• a film, play, or other work that deals with tragic or distressing subject matter in a humorous way.
"a cynical black comedy with political overtones"
• a type of comedy in which tragic or distressing subject matter is dealt with in a humorous way.
"the plot steers into black comedy"
One of the best examples of black comedy is the wonderfully dark Ealing Studios classic Kind Hearts & Coronets. Dennis Price plays Louis, an impoverished and distant relation of the Duke of Chalfont who decides to kill off every member of the D'Ascoyne family (all played by Alec Guinness) who stand between him and his inheritance - the title of Duke of D'Ascoyne and big country pile.
Kind Hearts & Coronets is 70 years old this year and back in cinemas now with a sparkling new 4K restoration. A brand new Collectors' Edition on DVD and Blu-ray set is also available to buy. For this re-release of the most elegant serial killer film in history, we take a look at some of the best murderous black comedies that have left us 'dying laughing'....
1. Dr. Strangelove (1964)/Catch-22 (1970)
"Gentleman! You can't fight in here! This is the War Room!"
Cold war satire Dr Strangelove directed, produced and co-written by Stanley Kubrick, imagines the Soviet Union and the United States on the brink of nuclear war. When an insane general (Sterling Hayden) triggers a first strike nuclear attack on the Soviet Union, a War Room full of politicians and generals frantically try to recall the bombers to avert a nuclear apocalypse. Peter Sellers famously played three of the main characters: Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, President Merkin Muffley and the wonderfully unhinged 'Dr. Strangelove'.
Another scathing war satire is Catch-22, which follows the exploits of Capt. John Yossarian (Alan Arkin), a pilot stationed in the Mediterranean who flies bombing missions during World War II. Attempting to cope with the madness of armed conflict, Yossarian struggles to find a way out of his wartime reality. Surrounded by eccentric military officers, such as the opportunistic 1st Lt. Milo Minderbinder (Jon Voight), Yossarian must resort to extreme measures to escape his dire and increasingly absurd situation.
2. The Ladykillers (1955)
Mrs. Wilberforce (Katie Johnson) has a habit of bothering the police with fanciful reports of nefarious goings-on in the neighbourhood, but soon a group of hardened criminals (including Guinness, Herbert Lom and Sellers) pass themselves off as musicians and rent rooms in her house in order to plan and execute a sophisticated heist at the nearby station. When the thieves slip up in front of the old woman as they try to escape, they agree that they need to murder her. No one wants to do it and the bumbling crooks wind up double-crossing each other and slowly killing themselves off instead.
3. The Death Of Stalin (2017)/Four Lions (2010)
With The Thick Of It Armando Iannucci showed that the depressing ineptitude of our government departments was a rich treasure trove of hilarity. He upped the ante for his feature film The Death Of Stalin, set during one of the tensest periods in European history.
When tyrannical dictator Joseph Stalin dies in 1953, his parasitic cronies square off in a frantic power struggle to become the next Soviet leader. Among the contenders are the dweebish Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), the wily Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) and Lavrenti Beria (Simon Russell Beale) - the sadistic secret police chief. As the government of the country disintegrates, they bumble, brawl and back-stab their way to the top job.
Iannucci's comedy contemporary Chris Morris focused his attention on a group of bumbling and incompetent suicide bombers living in Sheffield in Four Lions. A group of young Muslim men decide to wage Jihad - Omar (Riz Ahmed) and Waj (Kayvan Novak) have a brief, disastrous run at a Pakistani training camp, while Faisal (Adeel Akhtar) works on an unlikely scheme to train birds to carry bombs. Their ill-conceived plan culminates with an attempt to disrupt the London Marathon.
4. In Bruges (2008)
Writer/director Martin McDonagh brings laughs to the darkest of situations and with In Bruges he focused his attention on Irish professional hit men Ray (Colin Farrell) and Ken (Brendan Gleeson). After a particularly difficult job they head to Belgium to hide out until things cool down. Ray hates the medieval city they land in, but Ken finds its beauty and peacefulness enchanting. Their experiences become increasingly surreal and possibly life changing as they encounter tourists, locals, an American dwarf and a potential romance for Ray.
5. Fargo (2003)
Set in 1987. Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) is a car salesman in Minneapolis who has got himself into debt and is so desperate for money that he hires two thugs (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) to kidnap his own wife. Jerry will collect the ransom from her wealthy father (Harve Presnell), paying the thugs a small portion and keeping the rest to satisfy his debts. The scheme collapses when the thugs shoot a state trooper and police chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) is brought in to investigate