I’ve always wanted to do this. In many ways I find the whole idea of the “10-best” list craze to be ridiculous, since adding the modifier “best” to any work of art indicates a total ignorance of the nature of art and our relationship to it. A brief glance at Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic reveals countless inconsistencies, especially when you compare different mediums (Music, games, film). Saying “Best” also erroneously presupposes that you’ve seen every entry into whatever relevant genre you’re writing about, although I’m sure a “majority rules” argument could be made. In any event, on with the show! I present 10 Films to Spice Up Your Lame Halloween Party. I want it to be clear that this is NOT a list of my favorite horror films, since most of those wouldn’t be particularly party friendly. I made an attempt to keep the list somewhat non-graphic, but be sure to look them up on IMDB if you’re worried about permanently scaring someone whose thinks the scariest movie ever is Signs or The Sixth Sense. I am purposely passing over the golden oldies (Scream, The Exorcist, Evil Dead, The Shining, Texas Chainsaw….) because you don’t need me for that. If you haven’t seen them, watch them first before my recommendations. I will most likely be partaking of some Rob Zombie or Mario Bava this Halloween night, so if you’re in the area come on over for the real deal. There is still a ton of horror I haven’t seen (being a somewhat recent horror fan) so this list is still “in progress”. I hope you like and would welcome any feedback!
The Innocents (1961)
Possibly one of the greatest ghost stories ever put to film, Jack Clayton’s adaptation of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw remains the epitome of gothic horror, elegant as it is chilling, and sports a wonderfully crazed Deborah Kerr as governess Miss Giddens. Sent to a rich man’s estate to care for his young nephew and niece, Miles and Flora, Deborah Kerr begins to realize that the mansion may have one or two incorporeal houseguests wandering the corridors at night. But when these occurrences begin affecting her two wards, she decides to unravel the mystery surrounding the Victorian estate, resulting in an unsettling outcome. The film surprised me at times with its handling of touchy subjects and themes, and has clearly influenced countless films and books. Made in 1961, Jack Clayton made the conscience decision to film in B&W and he uses it beautifully; boldly composing his shots with old-school grandeur. The Innocents will add instant class to your little get-together, if that’s the direction you want to take your party in.
The Woman in Black (1989)
While I found much to be admired in the 2012 remake, the made-for-TV version of The Woman in Black surpasses its successor with good old-fashioned atmosphere. The film lulls you into thinking you are watching some average BBC mini-series, then pounces on you when you least expect it, showcasing some spectacular imagery and one jump scene in particular that is sure to comfortably reside in the back of your head till the day you die. The film is certainly a child of The Innocents, but still manages holds its own with its own special concoction of eerie landscapes enshrouded in fog and creaking floorboards.
Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988)
I’m not sure if a synopsis is needed considering the title of this cult classic. There are clowns, they kill people, and they’re from outer space. Easiest review ever. While many know this movie by title alone, few have actually took the time to see if it’s any good. But hey, that’s why I’m here. I was expecting some low-budget, slapped together piece of crap that only survived due to its name, and instead what I got was an immensely fun, wildly imaginative, and hilarious Pop-Tart of a film, attacking my eyeballs with swirls of colors and carnival creepiness. The film seems made for a Halloween party, light on story and heavy on wackiness.
Trick ‘r Treat (2007)
Not even John Carpenter’s white-faced, knife-wielding (and misunderstood) serial killer will get you more into the Halloween mood than Michael Dougherty’s unsung masterpiece Trick ‘r Treat. Tragically released straight to DVD due to distribution complications, this film was a labor of love for Dougherty, a man who fell in love with the Fall holiday as a child and never let that love go. Every frame is meticulously infused with Halloween nostalgia, orange and yellow colors fading into darkness as the spirit of Halloween becomes corporeal in a being known simply as Sam. There are rules on All Hallow’s Eve, ancient rules which must be enforced by Sam. The film is an anthology, seamlessly weaving four storylines during the course of one horrific Halloween night involving incompetent serial killers, bloody pranks, supernatural predators, and the best use of Sweet Dreams by Marilyn Manson in a movie ever. Trick ‘r Treat melts down everything you love about Halloween, distills it, and spoons feeds it to you in candy form, along with the occasional razor blade just to keep it nice and bloody.
In case your particular group of friends isn’t in the mood for scares, Andrew Currie’s zombie comedy Fido provides light-hearted entertainment with just enough of an edge to call it a Halloween movie. Most of the world is crawling with the undead, but during the great zombie war a scientist found a way to domesticate the living dead with a mechanical collar, turning zombies into useful members of society. This stylish film creates a 60’s-esque utopia where mankind can focus of leisurely activities while hordes of zombies carry their groceries and mow their lawns. One sunny day young Timmy Robinson gets his very own zombie named Fido (Billy Connolly), since his mother, played by Carrie-Anne Moss, was embarrassed by the fact that their neighbors had 5 zombies and they had none. Tim Blake Nelson and Dylan Baker (who is also in Trick ‘r Treat and plays creeps in both…he just has the face) also join the already strong cast. Fido is breezy, harmless fun with a bit of wit, and is a great alternative to the usual Halloween comedies. (Beetlejuice, The Adams Family, Young Frankenstein…all of which are better films I might add.)
For me Halloween is all about theatricality, bigger is better, and that is why Suspiria is the perfect Halloween movie. Hailed as the pinnacle of Italian Horror (Giallo), Dario Argento’s magnum opus is an operatic, nightmare-fueled fever dream, bathed in harsh, unnatural lighting and overtly stylized set pieces. The dramatic soundtrack is famously composed Italian progressive rock band Goblin and only adds to the already grandiose nature of this masterwork. The film follows a young aspiring American ballerina who is accepted to study dance at a prestigious academy in Germany, only to discover the school serves a second, more disturbing purpose. The story is unimportant compared to the imagery Argento manages to create with reds and blues, using shock cuts and buckets of fake blood to give the film a polished yet unnerving look. Suspiria was influenced by The Red Shoes, and influenced Black Swan. A remake is already in the works for 2013, so you’d better watch this now if you want gloating rights when the new one comes out.
Psycho 2 (1983)
Yes, I know it’s not Hitchcock, but if you can manage to shove all the immediate objections from your mind, Psycho 2 can be a lot of fun, and even, dare I say it, a passable sequel to the original classic. Despite its predecessor tying up any loose ends in a nice, tight bow, Psycho 2 pulls out all the stops and manages to come up with a more than decent continuation of Norman Bates’ journey from abused child to cross-dressing serial killer. Finally released from psychiatric care after being declared sane, Norman (played by a much older but just as creepy Anthony Perkins) resolves to quietly return to his mother’s house and run the old motel as he searches for peace and forgiveness. But the house has other plans, and he slowly begins slipping into old habits (and ladies clothing) as his grip on reality weakens with every mysterious phone call and inexplicable incident. The film shows people getting murdered, and yet it still manages to evoke sympathy for the wounded Norman, and plants enough doubt in your mind to make you wonder if it is Norman at all who is committing these crimes. The film relies heavily on its famous prequel, and this becomes both a boon and a hindrance, since the familiar setting is countered by the director’s clear understanding of Hitchcock’s minutely detailed style and pacing. There is a lot to like in Psycho 2 (Perkins carries the film effortlessly), and so long as you don’t compare it to the original it can be a real treat, especially to fans of the genre.
The Blob (1958)
Equal parts cheese and drama, The Blob is one of my all-time favorite monster movies, encapsulating everything I love about 1950’s genre films. Taking place during the course of one thrilling night in a rural, all-American town, the film evokes a Rebel Without a Cause-vibe as a bunch of hot-headed teenagers with their dates witness a falling star. After jumping into their hotrods in pursuit, they quickly regret their curiosity as a monster genetically engineered to absorb all life on earth emerges and begins terrorizing their little town. A young, foolhardy Steve McQueen heads up the group and is of course phenomenal, elevating the film above so many other such flicks. Its assortment of small-town characters and sci-fi camp somehow made me nostalgic for a time 30 years before I was born, and I found myself wishing I had snuck in and seen it on the big screen as a kid back in 1958. The effects surprisingly hold up to this day, with the blob seeming to move on its own volition. That must have been terrifying to watch at the time. As the King of Cool tries to warn the townsfolk of the impending danger only to be met with sarcastic rebukes, the film takes a dramatic turn, and there is a scene in a diner when all hope seems lost where you can physically see through his body language Steve McQueen lose his childhood innocence and harden his heart as he clutches his girlfriend and her sleeping little brother and waits for death. I cried. With a restored edition from the folks at Criterion out, I highly recommend The Blob. (It really is for the most part silly and campy…I made it sound too serious)
The Pit and the Pendulum (1961)
Vincent Price and Halloween are synonymous. It’s as simple as that. Sure, you can make an argument for Bela Lugosi or Boris Karloff, but neither can capture the horror of a single drop of blood like the face of Vincent Price. His every movement has forethought, and he controls every scene he’s in with an authority usually reserved for the stage. There are many excellent Vincent Price films I could have chosen from, but I chose The Pit and the Pendulum because A) It had a great visual flair B) Roger Corman directed it, and C) It was written by Richard Matheson (A Stir of Echoes, I Am Legend). The film was a critical and financial success, and its popularity allowed Corman and Price to make many more Edgar Allen Poe adaptations. The film itself incorporates other short stories from Poe along with the infamous Pit and the Pendulum, and together they form a deliciously gothic tale of betrayal and horror. The film is a perfect example of what Corman could do when given restraints, and his luxuriant cinematography and striking color usage work together to create an overwhelming sense of trepidation and unease. The Pit and the Pendulum is a dream-team production that offers a glimpse into the bittersweet nature of revenge. Check it out.
The Innkeepers (2011)
I’m going to be honest; I wasn’t crazy about Ti West’s The Innkeepers. It was a complete mixed bag for me, nailing some concepts but falling flat on others. Perhaps I need to revisit the film to get a stronger reading, but in any event I placed it on this list because most other people really had a blast with it, and I don’t want to deprive you guys of a film I may very well be wrong about. Perhaps I just wasn’t in the right mood, or I hyped it up too much, but looking back the film certainly seems like an ideal Halloween flick. It’s high on chills and low on gore (just how I like it) and can actually be quite funny and lighthearted at times, which is always good in a party setting. Much of what you’ll see in the film is unoriginal, but darn it does Ti West know how to use old tropes effectively. The story is centered around two ghost hunters who are investigating a haunted hotel in a small town. (Fun fact: The hotel they shot the movie at was actually haunted and the cast and crew reported numerous instances of lights turning off and on and cold spots.) Unsurprisingly, it’s haunted! But there are some nice jump scenes, and I can definitely see this one playing out real well at a party. Plus I needed a recent movie for this list, and none others really came to mind. Not the best recommendation, but there it is.
PS: This list probably would have been useful like a week ago. I meant to do it sooner, but (insert excuse here). So as you can see, it was out of my control. But hey, who ever said you can only watch horror in October?