Halloween is my favourite time of year. There is no other time of year that compliments the watching of a movie like October 31st. Gather together some mates, pick out some choice scary movies, lay on some booze and nibbles, dim the lights and you have all the makings of a great evening. Halloween will lend the night an extra special quality. Leaves floating from trees, wind and rain tickling the windows, pumpkin candlelight quivering around your living room. No other day of the year has this magical affect. Sure, Christmas Day has its own sub-genre of movies but ninety nine percent of them are complete rubbish (Santa Claus: The Movie (1985), Deck The Halls (2006), Fred Claus (2007)
, no thank you very much). Halloween on the other hand has a massive library of films waiting to adorn it, all thanks to the scary movie. There are so many to pick from you’ll be cursing the fact that Halloween only comes once a year. You also won’t be obliged to socialise with your in-laws, buy anyone presents, eat sprouts, or watch Eastenders. I’m in charge of the Halloween celebrations in our house, so I make the rules. If any unwanted visitors do call round they have to watch the quality scary movies I have chosen. Decorations are anything pumpkin, skeleton or graveyard related, and kudos to me for the fake zombie hands rising up out or our gravel driveway. Food wise I go for an elaborate spread of salty snacks and some teeth melting sweet treats for later on. Booze is in the form of cocktails hastily cobbled together with a red splash of grenadine. Three films form the basis of the evening, and I always make sure to throw something new and unseen into the mix. Here a ten of the best to get your party started. Just make sure the only interruptions are handing out sweets to the trick or treaters; God bless them for keeping the Halloween traditions alive.
- THE BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960)
You can’t celebrate Halloween without featuring the best horror film production company of all time, Hammer Horror. Bare pointy trees, mirk shrouded graveyards, misty castle keeps, Hammer kept all the old horror clichés alive for years, long after Universal had given up on them. The studio's first dealing with that most famous fanged fiend, Terence Fisher’s Dracula (1958), was a smash hit on both side of the pond. A sequel was hastily discussed as soon as the tills started ringing, but with no further Bram Stoker material to call upon they had to come up with a tale of their own. Seeking to pay homage to what had gone before Fisher's follow-up drew more heavily on Stoker's text and postitioned itself as an unofficial sequel to the original novel. The Brides of Dracula (1960) sees young student Marianne on her way to a Lady's Academy in Bachstadt, Transylvania. Seeking a room for the night during her travel Marianne takes up the invite of a Baroness to stay at her castle. She discovers that the only other occupant of the castle is the Baroness's son. Intriguied by him, she is discovered the following day by Dr. Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) lying in the woods. As the doctor digs deeper he discovers something sinister at the kindly Baronesses castle. Overtones of oedipus complex mingle with everything that Hammer does well; the technicolour period setting, the creepy melodrama, the gothic stylings. David Peel might not be Christoher Lee but he still makes for a superb onscreen bloodsucker, and with a tight script and wonderful support from the remaining cast, Brides stands as one of Hammer's most watchable offerings from its extensive back catalogue of classics. Hammer went on to produce seven further Dracula offerings, with Lee retaining to the cape with Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966) six years later.
Tasty Morsel – Working titles for the film included Dracula 2 and Disciple of Dracula
- HALLOWEEN (1978)
The It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) of Halloween, no October 31st is complete in my house without a showing of John Carpenter’s finest hour. Even though it is one of my favourite films I always hold it back for showing on Halloween. Despite all the violence it has taken on a cosy air of comfort in our household, the film that lets us know All Hallows Eve is here again; God bless Michael Myers and his stabby escapades. Filmed on an ultra low budget, Carpenter’s concept of babysitters getting stalked and killed achieved more than even he ever hoped it would. Not only did it earn millions of dollars at the box office, it spawned a horror sub-genre that ran well into the early eighties and racked up many more millions; the slasher film. Halloween (1978) laid out all the important slasher movie tools on a lovingly crafted table. Some would argue they’ve never been put to better use, the sparse soundtrack, the unstoppable villain, the virginal girl who barely survives the final showdown. What Carpenter also achieved, where so many of his subsequent imitators failed, were scares through maintained tension. Shooting the movie in widescreen not only made Halloween beautiful to look at but gave a wide canvas on which to craft his frights. You never knew where Myers the escaped mental patient was going to jump out from next. Again unlike most of the subsequent slasher movies, the gore was kept to a minimum. Carpenter understood that it wasn’t the sight of fountains of blood that produced the best scares but the unbearable anxiety of the lead-in and the sudden reveal of the killer springing into action. Two hundred and seventy three sequels followed.
Tasty Morsel – The mask used by Myers was a William Shatner / Captain Kirk mask sprayed painted white and with the eyes cut out.
- FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980)
Creating a perfect double bill with Halloween (1978) is Sean Cunningham’s slasher classic Friday the 13th (1980). Where Carpenter left off, Cunningham continued, picking up the slasher baton and creating all of the remaining tropes that the genre pilfered for so many years afterwards. The gory death scenes, the red-herrings, the underwear clad beauty running outside in the rain, they’re all here and worn proudly on the sleeve. But there’s another reason the movie makes for great Halloween viewing; that old campfire tradition. Long shadows cast by tall trees, the moon reflecting off the lake as you gather round a crackling log pile to hear a tale of terror. Its Halloween home turf and no other film purveyed this sense of setting as delightfully as Friday. Cunningham and cinematographer Barry Abrams made good use of the location, incorporating many lush shots of Camp Crystal Lake both during the day and at night. It also made for the ideal slasher film setting, dark, sprawling and miles away from any help. There are other clever traits running throughout, such as the use of one time good girl and panel show regular Betsy Palmer as the ultimate villain. Cunningham was also game enough to pilfer from the greats, nabbing Halloween’s POV tracking-shot opening and the one-last-scare climax from Carrie (1978). But the real star of the show is special effects legend Tom Savini. His practical effects work is a blood red reminder that when it comes to gritty horror films glossy CGI is no match for the real thing. One thousand four hundred and six sequels followed.
Tasty Morsel – The setting used for the original film remains open today as a fully functioning campsite. Look up Camp No-Be-Bo-Sco, New Jersey if you fancy a nostalgic night under canvas.
- THE SHINING (1980)
When I plan our trio of movies for Halloween night I usually end with something from the horror comedy genre; it’s good to finish the night on a high. You’ll have to look out for the forthcoming horror comedy FilmsFilmsFilms article for those recommendations. At the opposite end of the spectrum in marked contrast to my light relief offering is the damn-right terrifying choice for the night. Its usually the middle film of the three, and there’s always plenty to choose from, the The Exorcist (1973), Alien (1979), The Thing (1982), Candyman (1992). But the most spine chilling choice of all amongst my Halloween loving friends is The Shining (1980). No film before or since has offered a dual look into both the mouth of madness and the realm of the supernatural. Stephen King’s 1977 novel is still a classic, but when it landed in the hands of fellow artistic genius Stanley Kubrick he made the bold choice of leaving a lot of its content on the page. The result, for those that aren’t familiar with the novel, is a confounding and multi-layered scare-fest that provides no easy answers and instead slings us into the Overlook Hotel for the winter to fumble around like cattle. We tip-toe around sickly carpeted corridors with Danny and Wendy growing ever more fraught, pursued by Wendy’s psychotic husband Jack and the ghosts of the Overlook. It’s such a tense viewing experience Kubrick even manages to raise us from our seats just by flashing the word "Tuesday” up on the screen. It takes nerves of steel to make it to the frozen hedge maze finale but it’s this sort of endurance test that Halloween was made for.
Tasty Morsel – Never one to be happy with a finished product, Kubrick cut forty two minutes out of the American version of the film before it reached British shores. Completists would do well to seek out a Region 1 American copy of the DVD in order to see the complete 144 minute version of the film.
- POLTERGEIST (1982)
I can still remember as an eleven year old being scared senseless by the astounding BBC broadcast Ghostwatch and its wholesale duping of the entire viewing public. From then on I just had to have some spooky goings on for the 31st. There are plenty of greats out there, from the classic The Innocents (1961), The Haunting (1963), the innovative Paranormal Activity (2007), the traditional Ghost Story (1981) and the yet to be discovered Session 9 (2001), Lake Mungo (2008). All Hallows Eve is best when encapsulating that ghost-train fair-ride feel and no ghostly offering hits this nail on the head quite as succinctly as Poltergeist (1982). The sales pitch for the original movie was dynamite, a Twilight Zone inspired Steven Spielberg production directed by Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) director Tobe Hooper. The resulting movie was a big studio affair, with all the resulting gloss and high sheen; but the production values work to keep the viewer off guard so that when the frights arrive they really grab you by the gooseberries. The scares come in all varieties to, from the creepily subtle (kitchen chairs that stack themselves), the stomach churning (melty faces in the kitchen), to the traditional (skeletons in the swimming pool). The story premise is classic haunting territory; American family move into new house to discover it’s been built on an Indian burial ground. But the high energy climax isn’t reached via the obvious route and incorporates a film stealing performance from Zelda Rubinstein as cinema’s most memorable medium.
Tasty Morsel – Much like The Exorcist, the Poltergeist movies suffer from a "curse” which has supposedly caused a number of real-life tragedies, namely the untimely deaths of young actresses Heather O’Rourke and Dominique Dunne.
- THE MONSTER SQUAD (1987)
Can’t decide which classic monster to pay homage to on Halloween? Why not do them all justice with this fun Fred Dekker classic which features in its unlikely line-up Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy, the Wolfman and Gill-man. As a quintet of terror its unsurpassed in the monster mash-up stakes, with not even the multi-million dollar produced Van Helsing (2004) able to compete. We meet Sean, a young teen who heads up a group of mates who call themselves the Monster Squad, a fan group for all the classic monsters of old. Sean comes across the diary of legendary vampire hunter Van Helsing. Through the diary the gang discover that there is an amulet of pure good that maintains the balance between good and evil. Once a century the amulet becomes vulnerable to destruction, and it just so happens that the day in question is just around the corner. So Sean and his buddies find themselves in a battle with a resurrected Dracula to protect the amulet and send Vlad back to Limbo. To give him a leg up, Dracula acquires the help of some fellow fiends, the aforementioned monsters, but as ever it is Frankenstein who is torn and after taken a liking to Sean’s little sister big Frank does his bit to help save the day. Imagine Hammer Horror remaking The Goonies (1985) and you’ll be close to Monster Squad territory, a horror film that that sprung from one of the more curious genres of eighties cinema, the fun horror action movie. Sitting alongside the likes of Fright Night (1985), House (1986), and The Lost Boys (1987) these films walk that tricky line between laughs and frights, a perfect recipe for Halloween night.
Tasty Morsel – Talks of a remake abound, with Rob Cohen and Michael Bay the last to circle the project.
- SCREAM (1996)
By the mid eighties the slasher flick was dead in the water. Every conceivable story premise had been utilised for the slice and dice picture. Scantily clad ladies had been chased through shopping malls, trains, mines, college campuses and every other location known to man. The boundaries of acceptable violence had also been pushed as far as they were likely to be, at least for now. By the mid nineties all the kids and teens that had grown up with the slasher genre were now well into adulthood. One of those teens was script writer Kevin Williamson and he had a slasher revival dream which took the form of a knowingly comedic, self-referential horror script entitled "Scary Movie”. It was such a hot property that the script caused a bidding war amongst Hollywood’s studios. The script eventually landed in Wes Craven’s lap, and a good thing to as the horror maestro ensured that there were plenty of scares to go along with Williamson’s witty banter. Fortunately the Weinstein Company also threw a decent wodge of cash at the casting department in order to get a stellar troupe. Drew Barrymore, Courtney Cox and David Arquette all figured, but it was Neve Campbell that stole the movie creating the best scream queen since Jamie Lee Curtis last staggered round Haddonfield. The movie is a delight for the horror fan and the comedy fan alike, and holds up well to repeat viewings as you try to untangle all the red-herrings. Williamson got his wish; off the back of Scream’s success, the slasher film was back in vogue, and in trotted I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997), Urban Legend (1998) et al.
Tasty Morsel – Keep an eye out for The Exorcist’s Linda Blair in a blink and you’ll miss it cameo as a news reporter.
- RINGU (1998)
Horror fans owe Asian cinema a lot. If it wasn’t for them the only output we’d have had over the last few years would have been remakes and the gorenography movement. Most of the Hollywood "reimaginings” have been woeful and Saw’s (2004) various offspring have made the typical error of mistaking blood and guts for scares. Thank the Lord then for the Far East and its proper horror offerings. Classics such as The Eye (2002) and A Tale of Two Sisters (2003) have satiated the hunger of those looking for genuine frights. As such it would be remiss not to pay tribute to one of the greatest movements in scary cinema on Halloween night. And what better way to bow respectfully than by watching the film that started it all, Hideo Nakata’s Ringu (1998). Invoking the horror traditions of Japanese cinema and culture, such as the phantom ‘yurei’ and ‘onryo’ and the likes of Kwaiden (1964) and Kuroneko (1968), writer Koji Suzuki and director Nakata gave the old a modern spin by making a cursed video tape the delivery mechanism for the frights. Released at the dawn of the DVD era, the film became a fitting epitaph for VHS by offering a wholly unique horror viewing experience. The films villain, the spectral Sadako, reaches her victims after they watch the plot driving cursed videotape, crawling right out of the unfortunate’s television set in that now infamous scene. Though you’d be hard pushed to find a copy of Ringu on video, the scene still adds an extra frisson of fear as you wonder if the lank haired spook will go so far as to clamber out of your own TV set. If they ever release a 3D version of Nakata’s masterpiece, we’re in real trouble.
Tasty Morsel – Nakata’s film wasn’t the first adaptation of Suzuki’s original 1991 novel. The story first hit television screens in 1995 as Ring: Kanzenban.
- MONSTER HOUSE (2006)
Of course it can’t all be blood, guts and bare breasts at Halloween. Some people have the misfortune of having kids around. So if you’re playing the responsible parent give this Gil Kenan movie a spin the in the dvd player. Like every good kids film there’s something here for everyone, pretty visuals for the kids, genuine frights and laughs for the adults. The film has executive producer credits for Robert Zemeckis and Steven Spielberg and it shows; their filmic foibles are littered all over the script. We follow DJ Walters and his best friends Chowder and Jenny as they poke around the "evil” house opposite DJ’s home, the property of neighbourhood bogeyman the curmudgeonly Mr. Nebbercracker. Building on the something-for-everyone ideal, it’s a legend familiar to all comers from toddlers to geriatrics, the scary house round the corner. As kids we all had a dwelling nearby that was supposedly frequented by horrors of every kind. It was a Bates Motel-esque semi-detached pile that I use to walk past everyday from school. My friends and I would dare each other to bang on the garage door, which we happily did until one day the haunted face of an old crone screamed at us from an upstairs window. We left well alone after that. DJ and his mates are made of sterner stuff though and when they venture into Monster House they find all their fears to be true. It’s a neat twist that makes for an unpredictable but crowd pleasing finale in the finest of pumpkin and bed-sheeted ghostly traditions.
Tasty Morsel – Of those lending their pipes to proceedings Steve Buscemi, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Kathleen Turner feature.
- TRICK 'R TREAT (2007)
Other than Carpenter’s renowned masterpiece, there aren’t that many films about Halloween night itself. One film which managed to encompass all the very best elements of October 31st is Michael Dougherty’s Trick ‘r Treat (2007). Featuring a portmanteau style like the horror classics of old Tales from the Crypt (1972) and Creepshow (1982) Dougherty provides an anthology of three interwoven tales. One involves an enticing pack of werewolves, one a bus load of school kids who perished in a quarry, and one sees a pumpkin headed pintsized menace terrorising the local grouchy loner. So far, so Amicus, but what elevates this trio of tales is the production values, the game cast and the interconnectivity. The movie looks wonderful, almost permanently lit by the orange glow of pumpkin light, and the setting is a suburban American town tailor made for a night of All Hallows fun, white picket fences casting long shadows and porch swings creaking in the wind. The cast features some admirable acting talent, with Anna Paquin and Brian Cox amongst others, selling the script superbly without resorting to histrionics. And the three central tales intertwine brilliantly well, interspersed with a number of smaller happenings of the macabre, all sprinkled with some genuine frights and welcome, but not overdone, flashes of gore. Despite receiving critical acclaim upon release Dougherty’s movie only had a very limited cinematic run; it’s well worth giving a home to though on Halloween night as the perfect Autumnal fright film.
Tasty Morsel - The film was original entitled Season’s Greetings after the short film Dougherty made previously that inspired the movie.