George S. Kaufman once defined satire as that which "closes on Saturday night." Then what could one say of satire's sub-category, black humor? It almost never opens, so it can't even last till Saturday to close.
But now and then -- this is a now, with "The Stepford Wives" -- some foolhardy individual tests the public mettle and his investors' patience with a work of scabrous indifference to taste, fair play, logic and general pleasantness. The genre has produced a few legit hits (but not many) and one bona fide masterpiece, that being "Dr. Strangelove" ("Gentleman, you can't fight in here; this is the War Room!"). But everyone knows about that one. Let's look at some of the more forgotten classics in a small genre, which takes as its philosophical premise the notion that everything is so hopelessly screwed up, man is so revoltingly dark and bitter and violent, institutions so corrupt and indifferent that the only appropriate response is a hearty belly laugh.
My vote for the best of the non-"Strangelove" black comedies would go to Tony Richardson's virulent "The Loved One" (1965), based on a novel by the virulent Evelyn Waugh, with a screenplay by Terry Southern. The movie is about the funeral industry, but Richardson, with Southern's licks thrown in, turned it into a wonderfully ugly assault on all of Southern California, a vulgar, wretched, saccharine parody of all things American. Any movie with Liberace as a coffin salesman and Rod Steiger as a mom-fixated embalmer is okay by me, but this one just got darker and darker and darker, ending in the hero's love interest happily committing suicide! It's very hard to find on video.
Less fierce but still funny is the best movie Carl Reiner ever made, the deliriously bitter "Where's Poppa?" (1970), in which a frustrated son (George Segal) tries to murder his mom (Ruth Gordon) to free himself up to marry the girl of his dreams. It has some of the most creative blasphemy in movies, as in the scene where the increasingly desperate Segal utters, "Mom, if you screw this up for me, I'll rip your [expletive] heart out!"
Later variants of the genre are less fierce still but offer some vivid guilty laughs. There's Danny DeVito's "Throw Momma From the Train" (1987), which takes the rage Segal felt in "Where's Poppa?" and inserts it into a riff on Hitchcock's "Strangers on a Train," in which wannabe bad boys DeVito and Billy Crystal conspire to kill each other's mother and wife, respectively. In 1988, Frank Oz (also director of "The Stepford Wives") checked in with the deliciously unpleasant "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels," wherein con men Steve Martin and Michael Caine conspire to separate lonely women from their fortunes in Europe but keep stumbling over each other until they meet the perfect mark in Glenne Headly. Well, you can probably guess where it's going, but it has such fun going there!