When ghosts attack, most horror films resort to exorcism to keep the spirits away. The same happens in Santhanam’s latest DD Returns, albeit with a hilarious twist. When a supernatural being tries to snatch away a bag of money and kill the protagonist, he quickly takes his smartphone and plays a spiritual song on YouTube to scare the ghost away. The laughs only get better when the villain grabs the phone to protect himself, and the song breaks for an ad (he should’ve opted for a premium account, I suppose). And there is no skip option either!
Such ridiculous ideas called “mokka jokes” in Tamil pop culture, are replete in Kollywood’s horror comedies. These kinds of jests are silly, lack logic (most of the time) and are always out of the box. Add to this absurdity, some ghosts (mostly foolish ones), jump scares, emotional backstories and a revenge plan, and you’re in for an uproarious ride.
For a lot of us, who are scared of ghosts but enjoy the genre, this subversion offers relief.
While horror comedies in Tamil cinema picked up only in the last decade, the horror films that set a benchmark go way back in time with films such as Keyaar's Mayabazaar (1995) and Rajinikanth’s Chandramukhi (2005), elements of which still haunt horror films of the present. With the success of Santhanam’s DD Returns and expectations mounting upon Chandramukhi 2, which will star Raghava Lawrence and Kangana Ranaut, here is a ranking of the top 10 Tamil horror comedies of the past 15 years, ranked in descending order.
From the hit duo — director Santhosh P Jayakumar and Gautham Karthik — who made Hara Hara Mahadevaki (2017), IAMK is about four men getting stuck with a ghost that wants to have sex with a virgin. Adding to this quirky premise, the spookiness is introduced well within the first half an hour. Even if this early introduction stops us from investing in the lead couple’s love story, it doesn’t matter because the film doesn’t take itself too seriously.
However, once the men and their girlfriends decide to get rid of the spirit, the jokes run out. Without much innovation, there is only so much you can do with predictable, misogynistic tropes. Besides the double-entendre jokes, the most fun you have is when the men force the ghost to do some magic tricks such as making their sofa fly in the air to get a viral video out of the deal.
By the time the film was released in 2017, we had already seen Raghava Lawrence play the scared protagonist in films such as Muni (2007), Kanchana (2011) and Kanchana 2 (2015). That is also why, for many, Shivalinga might not serve to be the best horror comedy experience. But for many others, watching Lawrence in his comfort space guarantees a fun time.
Even though Lawrence’s antics become quite repetitive as the story progresses, it’s not a reason to dismiss the film. It follows a CBI officer investigating a murder, bringing in a lot of freshness to this commercial entertainer. Like every film of his, there is a nice sentimental touch, loads of fun to be had with Vadivelu’s comic timing and some fine scary moments.
Like all horror comedies, predictability and a haunted house are the main features of Sangili Bungili Kadhava Thorae. But buy into its absurdity, and the film has plenty of fun to offer. While there might not be a lot at stake in horror comedies, there is always some kind of sentiment that ties the plot together. Sometimes it is the past of the ghosts or the struggles of the protagonists. This emotional connection is what ends up making a horror comedy tick.
When Vasu (Jiiva) is determined to stay back in the house he bought, there is a strong reason that makes you side with him (after years of living in rented houses, this house is the first such house he buys for his mother). Jiiva plays a cunning prankster cum real-estate agent and teams up with Soori; and when they’re both together in a scene, the laughs unroll. When someone else claims that they’re the owner of the house, Jiva and Soori hatch a horror plan to scare them away. And a comedy of errors ensues as the ghosts — real and made up — inhabit the house. It is during the unveiling of the ghost's backstory and Vasu’s struggle to reclaim the house that the film begins to fall apart.
Have you ever watched the soap opera “Bhairavi Aavigalukku Priyamanaval” on SunTV? Bairavi has the ability to see ghosts and helps them solve their problems. These ghosts are often not scary, but are helpless sad spirits, longing to fulfil their unsatisfied wishes. Suriya’s Massu Engira Masilamani is one such film where the protagonist gains the special power to see ghosts after a near-death experience. And the fun lies in his interactions with these ghosts and how he uses them to become a fake exorcist. You can sense the cleverness of director Venkat Prabhu in bits and pieces like the scene where Mass’ friend Jettu (Premji), who travels with him throughout, is revealed to be a ghost himself. Or the cute flashback you get of another Suriya; that you wish had been a whole different film. Bhairavi ran for about 5 years with the lead helping one ghost in each episode. But here, there are just too many ghosts to keep track of within just a 2-and-a-half-hour film.
When an aspiring actress Ruby gets rejected, she dies by suicide but soon realises that her wishes remain unfulfilled. When Krishna (Prabhu Deva) and Devi (Tamannaah) move into a new house, the horror begins to unfold. But unlike haunted house films, this happens in an eerie yet normal-looking house. The film takes a lot of time to get there, leisurely establishing Krishna’s character and his unhappy marriage with Devi. But it is refreshing as a horror comedy because it is bereft of hackneyed elements associated with the genre such as jump scares or double-meaning jokes. The film makes up for its lull once we are in the spooky zone; and a contract between the ghost and Prabhu Deva is struck.
This rib-tickling film that follows the lives of three people visiting a beach house to die by suicide, only to get threatened by the ghosts, makes for a wonderful entertainer. At the centre of this film are two heartrending stories. While the protagonist is trying to end his life after a breakup, the ghost too has a bitter past revolving around sexual abuse. It is one of the first movies to focus more on comedy and tone down the horror element. Likewise, Ghost Gopal Varma, an exorcist, is probably the first of many comical roles that Rajendran would go on to play. Darling also has soulful songs rendered by GV Prakash.
Sundar C’s Aranmanai is one of the most popular franchises (spawning three films) in the genre. The director has a huge cast roped in to make sure that we laugh one way or another.
So, in the Aranmanai series of films, we have a large extended family, an ancestral palace, a ghost out for revenge, a comedy troupe (Santhanam, Manobala, Kovai Sarala, Raai Laxmi are hilarious in the first part) and one deeply moving flashback and a repeat of the same scheme of elements. The first part felt like a good family entertainer that ticks all boxes of a commercial film. Hansika Motwani was especially wonderful in her role of Selvi, the innocent girl who gets murdered. But what this film’s success led to was tired, rehashed formats of the same formula.
What makes the Dhilluku Dhuddu film series (2019, 2021, 2023) quite different from the many other horror comedies and their sequels — Kanchana, Aranmanai, Darling, Devi, IAMK — is its fresh treatment in a franchise. Even the second part, the least interesting film in the series, tries to be different from its original. The ideas in the third part further stand out from the world of DD because it comes from a new voice, director S Prem Anand. The first two parts were directed by Rambhala. Therefore, this change not only brought back the franchise’s fandom but also gave Tamil cinema a better horror comedy outing in recent times.
Santhanam brings in his years of experience as a comedian, adding a layer of hilarity to his heroism. Like the scene in the first part where a group of people masquerade as ghosts to scare him, he unknowingly outwits them, playing to both his funny and heroic sides. In fact, the DD franchise is arguably the only horror comedy series that still gets you excited about a sequel, years after its first part was released.
The Kanchana film series (2011, 2015, 2019) is the kind of family entertainer that you watch on a light day and walk out feeling even lighter. While Tamil cinema has produced at least around 25-30 horror comedies in the past decade, this film series remains among the very few to get the spooky elements right without compromising on comedy and vice versa.
And like most series, the first part is better than the last two films. Take, for instance, the three ghosts in the first part. The iconic dinner scene, which reveals the possession of Lawrence, is still referred to as one of the best moments in Tamil horror comedies. It is also one of those rare films where the laughs and scares are organic.
But over the years, horror comedies increasingly began objectifying female leads and Kanchana has been no exception. As Lawrence churned out one sequel after another, the gags became repetitive, skin shows became a more prominent feature, and the freshness disappeared.
The fact that one of the first significant films to probably kickstart this major genre trend in Tamil cinema still remains the best of the bunch says a lot about the genre in Tamil films. One of the few films to strike a fine balance between horror and comedy, Yaamirukka Bayamey, till date, has the best rewatch quality. When Kiran (Kreshna) buys a house and renovates it into a hotel, he dreams of many things but not even in his worst nightmare did he imagine that all of his customers would die one after the other in mysterious ways.
Deekay carefully constructs the screenplay, making sure that the laughs and the scares keep on coming. Every time the characters think they are smart and take action, the next minute they’re proven wrong; like how they bury all dead bodies and live in fear every day, only to later realise that there were no dead bodies to begin with. It is this suspense that runs a chill down your spine and when the twists reveal, you have a series of laugh-out-loud moments.