Gimme that old time scaryligion!


It is October and Halloween is (eyes swivel to countdown clock)… 27 days away. At some point this month I will be asked “What are your favorite movies to watch for Halloween?” and, you know what, I’m just going to answer that question now.

Cat and the CanaryI could answer that question quickly but then you might think, faithful reader, that someone had hijacked this blog. You know I’m good for 1,500-2,000 words (most of them superfluous) every seven days and this will be no exception. I had occasion recently to sit down with my children when the first Halloween costume catalogs began arriving in the mail (actually, this was in July). As we leafed through the pages and the kids oohed and ahhed over the newest Jake and Finn and Minion Girl costumes, the Monster High and Monsters, Inc. outfits, The Hunger Games training day shirts and Kick Ass and Hit Girl unitards, my vulture eye was drawn to the panoply of lawn and window decorations offered as accessories in the back of the catalog. Ninety-nine percent of these items seemed to be zombie-related, which is to say they were bloody faces and severed limbs and guts and stuff like that. Zombie Baby Nosepicker. Zombie Baby Eating Own Foot. Zombie Baby Thumb Sucker Biting Own Thumb Off. Zombie Boy Limb Eater. Wheelchair Psycho. Convulsing Nurse. And I though to myself in that moment “These things are not for me.” The older I get, the older I want to be. Which is to say that come Halloween I don’t want to be disgusted, I don’t want to disgust others. I want to heighten my senses, not force them into shutdown mode. I want to savor crispness in the air, a hint of woodsmoke on the wind. I want to hear the swirl of autumn leaves and the peal of churchbells from the kirkyard. (Or, barring that, the peal of kirkbells from the churchyard.) I want magic and mystery. I want to be a child again. And when I was a kid, people kept their guts to themselves.

Woman Who Came Back

A couple of Halloweens ago I turned on Turner Classic Movies in the middle of the day and Roman Polanski’s REPULSION (1965) was playing as part of the all-day All Hallows Eve line-up. I remember thinking… “Great movie, REPULSION. A masterpiece of dread and suspense… but it’s just not very Halloweeny, is it?” I could lay that same line on a host of classic horror movies and here goes… THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE (1974), NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968), DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978) — any of the DEAD movies, really — THE FLY (1958 or 1986), PSYCHO (1960)… and I’ll just stop there. This is highly personal, of course. I’m not writing legislation, I’m not recategorizing the genre or trying to tell you a classic is not a classic. No, it’s deeper than that for me. I like to be scared, sure, but it isn’t a requirement of Halloween; in fact, 99% of all horror movies fail me because they try to scare me at the expense of reaching me in any other way. The older I get, the more I appreciate, the more I require a sense of style, of stylization, of vision. Of course, the above-mentioned movies do have that, in spades, and they rank among my favorite horror movies (most of them, anyway) to watch eleven months out of the year. But Halloween is different.

Phantom of CrestwoodAt Halloween, I want the cozy. I want to be in for the night, with rain lashing at the eaves, or at least a high wind rattling the shutters. I want the bridge to be out, the authorities unreachable, and several strangers (or at the very least estranged family members) house-bound and vulnerable to attack by the Bat or the Cat or Dracula or the Ghost of something-something. I want THE MONSTER (1925), THE BAT (silent or sound),THE CAT AND THE CANARY (any version, but preferably the silent or Bob Hope one), DOCTOR X (1933), THE GHOST BREAKERS (1940), THE UNINVITED (1944), THE HAUNTING (1963 – though the first third is the best for me), THE OLD DARK HOUSE (1932), THE  BLACK CAT (1934 or 1941), THE RAVEN (1935), THE PHANTOM OF CRESTWOOD (1932), THE SMILING GHOST (1941), ISLE OF THE DEAD (1945). From more recent years, I want LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH (1971), THE STONE TAPE (1972), THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE (1973), THE CHANGELING (1980), the original EVIL DEAD (1981), THE OTHERS (2001)

Old Dark House

There’s a common denominator here, and I don’t mean horror. All of these movies take place in a house of some kind. Houses are important to Halloween. The holiday began, we’re told, with people placing lighted gourds outside the entrance to their homes to ward off bad spirits. Houses are the logical focus of Halloween, both as a resource for treats and a target for tricks. Growing up, I always found the houses in horror movies and murder mysteries to be, though superficially creepy and foreboding, oddly homey and inviting. These houses have drawing rooms or a library and fireplaces and the inhabitants, frightened though they may be, doomed though they are, invariably meet in the drawing room at some point for brandy or port or or sherry some other rich guy drink and they wear elegant clothes and say witty, cutting things to one another, making accusations and terrible use of their allotted time but looking fabulous while they do it. These houses also invariably have sliding panels and hidden rooms; we go up into the attic, we go down into the cellar, we patrol the grounds and maybe even go into a creepy outbuilding, a shed or shack or mausoleum. There are occasionally tunnels. Mind you, it doesn’t have to be a house, per se. It can be a building of any kind in which a clutch of disparate and desperate strangers are collected for one fatal, frightful night. Or it can be just one person. It can be a wax museum, or a train depot, a church or chapel, or even a lighthouse. Yes, SH! THE OCTOPUS (1937) is a Halloween movie. You got to know it!

Black Sabbath

I am also partial to horror movies that nail a sense of season, movies in which bare tree branches scratch against the window panes and dead leaves skitter across the tundra. Mario Bava’s BLACK SUNDAY (1960) and BLACK SABBATH (1963) are both rich in this type of atmosphere, as are any number of the Universal monster movies, including FRANKENSTEIN (1931) and its sequels, and both DRACULA’S DAUGHTER (1936) and SON OF DRACULA (1942), and THE MUMMY’S TOMB (1942), which is set in New England. The Hammer horrors get these details right — the nights are cold and frightening, the inns and taverns warm, and the graveyards poorly landscaped. (Among the Hammers, I would short list BRIDES OF DRACULA and THE GORGON.) I ruled out REPULSION and I don’t think I’d ever cue up ROSEMARY’S BABY (1968) for Halloween but Polanski’s THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS (1967), though set in winter, is an ideal Halloween movie to me — the atmosphere is so thick and Gothic that you could bite it. The forgotten Republic cheapie THE WOMAN WHO CAME BACK (1945) is another New England (and Halloween) set chiller set in the present day but haunted by the past, with a decent “Lewton walk” thrown in for good measure. I’ll take NIGHT OF THE DEMON (1957) for its haunted woods (“The air itself is filled with monsters!” could just as easily have come from this movie as BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN.) and an almost electric (literally, for one poor bastard) sense of horror.

onibabaFrom Japan, ONIBABA (1964) is wicked-ass scary and KURONEKO (1968) is creepy, with lots of shadow-choked outdoor scenes that give you a true sense of the supernatural hidden behind the natural. From West Germany and Yugoslavia (in partnership), CAVE OF THE LIVING DEAD (1964) also boasts an almost lunar nightscape and seems to blast glacial air in your face as you watch it. (I’m old enough to have seen it projected theatrically in green in the early 70s — to qualify as a color picture — but I prefer the original black-and white). John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN (1978) does a decent job of making Southern California look like Illinois — the wind blows, leaves skitter. These things count a lot, though I confess I’ve never watched that movie on that holiday. Too on the nose, maybe, I’m not sure.

spookshowThis is not a Halloween recommendations list. I’ll leave the recommendations to the Serious Film Critics who condescend to write about horror once annually. (Pfft – college kids. Yeah, thanks for the Val Lewton tip, I’ll get right on that.) Anyway, I don’t care what you watch. Watch CABIN FEVER (2002) or THE CABIN IN THE WOODS (2012) or go see the new CARRIE remake or plunk down for an ass-numbing FRIDAY THE 13TH or SCREAM or HOSTEL or Freddy, Michael Myers and/or Jason marathon if these things make you happy because that’s what Halloween is all about. Joy. Childlike joy. And this happy 52 year-old child will find some place old and dark to curl up for the season, in anticipation of the night. I will fortify myself with creaky old big band Halloween tracks (click on the song titles to listen!) like Louis Armstrong’s “The Skeleton in the Closet” or the Glenn Miller Orchestra’s “Swingin’ at the Seance” or the Arden and Ohman Orchestra’s “Dancing the Devil Away,” Henry Hall’s “Here Comes the Bogeyman” or Ray Noble and the New Mayfair Dance Orchestra’s “Haunted House” and (click on titles to watch) antique black-and-white cartoons like “Shiver Me Timbers” and “The Skeleton Dance” and “Haunted House” and “The Mad Doctor.” These entertainments are a solid warm-up for greater cinematic Halloween fun. Just name-checking the titles gives me the serious cozies way down to the marrow in my bones. Happy haunting!

19 Responses Gimme that old time scaryligion!
Posted By doug : October 4, 2013 6:10 pm

Again, I will mention “Escanaba In Da Moonlight”- you will have to watch it to see how it qualifies. It’s a Halloweener yah sure yew betcha!

Posted By DevlinCarnate : October 4, 2013 6:11 pm

i long ago gave up on programming my Halloween evening,too many choices in my library both well known and obscure,now i just settle back and let TCM do it for me,an evening with Vincent Price and some of his best Corman/Poe films suits me just fine

Posted By Tom F : October 4, 2013 11:30 pm

Disney’s “Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Trick or Treat” with Donald Duck and Witch Hazel. Still love to watch those around Halloween time. Glad you mentioned Isle of the Dead, one of my favorite Lewton’s, and an excellent choice for the season.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : October 5, 2013 4:17 pm

My new religion = Scaryligion!

Posted By Richard Harland Smith : October 6, 2013 5:21 am


Posted By WolfmansRazor : October 6, 2013 7:15 am

For me the distinction between Halloweeny and not Halloweeny comes down to spookiness. If the movie cannot accurately be described as “spooky,” it’s not a Halloween movie. Lewton, Hammer, Universal monster movies, Corman’s Poe movies, Coffin Joe, pretty much any haunted house film… these are spooky. Repulsion, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Evil Dead, pretty much any serial killer/slasher movie… these are all scary and unsettling, but not spooky, and therefore not Halloweeny in my book. Spookiness and scariness can overlap, of course, as they do in, say, The Innocents, but generally scariness isn’t required.

Halloween and Rosemary’s Baby are both on the edge of what I’d consider spooky. Both are grounded a little too firmly in reality to be truly spooky. The same is true for Psycho. On the other hand, I would consider The Shining sufficiently spooky to be Halloweeny.

Posted By Doug : October 6, 2013 11:52 am

There’s time before “Halloween”-do yourself a favor and look up the Yiddish film “The Dybbuk” from 1937. Even those of us who do not speak Polish or Yiddish can follow along with the story.
As most of the film’s cast and crew died a few years later in Hitler’s concentration camps,it is as much a historical document as it is a filmed stage play.

Posted By Kate A : October 6, 2013 11:39 pm

Arsenic and Old Lace!

Posted By swac44 : October 7, 2013 5:27 pm

Nice to see a shout-out for perennial classic movie message board in-joke Sh! The Octopus, which I’ve already seen twice and will probably watch again before the year is out. There really is nothing else like it. Spooky, weird and funny all at the same time, with a few surprises along the way.

Oddly enough, just did a double feature on the weekend of the aforementioned Cabin Fever and the 1981 creature feature The Boogens which recently resurfaced on Blu-ray. It wasn’t planned, the discs were just on the pile, but they both take place in similar looking cabins, with nastiness on the loose (creeping flesh-eating disease or creeping underground worm creatures, take your pick) and weirdo locals creeping about. Still, it would be fun to hole up in a cabin for a weekend around this time of year…

Posted By robbushblog : October 7, 2013 7:13 pm

I got banned from programming Halloween night movies after disappointing my sisters with Drag Me to Hell one year and Let’s Scare Jessica to Death the next year. I prefer to sit alone at my house and watch Disney’s animated Ichabod Crane, Arsenic and Old Lace, The Exorcist and The Changeling. Also, depending on how late I will be staying up, I may also watch The Others.

Posted By pataos : October 7, 2013 8:05 pm

Just finished watching “A Place of One’s Own” (1945) with James Mason. A benign, cozy ghost story. Not quite as good as “The Uninvited” with Ray Milland. I think that is the best ghost story movie ever made.
Still trying to find out if quote that Annette made as Elizabeth in “A Place of…” is from an actual poem. It ends with “that, thou will return to me.” Anybody?
These two are old movies. I am just not a slasher fan. The best I can do for relatively modern ghost stories would be “The Changeling” with George C. Scott, and the original “The Haunting” with Richard Johnson and Julie Harris. Always looking for recommendations…

Posted By Doug : October 7, 2013 9:22 pm

“movie loving public” service announcement: Amazon has “Sh-The Octopus” available in a WB 8 movie set for under $20.00.
That is all.

Posted By Heidi : October 8, 2013 4:29 pm

I don’t like the bloody horror movies. I want to be scared, not sickened. Just the way I am. I love “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (original, not remakes) it just scares me to the point I can’t watch it at night or by myself, or I don’t sleep for a week. “Nosferatu”, is a must. So creepy. and I really like “The Terror” with Jack Nicholson. There is just something awesome about the old lady not being able to cross the threshold of the chapel that gets me every time. I like any of the creepy movies with Vincent Price. The original Mummy movie, “The Devil Bat” I like too. I love “Arsenic and Old Lace” But have never watched it on Halloween. Maybe I will this year.

Posted By Andrew Monroe : October 8, 2013 6:45 pm

Jeff Lieberman’s (of SQUIRM, BLUE SUNSHINE and JUST BEFORE DAWN fame)SATAN’S LITTLE HELPER has a terrific Fall/Halloween atmosphere. This 2004 film has a very black sense of humor that won’t be to all tastes but it’s not overly gory.

Posted By Michael Ritchie : October 8, 2013 9:37 pm

I like your use of “cozy” to describe the perfect Halloween night movies. I go for the early Universal films (Dracula, The Mummy, the Mummy sequels, The Wolf Man) or something like Secret of the Blue Room (which I actually saw on Halloween way back when I was 10). Arsenic and Old Lace has wonderful atmosphere. And the Vincent Price anthology films Tales of Terror and Twice-Told Tales work well.

Posted By pat : October 9, 2013 4:22 am

Wrote a comment on this a couple of days ago and never appeared. Very spooky. Anyway, I commented that I had just watched “A Place of Their Own” and found it to be one of the cozy, benign ghost stories. My all time favorite is “The Uninvited” with Ray Milland. They don’t come any better. In relatively recent times – like the last forty/fifty years – my creeps come from “Black Sunday”, The House of Usher”, The Haunting” (original), “The Changeling” and “Poltergeist.” As a kid, I don’t think I slept for days after “Black Sunday” and have never quite gotten over the idea of
burying alive after “The House of Usher.” For laughs, the old Bob Hope movie with a very young Caesar Romero and zombies in Cuba. Name has slipped my mind.

Posted By Jose : October 10, 2013 6:28 pm

Wow. I couldn’t help but smile through this whole article. This is *exactly* the type of film that brings on the good vibes in me, within the Halloween season as well as without.

Black and white films really hit that sweet spot; there’s just so much shadow inherent in them already, and you can really feel that chilly dampness in the “dark and stormy nights” depicted in some of the titles you mentioned, though conversely if the copy of the film you’re watching has some nice hisses and pops and crackles it makes it seem like a visual bonfire.

People may roll their eyes at descriptors like “shuddery” and “creepy” and “spooky”, but hell that’s how I like my horror! Give me skeletons dancing in the moonlight. Give me Norman Rockwell kids in devil costumes. Give me witches cackling over bubbling brew. You can take your masked psychos and flesh-munchers to Hell in a pillow case.

Posted By Michael : October 11, 2013 11:52 pm

Pat, the Bob Hope flick you are thinking of is “The Ghost Breakers” I believe, also one of my favorites.

Posted By A Man Called Da-da : October 12, 2013 4:40 am

Excellent post. For sheer creepiness, might Da-da suggest a descent into Japanese horror. It’s fascinating to Da-da what scares various cultures, and the Japanese are masters of creepiness… though they do tend to be overly terrified of anything white (their color for death). However, they do use this to great effect.

It’s not on the list, but Louis Jourdan as Dracula, a PBS special from 1981, was also a good, creepy Halloween offering. Alas, Da-da LIVES in a haunted house, so he gets enough creep value nearly every night.

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