Well, it’s the time of the year where the Great Pumpkin comes and visits us. Halloween is my favorite holiday because of the scary aspect of the holiday and going Trick or Treating. When I was growing up besides Christmas, Halloween was the best. You got to dress up in your favorite character and go out and get as much candy loot as you could stuff in your bag. As you get older you start to miss going out but you then celebrate in different ways. One great way is to watch a good old scary movie. Sadly most horror films being made today pale in comparison to when people knew how to make good horror films. So you are in luck because I have put together a list of some really good films to help you get in the mood.
“In space no one can hear you scream” now that is a great tagline for a film. Before Alien Ridley Scott had directed only one feature film The Duellist but changed the was we saw space monsters forever. A great script by Dan O’Bannon creature design by artist H.R. Giger and designs by Ron Cobb and Moebius transformed the simple monster movie in to a modern classic. Instead of having the typical male hero they created one of the strongest woman in science fiction & horror Ellen Ripley. Adding Jerry Goldsmiths haunting score is just icing on the cake. It’s a simple monster story but one that you will never forget.
Cronos, Mimic & The Devil’s Backbone
Guillermo Del Toro is one of the few modern filmmakers that “gets” horror and fantasy. He also loves films so when you bring all of those elements together you get some really special films. Cronos, Mimic and The Devil’s Backbone are for me his horror trilogy. Cronos is the vampire film, Mimic is the monster film and The Devil’s Backbone is the ghost story. Cronos was his first feature film and deals with the cost of immortality and how it affects the victim and there loved ones. Mimic was his first splash in Hollywood and it was not a smooth transition. Miramax changed the script hired a second unit director to punch up the action and they ruined the atmosphere the Del Toro had envisioned. Luckily Del Toro has restored most of his vision of the film (sadly his original darker ending was never shot). The movie is firmly B-Movie territory set in New York it’s about genetic engineering gone wrong and turning cockroaches into monsters living in abandoned subways. After his bad taste of Hollywood he returned to Mexico to make The Devil’s Backbone. It’s the story of Carlos, a 12-year-old whose father has died in the Spanish Civil War, arrives at an ominous boy’s orphanage he discovers the school is haunted and has many dark secrets that he must uncover. It’s a very emotional film with the backdrop of war, loss and childhood.
Dawn of the Dead & Creepshow
Without George Romero there would be no zombie films, comics or television series today. He is the Godfather of modern horror cinema. In 1968 Night of the Living Dead was released and set the stage for the modern age of horror films. My favorite of the Romero Dead films is the second one Dawn of the Dead 1978 (not the horrendous 2004 remake) . Beyond the obvious upgrade in gore thanks to the talented Tom Savini making his debut as a makeup artist the film is a brilliant social comment of the times. In the 70’s the rise of the shopping malls that everything popped up around the country. Not only did it have everything you needed it also made a great fort from the zombie apocalypse. The thing that Romero did so well in the film was the character study of the people that were trying to survive this. With Creepshow Romero teamed up with legendary horror writer Stephen King to make a film version of the classic EC Comics from the mid 50’s. While not a direct adaptation of any of the comics it certainly was obvious where it drew it’s inspiration from. There are five separate stories two were adaptations of previous King stories the other three were written for the film. This is just an old fashion 50’s horror film with 80’s gore thrown in the mix. My favorite story is They’re Creeping Up on You that has E.G. Marshall as a Howard Hughes type character who has become a hermit and is obsessed with everything being super clean. Then his apartment in overrun with cockroaches.
Halloween and The Thing
While George Romero is king of the zombies John Carpenter is truly the modern master of horror. Halloween was one of the films that ushered in the slasher films of the 80’s. Made for a very modest $320,000 and went on to earn 70 million worldwide at the time of it’‘s release. Ironically Halloween has barely any blood in it and is more of a suspense film than an outright gorefest. It really follows the tradition of Hitchcock for being subtle instead of in your face. It also brought us the horror hero Michael Meyers the faceless monster that terrorized Jamie Lee Curtis. Carpenter brought other tricks to the modern horror genre. A good story, moody music and a sense of style that are lacking in most horror films. Carpenter went on to direct many genre hits but it was his re-imagining of the 1951 Howard Hawks Thing From Another World. First Carpenter did the right thing and not remake the original film. He went back to the original novella “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell. It’s a more faithful adaptation than the 1951 film but Carpenter wisely does not negate the original film. Robb Bottin’s makeup effects are just stunning and disturbing all at the same time. This was the second time (of 4) that Kurt Russell worked with Carpenter and cemented the shedding of the cute Disney films that he had made. Both films are so rich and moody but never forget the two most important elements of great films, character and story. If you have those elements in place with the right guidance you can make what they call movie magic.
Few films have had the impact on horror that the Exorcist had in 1973. William Peter Blatty adapted his own 1971 novel of the same name and directed by William Friendkin they brought a more “realistic” horror film. The novel was based on a 1949 story of a boy that was “possessed” and a priest performed an exorcism to banish the “demon” out of him. For the film to work Friendkin had to cast a child actress for the part of Regan MacNeil and was very fortunate to find 13 year old Linda Blair for the role. But to make the entire film work the other key role also needed to be spot on Ellen Burstyn as Regan’s mother Chris MacNeil, Max Von Sydow as Father Lankester Merrin and Jason MIller as Father Damien Karras all bring a great humanity to there roles and the movie. The reason the film is scary is because you feel the pain, fear and horror from the characters.
A Nightmare on Elm Street
While Wes Craven has had his up’s (Scream & Serpent and the Rainbow) and down’s (Deadly Friend & Vampire in Brooklyn) it cannot be denied that he brought us one of the unnerving films of the 80’s. Craven introduced us to Freddy Krueger one of the screens most beloved horror villains and skillfully played by Robert Englund. The thing that made the film scary was he took the story of the boogie man and instead of him stalking you in real life Freddy attacked you in your dreams. By blurring the line between reality and dreams Craven tapped into the fear of helplessness. Though many sequels were made the original is still unmatched and has us all fearing to go to sleep.
Jaws and Poltergeist
Steven Spielberg not only brought us what we now know as the summer tent pole movies but scared the swimming trunks off us all. Jaws based on Peter Benchley’s novel of the same name made us fear going into the water. Instead of creating a monster they used one that was already created by nature, a great white shark. We all know the story of the “shark is not working” but we should all be happy that it didn’t. With the mechanical shark not working Spielberg had to keep the monster in the shadows until much later in the film and that is why it works so well. Everyone knows what a shark looks like and can do, so you can imagination does much of the work for you. With the shark missing from most of the film it’s the cast that really shines and makes us believe how big this shark really is. Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, and Richard Dreyfuss made us all realize that yes we do need a bigger boat. While prepping E.T. Spielberg was producing Poltergeist for MGM but was contractually not able to direct it. So Tobe Hooper was hired to “direct” the film while I think that Hooper was on the set every day if you compare it to his films right after Poltergeist, Lifeforce & Invaders From Mars (1986 remake) to me it’s pretty obvious who really directed the film. Poltergeist is a tour de force ghost story with some really stunning visual effect by ILM. It follows the Freeling family whose daughter Carol Anne is taken by the house and has been taken to another dimension. They hire a medium to rescue her and discover that the house is built on a graveyard. It’s a great scary ride that will give you some real nightmares if you are afraid of clowns. Sadly there is no credit to Richard Matheson who wrote the episode of The Twilight Zone “Little Girl Lost” that bears more than a resemblance to the movie.
Psycho and The Birds
What list of great horror movies be without the master himself, Hitchcock. Most of the films that he made were some of the best thrillers ever made but these two are true horror movies. With Psycho Hitchcock did to taking a shower is the same thing that Spielberg did with going into the water. It made you think twice. Hitchcock was the king of the MacGuffin, meaning the entire first act of the film you think that the story is going to be about Janet Leigh embezzling from her job, but really that plot point is just to get you to the Bates Motel where the real story is. Norman Bates expertly played by Anthony Perkins plays the duality of a mad man where you are never quite sure which Norman you are actually watching. With The Birds he take a animal that we barely notice everyday and starts to attack with no reason or warning. The film offers no explanation of the cause of the birds attacks just the shear terror of it.
Stanley Kubrick only directed 13 feature films in his amazing career but luckily one of them was The Shinning. Based on the Stephen King novel the best way to think of the adaptation is there is what King’s version of the story and then there is Kubrick’s version of it. While the structure is similar Kubrick’s take and tone are solely his. Jack Nicholson decent into madness is a sight rarely seen. Hired as a caretaker of a large hotel during the winter months Jack Terrance and his wife Wendy (Shelly Duvall) and son Danny (Danny Lloyd). He take the job so he can work on his writing. The Hotel becomes snowed in and Wendy is worried about Jack’s becoming unbalanced looks to find that he has been writing on all of the pages “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” Kubrick’s visually takes us on Jack’s downward spiral that is the stuff of nightmares.
The Fly (1986)
David Cronenberg remake of the 1958 only take the basic premise of the film of a scientist accidentally fusing a man with a fly. The original film is mostly a 50’s monster movie. While this version on the surface is also, Cronenberg keeps the film grounded with the strong tragic love story and strong cast. Jeff Goldblum as Seth Brundle and Geena Davis as Veronica Quaife bring a great humanity to the monster story. While Seth tries to reverse the genetic splicing, he becomes obsessed with fusing Veronica and there unborn child leading to tragic consequences. Chris Walas stunning makeup effects for every stage of Seth’s transformation but never loses sight of the man behind the monster.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956/1978) and Body Snatcher (1993)
All three adaptations are based on the Jack Finney 1955 novel. While the 1956 Don Siegal starring Kevin McCarthy and the 1978 Philip Kaufman directed Donald Sutherland versions are fairly close to each other. I’m very fond of the 1993 Abel Ferrara version starring Gabrielle Anwar and Meg Tilly. I like the idea of having a female lead and it taking place on a military base gave it a different feel which is a good thing to do if this is the third film version. All three films follow the story of aliens coming to earth and silently taking over people and replacing them with perfect imitations of them but they lack any emotions. It is well worth seeing all three versions of the films because they all tell the same story but with different twists.
Richard Donner’s breakthrough feature film The Omen played on the old idea of the devil is among us story. Gregory Peck plays Robert Thorn and Lee Remick as his wife Katherine who gives birth but the baby dies. At the same time another mother gives birth to a son but she dies and the child lives. Father Spiletto (Martin Benson) persuades Robert to substitute the other child because of concerns for Katherine’s well being. They soon discover that the child Damien (played by Harvey Spencer Stephens) is surrounded by strange deaths and accidents. Robert piecing the clues together discover that Damien is the child of the devil and bears the mark 666. Written by David Seltzer weaves a story of myths and sheer terror. The film wouldn’t work had they not found Stephens as the down right scary Damien. When the nanny gleefully hangs herself at Damien’s birthday party and the evil look on Damien’s face will send chills up your spine.
Almost all the films on the above list are to say the least not very kid friendly. I have not forgotten that Halloween is a time for some really great family films that can be a bit frighting but not super scary.
Mad Monster Party, Nightmare Before Christmas and Coraline
I have always been a huge fan of stop motion animation. There is a texture that bring still puppets to life has a sense of warmth to it. Mad Monster Party by Rankin/Bass is the stop motion feature that has inspired many films after it’s release. Directed by Jules Bass with a screenplay by the legendary Mad Magazine writer and artist Harvey Kurtzman along with art designer and fellow Mad alumni Jack Davis created a real tour de force of style, story and animation. With a stunning voice cast of Boris Karloff as Baron Boris Von Frankenstein, smoky voiced singer Gale Garnett as Francesca and Allen Swift as Frankenstein’s bumbling son Felix Flankin it brings all of classic “Universal Monsters” together in one film that is funny, goofy and a real blast. The Baron is retiring and giving it all to Felix and this does not sit well with the others. So they all try and bump Felix off so they can take charge. Being obviously inspired by Mad Monster Party Tim Burton being a huge fan of stop motion with his first short Vincent produced The Nightmare Before Christmas that was directed by Henry Selick. Teaming with Edward Scissorhands writer Caroline Thompson to flesh out Burton’s original story. Creating the world of Halloween Town Jack decides he wants to try his hand at Christmas because he is bored with Halloween. Danny Elfman wrote the songs and the score and is also the singing voice of Jack weaves the songs with the story to create a modern day classic. Selick went on to direct the stop motion adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s novel Coraline. This very faithful adaptation of Gaiman’s novel tell the story of Coraline moving to a new house in a new town and discovering a door to the Other World that has doppelgangers of her family and all the neighbor’s. She ignores the warnings until the Other Mother tries to keep her on the other side. Coraline has some of the most beautiful stop motion animation ever done. It was shot in 3-D that I usually hate but really adds to the atmosphere of the film.
Something Wicked This Way Comes
While not a perfect adaption of Ray Bradbury’s novel never the less delivers a strong film. Disney at the time was trying to change there theatrical image with more daring fair than people were used to. Along with The Black Hole, TRON, and later Return to Oz they were box office disappointments when they were released but some have went on to enjoy a second life. Something Wicked This Way Comes is one that you should give a second chance to. Often described as an elegant horror film it stars Jason Robards as Charles Halloway, Vidal Peterson as his son Will and Shawn Carson as his best friend Jim Nightshade. Jonathan Pryce masterfully brings to life Mr. Dark who brings the carnival to town to feed off of the towns desires. It’s a telling of the story be careful what you wish for. Bradbury adapted his novel but it was rewritten after clashing with director Jack Clayton. While not perfect the source material is so good and the excellent cast make this a very creepy film.
The love for “Universal Monster’s” continued in this great film. Co-written and directed by Fred Dekker and co-written by Shane Black of Lethal weapon fame they brought back the “Saturday matinee” feature. Bringing on Stan Winston for the makeup and Richard Edlund’s Boss Film Effects to this very modestly budgeted film to life well beyond it’s budget. It follows a group of kids who idolize classic monsters and monster movies and hold their meetings in a tree clubhouse. They discover the diary of famed vampire hunter Van Helsing that one day out of every century that good and evil have an equal balance the amulet that keep evil at bay is vulnerable to destruction. Sadly the film bombed on it’s initial release but for the few of us who actually saw it immediately fell in love with it’s mix of homage, horror, humor, and fun.
What do you get when you team Producer Jim Henson, Writer Roald Dahl and Director Nicolas Roeg? You get one of the wildest family movie ever made. Roeg was know for his surreal filmmaking such as The Man Who Fell to Earth was on the surface an odd choice for a director but he was able to not only capture Dahl’s darkness of the story but visually give the story what it needed for the screen. Very few family films know how to capture the darkness of most fairy tales correctly and this one hit it straight on the bullseye. Jasen Fisher plays Luke Eveshim recently orphaned, is taken to England by his grandmother played by Mai Zetterling. At a hotel in which they are staying, a group of witches lead by the Grand High Witch played masterfully by Anjelica Huston have gathered to prepare a plot to rid the world of all children. Creating Formula 86 that turns children into mice. Luke must steal the formula and save all the children from the witches wrath. The adaptation is very faithful to the original book and the only change is a more uplifting ending than the book. The fusion of comedy and horror rarely work but if you have a great team in place like this the puzzle pieces fall into perfect place.
There are plenty of other great films to get you in the mood of the season. This is by no means a complete list but hopefully there are few that you have not seen and all are highly recommended. Now grab some popcorn and try not to spill to much of it when you jump.
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