Posted by Richard Harland Smith on October 26, 2012
Halloween is fast approaching … where did October go? Well, no time for rhetorical questions, it’s time to get our spook on. With that in mind, I have scrambled the HorrorDads and tasked each to provide us with his idea of an ultimate Halloween triple bill. To impose a sense of order on what might have turned into a maelstrom of free association, I further asked that the three features follow these stipulations:
And now, in strictly alphabetical order…
1. MONSTER HOUSE (2006)
Usually I would insist that either Dracula, Wolfman, or Frankenstein’s Monster – or better yet, all three – be a part of any kid’s Halloween night but MONSTER HOUSE is good enough to overcome the absence of the classic monsters. It’s a twist on traditional haunted house tales in which rather than a house simply being home to a restless specter, here the ghost is so infused with the house that it controls every fiber of the property – even down to the grass on the lawn. And if the house itself isn’t scary enough, MONSTER HOUSE also sports the Creepy Old Guy to end all Creepy Old Guys in the form of the Monster House’s sole living resident, Mr. Nebbercracker (Steve Buscemi). This animated film was produced by Robert Zemeckis and Steven Spielberg but even though this employed the same motion capture technology that Zemeckis used for his earlier THE POLAR EXPRESS (2004), MONSTER HOUSE director Gil Kenan somehow avoids all the creepy coldness for which THE POLAR EXPRESS (and Zemeckis’ subsequent animated films – BEOWULF  and A CHRISTMAS CAROL ) were criticized. The characters all have a warm quality to them – especially the trio of kids at the center of the movie. They’re genuinely endearing – particularly Chowder (Sam Lerner), the obligatory bumbling heavy set kid that no movie about kids can afford to be without. The kids in this movie are relatable in a way that kids in modern movies seldom are and the entire movie feels as crisp and golden as autumn.
2. DARK NIGHT OF THE SCARECROW (1981)
For the seasonal viewer, I’m going with the 1981 made-for-TV movie DARK NIGHT OF THE SCARECROW. People who only touch base with the genre every so often have probably never heard of this one but it’s still very much a classic – arguably the last of the great made-for-TV horror films. The story (by screenwriter J.D. Feigelson) about a makeshift mob that guns down a retarded man in cold blood and then finds itself stalked by the straw filled specter of the man they killed is simple and timeless, the direction (by Frank De Felitta) is lean and effective, and the cast (including Charles Durning, Lane Smith, and Larry Drake) is perfect from top to bottom. There have been many horror movies over the years in which the villain is the main character but they’re usually films like HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER (1986) or MANIAC (1980) in which the character is deranged rather than purely evil but off hand I can’t think of any other horror movie besides Scarecrow in which the audience is asked to spend the majority of the running time with a character as despicable as Durning’s bullying, murderous (and possibly pedophiliac) mailman, Otis P. Hazelrigg. Otis is responsible for killing the film’s most sympathetic character before what would’ve been the first commercial break and yet, thanks to Durning’s performance, we’re able to stick with him – although it helps that there’s never any doubt that he and his cronies are going get everything that’s coming to them. Supernatural vengeance is administered here as inevitably and as satisfyingly as in an EC Comic tale.
3. PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1987)
I’m giving this spot to John Carpenter’s PRINCE OF DARKNESS. I initially thought about going with something more cult or underground but in the end, PRINCE OF DARKNESS prevailed. It doesn’t enjoy the same esteemed reputation that HALLOWEEN (1978) or THE THING (1982) does but I think it’s worthy of greater appreciation than it’s received. Like many of Carpenter’s films, it follows a group of people isolated from the outside world as they combat a malevolent force that has them under siege. Here it’s a group of grad students out to study a large container of swirling green goo that’s been sitting in a church basement for ages. Come to find out, that green goo is Satan and he’s not content to keep spending eternity as lime Kool-Aid. His escape plan involves possessing the insect life around the church, the homeless population in the area, and the grad students themselves. Carpenter really piles on the horror, with plenty of garish, grotesque moments rendered to putrescent perfection by makeup artist Francisco X. Pérez (as Frank Carrisosa) and an uncredited Mark Shostrom. One possessed character’s entire body is moist with fresh, shimmering pus for a good chunk of the second half of the film and I have to say that fresh pus has rarely looked so hideously convincing on screen. Carpenter reunited with some of his regular players here, like Donald Pleasence, Victor Wong, Dennis Dun, Dirk Blocker, and Peter Jason, but probably the most important returning collaborator was composer Alan Howarth who worked on the majority of Carpenter’s films in the ‘80s and teamed with him again for PRINCE OF DARKNESS’ synth-based score and the result was one of their best works. Just for the music alone, this would earn a place on my Halloween marathon.
DENNIS COZZALIO (blogger, Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule)
1. THE HOLE (2010).
As a dedicated HorrorDad, a proud moment occurred this past weekend while I was looking at THE GORGON (1964). Emma, 12, came into the room, watched the movie for no more than 30 Cushing-free seconds and correctly identified it as a Hammer movie. When I asked how she knew, she just said, “It just looked like one.” Perhaps her most significant gateway horror experience was seeing Joe Dante’s THE HOLE two years ago, and it’s my Horror Dad general audience choice for Halloween. The movie is ready-made for kids her age, genuinely scary and geared to examine the nightmares of its intended audience as much as it exploits them. I mean this is the best way possible: it’s like a GOOSEBUMPS tale, only done up right, with some teeth. The story involves two young boys and their overworked mother who have made another in a series of apparently frequent moves, this time into an old house in a small town that the oldest boy finds unbearably dull. They eventually meet up with a girl from next door and the three kids, looking for something to do, end up discovering a locked passage in the boys’ basement which, when opened, reveals an apparently bottomless hole from which all manner of fearful things, seemingly directly related to each of the children’s most profound fears, begin to emerge. Dante has never lost touch with what made him respond to horror films when he was growing up, and the opportunity he takes here to channel it into something for a new generation of would-be fans is not wasted. THE HOLE is a reminder for adults of how much fun it can be for kids to work up a serious crop of goose pimples too, and kids who get to see it while their own interest in movie horror is just coming into its own will be lucky little monsters indeed. It’s just out on Blu-ray, and I’ve already got a block of time set off to watch it with the girls while they tear into their trick-or-treat haul.
2. FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED (1969).
3. DEAD OF NIGHT (1945).
1. ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948).
This is my choice for the simple reason that when Laura and I watched it with Elle, she loved it. Also, it introduces the classic Universal monsters to kids who may not have seen them and they’re three big ones: Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster and the wolf man. And two of the three, Dracula and the wolf man, are played by the original actors, Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney, Jr. The third, Franky’s monster, is played by Glenn Strange who became fairly well-known as the monster after Karloff so it’s almost three for three. Finally, and maybe most importantly, it’s a self-aware, ironic take on Universal horror years before that kind of thing became that kind of thing. I mean, slapstick and screwball were around, sure, but this was a parody of a known format and known characters, something that Mel Brooks, Jim Abraham and the Zucker brothers (David and Jerry) would become famous for decades later. It didn’t have the legs it has now with only a few purveyors of genre satire (like Bob Hope) really working the game. Longtime Abbott and Costello writers; Robert Lee, Frederic Rinaldo and John Grant; wrote the script and Bud and Lou did their usual top-flight work.
2. HORROR OF DRACULA (1958).
Just love this movie so much and it provides a good bridge between old school and new school. It’s classic horror (the Count himself) but in color with a little more blood. New horror fans will still find much to enjoy while fans of more classic horror won’t be put off by over the top blood and gore. And Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing are two of the greatest actors horror has ever known and this is their greatest onscreen pairing. Arguably, THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957) is a better film but Lee’s role in it is inconsequential in any sense of the two characters battling each other, whereas here they are one of the greatest protagonist/antagonist teams the screen has known.
3. ALTERED STATES (1980).
Let me explain. A kid will obviously be utterly baffled by such a film which would be a terrible choice for them (adults may be baffled, too, but might enjoy it more). A casual fan might see it as too much of a “what the hell?” movie that seems a bit too “un-horror” for their taste but a hardcore horror fan will appreciate the man-made monster context, the rooting in werewolf mythology. But because it’s directed by Ken Russell and written by Paddy Chayefsky, most horror fans might not actually see it, never thinking twice about it. It’s doesn’t really come up in horror discussions often which is a real shame. I think it’s excellent and a winning addition to the monster transformation genre and also a brilliant satire by Chayefsky who took his name off of it when he felt Russell’s crazy treatment robbed it of its baby boomer parody (Chayefsky had a bitter distaste for the baby boomers) in which Dr. Jessup (William Hurt), standing in for the baby boomers Chayefsky so disdained, keeps “looking for himself” and when he digs deep enough he finds a violent, crazed killer. Also, he can’t express love in any coherent way, something Chayefsky touched on in THE HOSPITAL (1970) and NETWORK (1976). Of course, Chayefsky was wrong that Russell robbed the film of its meaning. Instead of becoming a bitter tract against a younger generation, Russell transformed it into a phantasmagorical, quasi-religious horror film that stills presents Chayefsky’s notions while surrounding them with humanity.
PAUL GAITA (blogger, Armchair Commentary)
1. MAD MONSTER PARTY (1967).
I wonder how 21st century kids would react to the “Animagic” stop-motion process, which looks positively creaky when compared to the fluid CGI work in HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA (2012) and FRANKENWEENIE (2012). But that hasn’t stopped generations of kids from watching RUDOLPH THE RED-NOSED REINDEER (1964) and countless other holiday TV specials from Rankin/Bass, which also produced this feature-length effort. More importantly, the film is loaded with three essential ingredients to keep kids’ attention, the first and foremost of which is movie monsters – the entire Universal pantheon (all voiced by comedian Allen Swift), as well as an ersatz King Kong, are on display here, and if your kid’s world orbits around them in the same way mine did when I first saw MMP, he or she will undoubtedly be enraptured. It’s also silly as hell, courtesy a script co-written by Harvey Kurtzman and filled with Usual Gang of Idiots-style anarchic humor (his EC Comics/MAD cohort Jack Davis designed many of the characters). And like many Rankin/Bass efforts, it has a lot of charm and warmth, most of which is provided by Boris Karloff, who voices the grandfatherly Baron von Frankenstein and even gets to croon one of composer Maury Laws’ tunes. The picture also contains this boss gem courtesy of Little Tibia and the Fibias, which I guarantee will bore its way into your brainpan like a two-pound bag of bite-sized Snickers eating its way into your back molars:
2. WHISTLE AND i’LL COME TO YOU (1968)/A WARNING TO THE CURIOUS (1972).
I always fail miserably at recommending horror movies to casual, or in this case, seasonal viewers, mostly because I forget that when the vast majority of movie watchers think about a horror movie, it’s DRACULA (1931) or THE EXORCIST (1973) or THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991) that come to mind, and not BLOOD FREAK (1971) or MANEATER OF HYDRA (1967) or any other louche jive of which I am inordinately fond. So in the interest of selecting a title that offers both chills and a touch of class, I’m going to pick these two British made-for-TV efforts. Both are adaptations of stories by M.R. James and concern a pair of somewhat guileless if unfortunately oblivious amateur archaeologists (Michael Hordern in the former, Peter Vaughn in the latter) whose discovery of ancient artifacts buried in the East Anglian coast unleash vengeful supernatural entities. WHISTLE, which was filmed for the BBC arts series OMNIBUS, set the tone for WARNING which aired as part of the BBC’s annual GHOST STORY FOR CHRISTMAS, a series of eight adaptations of supernatural stories by James, Charles Dickens, Clive Exton and John Bowen between 1971 and 1978. Both are lean, extremely efficient efforts, delivering considerable shivers without resorting to the sort of booga-booga effects that might turn off the sometime horror viewer; in both films, the spirits in question are barely glimpsed, seen only as figures in the distance or, in the case of WHISTLE, a mundane, everyday object. As is often the case, these vague shadows are more unsettling than any more visceral presentation of something from the beyond, which is aided immeasurably by the films’ lonely, windswept locations (Norfolk, in both cases) and subtle music cues. Best of all, they’re short – both clock in at less than a hour – which won’t try the patience of your casual viewing companion. Both WHISTLE and WARNING are available from grey market sources, though those with multi-region players can buy the entire GHOST STORY FOR CHRISTMAS series, along with the ’68 WHISTLE and a 2010 adaptation with John Hurt, from the BFI.
3. KILL LIST (2011)
For the hardcore horror viewer, I’m recommending UK director Ben Wheatley’s KILL LIST (2011), of which I want to say very little, as the film’s efficacy depends greatly on your seeing it without knowing much about its most unsettling secrets, though it’s worth mentioning that having had its payoff spoiled by various reviews, the impact of its final third still felt to me like a two-by-four between the eyes. So I’ll simply say that KILL LIST is appropriate for our purposes, as its central character is a husband and father (Neil Maskell) caught up in monstrous circumstances when he attempts to do right by his family. The theme of sacrifice, both literal and figurative, and the lengths that people will go to attain something is central to the picture, and while this leads to some hideously violent set pieces, the bloodshed lacks the money-shot glee of most extreme horror and instead focuses on the terrible toll taken on both participants, whose roles by film’s end are hopelessly blurred. Muddied boundaries run throughout KILL LIST, which refuses to hew to accepted horror tropes and draws instead from independent drama (with a decided socio-political component) and crime pictures before finally plunging into nightmare territory in its final reel. The improvisational nature of the performances (all excellent, but especially Maskell) and Wheatley’s intimate, verite directorial approach are also outside of what we expect from the genre; the result is a disorienting and extremely anxiety-provoking game of cinematic blind man’s bluff as we attempt to follow a tangled (but never confusing or unclear) path towards a conclusion that we know will pay off in awful ways. And when we reach that final moment – which owes as much to THE DEVIL RIDES OUT (1967) as it does to THE WICKER MAN (1973), which is KILL LIST’s most frequently cited influence – it is darker and uglier and more terribly final than anything seen in the genre in the last decade, and should blanch all but the most hardened horror tough. I suggest keeping a few trick-or-treat sweets at hand to boost your blood sugar levels after the end credits roll.
NICHOLAS MCCARTHY (filmmaker, THE PACT)
1. SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS (1937).
After my daughter turned three, I had been thinking about what might be the first movie I’d allow her to watch, at least in 20 minute chunks. I didn’t automatically think to foist a Disney movie onto her, for obvious reasons of my sanity. But then I realized I already owned the DVD of SNOW WHITE — for it’s horror imagery!. Before I was a parent, the sequence of Snow White lost in the woods struck me as primal genre stuff, and though I’d only watched the entire film once straight through, I’d replayed that scene many times. When I began watching the movie again, with my daughter at my side, I realized there were many other moments with an uncanny, “magical” vibe that were disturbing. I had also forgotten that the film culminates in a full-on mob hunt ala FRANKENSTEIN where the evil witch falls to her death and we fade out on smiling vultures circling her corpse! These sequences were so frightening I felt compelled to talk to my daughter about them — they’re the first “scary” scenes in a movie she’s ever witnessed, and watching them through her eyes I’ve realized just how frightening this 65 year old movie has the power to be. For that reason I’d recommend it to very young viewers on Halloween, since it carries a weird atmosphere and is dotted with classic, nearly fundamental horror imagery.
2. RINGU (1998).
3. THE STRANGER WITHIN (1974).
Made-for-TV horror movies from this period sit well with fans in my generation, not only since they were, for many of us, our first exposure to non-juvenile horror material, but also because they explore a fascinatingly different set of traditions as opposed to their big screen counterparts. Written by the great Richard Matheson, THE STRANGER WITHIN sets up in its opening moments just what is so distinctive — and creepy — about 1970s movies-of-the-week: an establishing shot captures a ranch house in the hills of California, a pair of large windows open, curtains billowing. It’s a striking suggestion of gothic horror crossing over into the blandness of everyday. Barbara Eden breaks the news to her husband of 11 years George Grizzard that she is pregnant — though he had a vasectomy years ago and she insists she hasn’t slept with anybody else. Cautioned against carrying the child by her husband and doctor because of her previous failed attempts to deliver, she agrees to an abortion. But a mysterious illness prevents her from terminating. And beyond that, her personality is changing. Why does she insist on sleeping with the windows open in a cold room? Why does she put so much salt on her food? Whose child is this really? The answers are science fiction, but the strength of this 75 minute creep-fest is how writer Matheson builds an entire teleplay out of that thing that is at the root of so many frightening possession movies — someone familiar changing into something alien and animal-like, out of your control. Like most of the best made-for-TV movies of the period, THE STRANGER WITHIN doesn’t need to do much more than a few things right to stick in your brain. There’s something vividly uncomfortable about this film that I’ve found hard to forget after all these years. And that’s the kind of movie that feels right for Halloween — the little film that somehow worms your way into your brain and stays there, haunting you. Because that chill we get should last all year.
1. THE ADVENTURES OF ICHABOD AND MR. TOAD (1950).
My kids like a measure of creepy but they’re pretty easily spooked and my wife and I are in no particular hurry to freak them out. People assume both my children are well-steeped in horror but they’ve seen very few films from my collection. Neverless, Vayda saw Tim Burton’s THE CORPSE BRIDE (2005) when she was months old and we’ve watched it many times since, as we have Burton’s BEETLEJUICE (1976), the Burton-produced NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS (1992), Henry Selick’s CORALINE (2009), the aforementioned MAD MONSTER PARTY and many, many SCOOBY DOOs. Never having seen it myself, THE ADVENTURES OF ICHABOD AND MR. TOAD was a bit of a blind buy, a bit of a leap of faith, and happily both Vayda and Victor loved it. They roared with laughter during the big dance scene and were pleasantly thrilled during Ichabod Crane’s flight from the Headless Horseman. Good seasonal entertainment with just a soupcon of horror. Just enough.
2. THE UNINVITED (1944). For my money, at least one of your Halloween picks should have a seance in it and this one is among the best. I highly recommend the Dorothy Macardle source novel but Lewis Allen’s film adaptation is largely faithful and perfectly pitched to raise the gooseflesh without pushing the viewer over the edge. THE UNINVITED is charming and beguiling, it has mystery and mirth (I even like the romantic subplots), and the process photography of Farciot Edouart adds an extra layer of ectoplasmic splendor to the proceedings (albeit with an uncredited assist from Val Lewton regular Elizabeth Russell). Still not available on DVD in the US!
3. THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1999).
Love it or hate it (and I love it), THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT is still paying dividends over a decade later, spawning as it did (even in its debt to preexisting films) the “found footage” subgenre of horror movies. Roundly criticized within the horror fanbase at the time of its initial theatrical release for, ye gods, many things (“It’s not even a real movie” one idiot carped), this flinty little independent spooker returned horror to first principles — to the primal tension between light and darkness, to the terror evoked by things half seen, things half heard, to the human tendency towards self-destruction — after half a decade under the influence of the noxious Wes Craven-Kevin Williamson axis, which made the mistake, under the delusion that it was deconstructing the idiom, of throwing out all the good bits. I saw THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT under ideal circumstances back in the day, at a late show on Cape Cod that let out at midnight, leaving my wife and myself with a car ride home through the pines and entrance into a pitch black country home… and so I was apprehensive to revisit, fearing it would not hold up to a second viewing. Very happily, it did. And I would feel that my Halloween was complete allowing this modern classic bring up the rear on our march out of All Hallows Eve.
Well, there you have it! Feel free to allow any one of us to be your Halloween film programmer or mix and match from all the titles discussed. Remember, it’s your Halloween! Have a Happy!
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