For Caleb, a month is too long to start opening the coffins on the Halloween advent calendar...
That time of year is just around the corner. The leaves are starting to turn, a chill is in the air, and there are big bags of candy on the store shelves. That’s right, my favorite holiday, Halloween. Halloween and scary movies go together like peanut butter and jelly, steak and beer, or bonfires and gasoline. It’s the time of year when just about everybody allows themselves to be a kid again, and part of that means giving yourself a good scare. So if you aren’t hitting the bars, didn’t get an invitation to your co-worker’s party, and aren’t taking the kids around town (yours or someone else’s), here’s a list of movies that is sure to entertain and give you a few chills and thrills.
10. Dark Floors (2008)
Mr. Lordi (AKA Tomi Putaansuu), lead singer of the Finnish glam metal band Lordi, wrote the screenplay to this little known movie about a group of strangers in a hospital that wind up being isolated from everyone else in the building. The group traverses the seemingly abandoned hospital, all the while terrorized by monsters played by the members of the band, all in their beastly stage attire. The group includes a father and his Autistic daughter, who in the end communicates with Mr. Lordi about why they were there. Touted as Finland’s first horror movie, the film is atmospheric and surrealistic in tone. Not much in the line of scares, but a very good watch.
9. Dead Birds (2004)
During the American Civil War, a band of Confederate soldiers rob a bank, and make their way to an abandoned plantation. But evil forces are at work here, and the group struggles to survive the night. Will any of them make it out alive, and will anyone else be sucked into this house of horror? Creepy visuals, decent effects, and just the right amount of scares and gore make this one not to miss.
8. Ju-On: The Grudge (2002)
Takashi Shimizu’s original film that inspired the 2004 remake (which also scared the crap out of me). It tells the story of a young woman who is sent to help out with an elderly woman, only to be tormented by the ghosts of the family that refuses to leave their humble abode, even in death. J-horror, while not big on gore, relies on subtle scares and tension to induce panic in its viewers. Toshio, the ghost of the little boy, is disturbing, and not just because little kids in horror movies give me the willies. Equally creepy is his mother, Kayako, who crawls around in an almost insect-like way, and only vocalizes with a death rattle that sends shivers up your back (in fact, for several weeks after watching these movies, my wife would come up behind me and make that noise, which made for a few sleepless nights). If you’ve only seen the remake, do yourself a favor and check this film out.
7. Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Based on the novel of the same name, the film follows FBI trainee Clarice Starling, who is being sent into the field by her superior in order to help find a serial killer known only as ‘Buffalo Bill’ (because he likes to “skin his humps”). She winds up trying to get information from an incarcerated murderer, Hannibal “the Cannibal” Lecter, a former psychotherapist who murdered those he deemed unfit for the world. It is the bond that is formed between Starling and Lecter that really causes the story to gel, being at times touching, but mostly disturbing. Sir Anthony Hopkins won an Academy Award for his turn as Doctor Lecter, giving the character an air of superiority, but also giving the viewer a feeling of unease. Ted Levine makes the role of Jame Gumb almost sympathetic, if creepy. The film also did the near impossible, by staying fairly close to the book, and translating the written word pretty well to the screen. A must for any film collection.
6. Psycho (1960)
Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece about a boy and his mother. Janet Leigh plays Marion Crane, a young woman who is in love with a man in severe debt, and cannot leave his position until things turn around. Opportunity knocks when she is asked by her boss to deposit a large sum of money in the bank. She flees town, and ends up at a lonely motel off of the main highway. There she meets Norman Bates, and nothing will ever be the same. Hitch changed cinema forever with this film, based on the novel by Robert Bloch. He killed his star off before the movie was half over, something unheard of in cinema. The character of Norman, loosely based on American killer Ed Gein, is one of the first killers depicted with any sort of psychosis, such as split personality disorder. The film spawned several sequels and a failed pilot for a television spin-off, but this one is the best of all of them. And remember the lesson taught which is that a boy’s best friend is his mother.
5. The Evil Dead (1982)
The first part of the Evil Dead Trilogy (followed by Evil Dead II and Army of Darkness), is a marvel of indie horror. While the other two films delve more into horror comedy, this film remains firmly in the realm of horror. Writer/director Sam Raimi made himself a big shot in Hollywood and made a star of his friend Bruce Campbell with this story of a group of college kids who go to an old cabin in the middle of nowhere to get away from everyone and party. Things go awry when Scott and Ash (the hero of the trilogy) find an old tape recorder and a wicked looking book in the cellar. Listening to the tape, they find that the book is titled Necronomicon ex Mortis, or “The Book of the Dead”, bound in human flesh and written in blood. The tape also contains translations of some ancient spell, which of course summons ancient Sumerian demons, which possess the group one by one. More disturbing scenes include one possessed friend driving a pencil into another’s heel, a young woman being sexually assaulted by a tree, and stop-motion animated demons decomposing in front of Ash. The ending was left ambiguous as to whether or not Ash survived his ordeal (according to Raimi, the intention was that he was to have died), but luckily he came back for two more rounds. A remake is in the works, which has me merely asking “Why”.
4. Night of the Living Dead (1968)
George A. Romero’s classic film presents us with a horror for a new age: Zombies. The film starts out in a cemetery, where brother and sister Johnny and Barbara have traveled the better part of a day to bring a memorial for their father’s grave. While Johnny is having a laugh teasing Barbara, someone slowly shambles toward them menacingly. He attacks Johnny, and tries to get his sister, but she is able to get to the car and drive away. She makes her way to a seemingly abandoned farm house, where she and a handful of others barricade themselves in, as they learn that for some reason not fully understood, the dead are being re-animated with a taste for human flesh. The film is creepy and claustrophobic, even during outdoor shots. Some of that is due to the fact that this indie picture was filmed in black and white, which makes it seem all the more disturbing. Romero was hailed as a pioneer for casting a black man as the main protagonist, although he downplays it, saying he just hired an actor that was best for the part. He also uses the film to make commentary on society, pointing out how zombie-like humanity really is. The movie spawned five sequels and two remakes, but this one still sends cold water through my veins.
3. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Wes Craven had had some success with horror in the seventies, but it was his story of a group of high school kids terrorized in their dreams by a severely burned killer by the name of Fred Kruger that made him a household name, and made stars out of Robert Englund and a talented young unknown actor by the name of Johnny Depp. Even by today’s standards, the special effects are brilliant, and the entire piece has a surrealistic feel to it. Highlights include Kruger trying to drown heroine Nancy in the bathtub, and slicing Depp’s character open, dragging him up walls and across the ceiling, only to drop him in a water bed full of blood. It was followed by seven sequels and a remake, but none of them matched this one in terms of scares or originality. Go buy some Red Bull and No Doze, because you won’t want to sleep after this one.
2. Horror Hotel (AKA The City of the Dead – 1960)
A college coed travels to a small New England village during winter break so that she can do research on witchcraft for a paper. Her disappearance causes alarm, and a few of her friends go looking for her. What they find is a town full of 300-year-old witches who have survived the years by feasting on human blood. The set pieces are reminiscent of older German expressionist films, and almost seem characters themselves, in that they add an air of mystique and danger. Highlight of the film is the professor who sends the young girl on her journey, and who just happens to be the leader of the group, played by Christopher Lee. While there are some similarities to Psycho, this film is uniquely its own, and very enjoyable.
1. The Exorcist (1973)
William Peter Blatty was inspired to write his novel by the true story of a young boy from the Midwest who had gone through an exorcism in the 1940s. The novel follows Regan MacNeil, a young girl who lives with her movie star mom, and is with her while she films in Washington, DC. Regan tells her mom that she has been bored, and to pass the time, has taken to playing with a Ouija board she found in the attic. She has been talking with somebody called Captain Howdy through the board, and seems to find nothing out of the ordinary about how she and her new “playmate” spend their time. Her mother decides it’s harmless, until Regan starts to begin exhibiting behavior that is out of the ordinary. When mom’s friend and director winds up dead near the home, a wizened old detective starts to wonder if it was really an accident. Then, Regan starts speaking in another voice and language, and appears to be self-mutilating. When psychotherapy comes to a dead end, she is pointed in the direction of the Jesuit priests at the local college campus. Enter Father Karras, a priest who has been questioning his faith as of late, and takes it upon himself to investigate further. When the actual exorcism takes place, it is up to him and Father Merrin (played by the always wonderful Max von Sydow) to free the girl from her tormentor. The film has jumps aplenty, spiritual and psychological questions, and a young girl using a crucifix in a less-than-saintly manner. But in the end, the true horror comes from the fact that it is based on a true story, and if it could happen to them, could it happen to us? Don’t watch alone or in the dark, unless, like me, you happen to like that sort of thing. While it spawned two lackluster sequels and two prequels that are muddled and boring, it was spoofed quite cleverly in 1990s Repossessed.