Posted by Richard Harland Smith on October 19, 2012
Being a Halloween nut and a horror movie aficionado, you’ve got to know, gentle reader, that I get a particular thrill (thrill No. 13, in fact) when a scene crops up in a fright film that is actually set on All Hallows Eve. But I warn you now, I am picky. You can’t just drop a tea light into a plastic Jack-o-lantern and think I’ll be your best friend, oh no, no, no. Nor can you throw your art director and his fancy budget in my face and think I’m going to dissolve into a puddle of childlike wonder because you’ve larded the frame with 109 intricately carved pumpkins and 24 vintage cymbal playing clockwork monkeys. Oh, no, no, no. As the Wicked Witch of the West put it so aptly in THE WIZARD OF OZ, “these things have got to be handled delicately.”
The frames I’ve offered thus far come from a little gem called THE WOMAN WHO CAME BACK (1945), from Republic. Made pretty much after Universal Studios has shot its wad with its impressive catalog of classic monsters and Val Lewton was wrapping up his own alternative brand of subtle, psychologically-based spookers at RKO, Republic put the gas under this odd little chiller, set in the fictional town of Eben Rock, Massachusetts. Nancy Kelly plays a daughter of the town, formerly the seat of much (historically inaccurate) witch burning and a magnet for local superstition. Shot on the backlot and with charming use of miniatures, the film is a flinty little B-picture with a wealth of autumnal atmosphere. Set during the Halloween season, the frame often includes witchy brick-a-brack and some unusual Halloween costumes, sported by the local urchins — mainly these papier mache heads, which are first seen in the film in the setup at top, through the proscenium of a fireplace. It’s a wonderfully disorienting establishing shot and one not entirely undone by the reveal — these kids are still creepy as all Hell.
Not a genre film at all but Vincent Minnelli’s MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS (1944), from a year earlier, has a wonderfully evocative depiction of Halloween that shows how the holiday has evolved over the years. Shot nearly 70 years ago (and set decades earlier), this classic film shows us an All Hallows that’s less about treats and all about the tricks… including building bonfires (a custom ported over from Ireland and Scotland) and tormenting deserving neighbors. I love the moment preserved at the right, with Judy Garland ministering to a freaked out Margaret O’Brien, who believes she has killed an old man with her hijinks. I love the Jack-o-lantern in the background, blowing warmly but with a hint of menace. The colors are so warm and the mood so palpable that I want to cry. It reminds me of vintage images of Halloween that you can find all over the Internet, where costumes were culled not from movies or popular culture but from folklore and history. O’Brien and Joan Carroll (center) are dressed as goblins, by the way, not hobos. I just feel it’s important to mention that.
Max Nosseck’s DILLINGER (1945) shows us that even Depression era public enemies enjoyed Halloween, proved by this scene (which opens on a tight shot of the punkin) in which Lawrence Tierney’s cohorts Eduardo Ciannelli and Marc Lawrence chill in the aftermath of a big bank heist by carving a Jack-o-lantern. It lasts for about a minute of screen time but, boy, what a great choice.
You want to know a great Halloween scene that no one ever talks about? The one in Robert Stevenson’s MY FORBIDDEN PAST (1951), from RKO. It’s a love story set in New Orleans at the turn of the century, it’s Robert Mitchum in love with Ava Gardner, it’s Melvyn Douglas plotting from the sidelines, and a lot of mischegoss I really don’t care about, like ballroom dancing and punch in crystal cups and women in goofy hats and Mitchum in a celluloid collar and there’s a trial and bleh… but early on there’s a wonderful, eerie, and evocatively nostalgic Halloween scene set in a cemetery proud in mausoleums and Cypress trees, where the residents go to honor their dead and see things they should not. It’s gloriously multi-cultural, with blacks and whites mingling freely (only on Halloween!) and kicked off by this froggy vocal by a street singer about Halloween that I’ve never heard and I wish I had a recording of it, I wish it was my freaking ringtone. MY FORBIDDEN PAST isn’t available on a legitimate DVD but TCM runs it quite often, so keep your eyes open and give yourself a treat, and after the scene is over turn the damn thing off.
“This night my mind was filled with Halloween.” Halloween takes up a very small part of the story of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (1962) and not many people remember that it actually concludes on All Hallows Eve. The scene in question is largely a disturbing one, as the children of Southern lawyer Gregory Peck are assaulted on their walk home from a school agricultural pageant by an unknown assailant. The attack on a brother and sister anticipates to some extent the cemetery scene from George Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) toward the end of the decade, though of course the siblings in that movie are adults; throughout TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, the character of Boo Radley, presumed madman, is evoked as a baleful spirit as both the scourge and shame of the community — much in the same way Michael Myers would be in John Carpenter’s 1978 seasonal classic, HALLOWEEN (both Arthur “Boo” Radley and Michael Myers call spooky old houses home) — all of which makes TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD something of an unsung seminal text for contemporary horror films. But scary stuff aside, I love the film’s fleeting evocation of a balmy autumn night, most of it shemped on a studio soundstage, which just adds to the air of make-believe, as Jem (Phillip Alford) and Scout (Mary Badham), still wearing her ham costume, wend their way home through the woods. The depiction of the love and fragile codependence of a brother and sister moves me. Though I have no clear memories of trick-or-treating with my own sisters, I see the relationship now between my daughter and son, who have already begun to store away their own Halloween memories.
And speaking of HALLOWEEN... Go back and read a lot of reviews from 30 years ago and you’ll note how this film was fobbed off as drive-in fodder, crass, artless, the beginning of the end… but how stately and adult it seems now, particularly in the way that Carpenter and his crew evoke Halloween in Middle America. Mind you, a lot of the spareness that seems an artistic statement in retrospect was then just a consequence of a very low budget but the fact that every inch of HALLOWEEN isn’t dripping with art direction certainly works in its favor. Like the perambulating predator who motivates its plot, you sense the season more than you have it laid out for you… it’s just there in the leaves, in the shadows, in the air. I enjoy the non-horrific moments of HALLOWEEN just as much as — and maybe even a little more than — the defining setpieces. I could watch the first couple of reels and then walk away satisfied, because Carpenter made a movie for adults (albeit young adults) that never forgets the childlike sense of anticipation and expectation that is bundled up in Halloween.
At the risk of losing credibility with my fellow MonsterKids — the cool ones, anyway — I confess that I love the trick-or-treating scene from E.T. – THE EXTRATERRESTRIAL (1982). It’s one of the few movies brokering in Halloweenana that admits that a lot of the door-to-dooring happens before dark, at that magic hour when the light has begun to die out of the sky but there is still plenty of it, for the little ones. Shot in Simi Valley, the scene has a burnished, preserved in amber quality that touches my heart, and its fun to see that — though the Lucas-Spielberg axis has a presence in the costume choices of the local kids — there are still plenty of sailors, clowns, nurses, bumblebees and cowboys out for candy. And only one zombie! How cool is that, in this boom time for the walking dead, to see just one shambler out on the streets? Ye gods, this is 30 years old!
The same year that E.T. came out, we were treated to Tommy Lee Wallace’s HALLOWEEN III: SEASON OF THE WITCH (1982). What a daffy-ass movie and a real departure from the storyline put forward by John Carpenter’s original and needlessly complicated by HALLOWEEN II (1981). Rick Rosenthal’s first sequel was set on Halloween night as well but there’s nothing there for me. It’s all just rote, it lacks personality. Not so for HALLOWEEN III, which goes off on its own tangent, based on a concept by Nigel Kneale. Not for all tastes, certainly, but the film does boast an iconic Halloween image that has enjoyed its own life, on tee shirts and other collectibles. What had been shot, I imagine, as nothing more than a second unit angle on trick-or-treaters skylined against the dying glow of the Arizona sun is just encoded with Halloween wonder. And it’s so simple.
I could point you to other Halloween scenes, there are plenty of them: in THE KARATA KID (1984), SPACED INVADERS (1990), HOCUS POCUS (1993), BIG DADDY (1999), TWIN FALLS, IDAHO (1999), DONNIE DARKO (2001), IN AMERICA (2002), MEAN GIRLS (2004), A CINDERELLA STORY (2004) and others. There was even a whole movie about trick or treating, called TRICK ‘R’ TREAT (2007) that many of my friends enjoy but I find oddly lacking. Made by a major studio for a not inconsiderable $12,000,000, the thing is art directed to a turn but there’s no scare there for me. It’s all just set dressing and attitude, there’s no pulse. You never get a true breath of life in this twice-baked diorama trying to pass itself off as an evocation of the season… no real sense for the way the sky looks (such as you see in all of the movies discussed above and achieved in eight fleeting seconds of HALLOWEEN III) or the air smells. It’s just arch and mean and cynical and I hate it. Far more to my taste is…
… Gil Kenan’s MONSTER HOUSE (2006), which netted an Academy Award nomination for Best Animated Feature. And I know, it’s crazy, that I’m saying a movie that is 100% animated (albeit based on performance capture, with all of the actors having really acted their parts) has more real life in it than a standard motion picture like TRICK ‘R’ TREAT but it’s true. MONSTER HOUSE is just brimming with wonder and awe and curiosity and dread and the colors are perfect for bringing home that feeling of a small town Halloween. The kids here are the grandkids of the ones in THE WOMAN WHO CAME BACK and the great grandchildren of the ones in MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS and it’s just great having this Halloween family tree to reflect upon at this time of year. MONSTER HOUSE is funny and scary and poignant and I think it has it all over the more recent PARANORMAN (2012), which was not without its charms but was also not MONSTER HOUSE. Watching MONSTER HOUSE the other night with my 5 year old son was a great way to gear up for Halloween. Not that I ever stop, mind you. You know me. I never stop. But still. There are only 12 days left until Halloween. What are you watching?
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