards over-the-top bloodletting than any horror film did. My splatter movies owe as much to Monty Python as they do to any other genre.”
Related: Young Frankenstein