by Brian J. Showers, © October 2005

HERE WE ARE, another Halloween, another list of recommendations for your holiday viewing pleasure. Included are both classics, and a few that you may have missed. There are probably even a couple that you've intentionally passed over at the video store due to lame covers or bad box descriptions. You may not like all of my recommendations, but with any luck you'll find at least one that sends shivers down your spine. After all, 'tis the season. Boo!

1. THE CHANGELING, Directed by Peter Medak, USA, 1980

Jack Russell (George C. Scott) is a pianist who loses his family in a car accident. Putting the tragedy behind him, Russell moves to Seattle where he takes a teaching position and rents a rambling mansion from the local historical society. No sooner does Russell move into the house than a ghostly presence makes itself known. Doors open by themselves, a loud banging wakes Russell every morning, and a ghost appears in the bathtub (scarier than it sounds). After finding a hidden room in the attic, and an especially productive séance, Russell is slowly drawn into an elaborate murder mystery.

Haunted house films don't get much more classic than this. The house is brooding and dilapidated; the protagonist is anguished and slightly Byronic: the set up is perfect for a dark and stormy night. The Changeling is perhaps best known for its terrifying wheelchair scene, a scene that's engrained in many people's nightmares. This film is for those who prefer supernatural horrors to those more corporeal. It is one part The Haunting (1942) and one part Chinatown (1973).

2. CREEPSHOW, Directed by George Romero, USA, 1982

Creepshow is an anthology of five, star-studded, comic book-style horror stories. "Father's Day," starring Ed Harris, is a zombie revenge story set at a remote manor. "The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verill," with tour de force acting by Stephen King, is about a man who turns into a plant. "Something To Tide You Over," starring Leslie Nielson, is another revenge story featuring a zombie Ted Danson returning from his watery grave. "The Crate," with Hal Holbrook, is about a mysterious crate found in the basement of an old university building. And finally, "They'll Creep Up On You," about a rich curmudgeon, E.G. Marshall, who thinks he's living in a bug proof apartment--he's not. The most fun you'll ever have being scared!

Creepshow takes its cue from the E.C. comics of the fifties. Fans of the tv series Tales From the Crypt take note, Creepshow is a comic book come to life. This isn't a dark and muddy horror film, but rather a bright spectacle that's just as fun as it is scary. George A. Romero directs five whiz-bang stories written by Stephen King; you're bound to like at least one of them. If you don't, there's always Creepshow 2, and the forthcoming Creepshow 3.

3. CAT PEOPLE, Directed by Jacques Tourneur, USA, 1942

Serbian-born Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon) is almost the perfect wife for New York architect Ollie Reed. She's beautiful, intelligent, and successful--but she shies from intimacy, and refuses to consummate the marriage. Irena believes in the myths of the old country; that she is of a cursed lineage. She believes that when her passions are aroused, she will turn into a panther, and tear her lover to bits. The marriage starts to crumble, and not even a psychiatrist can help. When Reed turns to another woman for comfort, Irena gets jealous. But is what lurks in the shadows a jealous wife, or a deadly feline?

With a miniscule budget, RKO horror producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur were forced to find a way to make the most of their limited resources. And so they developed their trademark style: heavy shadows, unrelenting atmosphere and off-camera scares. "What you don't see is often scarier than what appears on the screen," became the working mantra of this much-imitated pioneering duo. The formula worked, and Cat People was a smash hit when it was released in 1942. Avoid the 1982 remake with Nastassja Kinski. It's a stinker than a neglected litter box.

4. FRIGHT NIGHT, Directed by Tom Holland, USA, 1985

Charley Brewster is pretty sure that Jerry Dandridge (Chris Sarandon), his new neighbor, is a vampire. But no one will believe him. His mother, girlfriend, and best bud think he's seen far too many horror films. In order to help Charley work through his delusion, his friends enlist the help of Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall), a washed-up horror actor cum late night television host. While performing a mock vampire test, Vincent makes an accidental discovery--Dandridge casts no reflection in a mirror. Perhaps Charley's not so delusional after all.

Fright Night is a typical 80s vampire flick, albeit a very good one. It's got a scene set in an 80s dance club, a misfit that wears a jean jacket, a pre-Married...With Children Amanda Bearse, and a monster bat by visual effects wizard Randall William Cook. If the monster bat looks familiar, it's because Cook also designed the Terror Dogs in Ghostbusters, and the Minions in everyone's favorite film about the dangers of heavy metal music, The Gate. Fright Night features a great cast, who are in on the fun, including Roddy McDowall as the reluctant vampire hunter.

5. WENDIGO, Directed by Larry Fessenden, USA, 2001

Kim (Patricia Clarkson), George (Jake Weber), and their young son Miles (Erik Per Sullivan) have rented a cottage for a short vacation in the snowy wilderness. As they're driving along the dark road to the cottage, they accidentally hit a deer; a deer marked for the kill by local good ol' boy, Otis. The hunter's smug resentment soon turns to harassment that includes pot shots at the family with a rifle. Inspired by his childhood fears, Miles's nightmares begin to take shape; the line between reality and fantasy begins to break down as often does when tragedy strikes.

Admittedly, Wendigo is a flawed film. If you're expecting a monster movie, you're sure to be disappointed. But that doesn't account for the overly ambiguous ending. While the film starts out brilliantly, the end will leave you wondering which part of the puzzle you missed. One almost gets the impression that the filmmakers ran out of both time and money. I personally like this film for its poetry: how a child interprets the complex nature of adult relationships. Wendigo is worth seeing, if only for its strongly realized sense of a cold and ambivalent world. Fessenden is definitely a competent director, and one you should keep your eye on.

6. NIGHT OF THE DEMON, Directed by Jacques Tourneur, UK, 1957

A prominent American scientist, Dr. John Holden (Dana Andrews), travels to England for a symposium on parapsychology. When Holden arrives, he learns that Dr. Harrington, a colleague who was exposing a devil cult, has died in a mysterious auto accident. Julian Karswell (Niall McGinnis), the head of the devil cult, claims to have conjured the demon that killed Harrington. Holden is skeptical, so when he vows to continue the exposé, Karswell places the same curse on him. Is each successive uncanny occurrence merely mounting coincidence, or will Holden be forced to believe in the power of the supernatural--at the hands of an angry demon?

Another film by famed director Jacques Tourneur. Based on the M.R. James story, "Casting the Runes," Night of the Demon, known as Curse of the Demon in its truncated US form, is considered one of the finest supernatural films of all time. The opening scene shows Dr. Harrington driving frantically down a lonely country road, nervously scanning the dark skies, and thus sets the thrilling tone of this excellent film. But is Night of the Demon a flawed masterpiece? Some people believe the film would have been even more effective had the demon not been shown. Others believe it's a necessary reveal in order to convey threat, no matter how cheesy the demon looks. What do you think?

7. THE INNOCENTS, Directed by Jack Clayton, UK, 1961

Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr) is the new governess at Bly House, an isolated English manor tenanted by two well-mannered orphans, Miles and Flora. For Miss Giddens, it's a dream come true, that is, until she starts seeing mysterious figures lurking at the top of the tower and across the lake. It isn't long before Miss Giddens learns of the tragedy that befell the former governess, Miss Jessel, and her lover, Peter Quint. And when the children start taking on sinister characteristics, Miss Giddens begins to wonder whether Jessel and Quint are completely dead.

If this story sounds familiar, it's because it's based on Henry James's famous novella, The Turn of the Screw, which also inspired Alejandro Amenábar's The Others. The Innocents was co-scripted by Truman Capote and is rife with sexual undercurrents, readymade for the psychoanalysts. And like James's novel, the ending is ambiguous: Is Miss Giddens going mad, or is the sinister force something external? This film is perfect for those who like their horror a little less bloody, and a little more literary.

8. GINGER SNAPS: UNLEASHED, Directed by Brett Sullivan,
   Canada, 2004

Brigitte Fitzgerald has problems. Not only is she slowly turning into a werewolf, but one is also stalking her. Until she can find a cure, the only thing keeping her from full transformation are frequent injections of wolfsbane. After an overdose, she wakes up to find herself incarcerated in a drug treatment center for girls--and without her medication. The center is also home to Ghost, an eccentric girl whose grandmother is being treated for severe burns. With the werewolf getting closer, and Brigitte's transformation imminent, it's not long before the two girls will have to share their dark secrets.

You've already seen Ginger Snaps, right? If not, you're missing out on a top-notch werewolf flick. In either case, part two is a sequel that's worthy of your attention. Where the first film brilliantly equates lycanthropy with puberty, the second film uses drug addiction as its metaphor. The result is an extremely savage film, with a sense of humor even blacker than in the first installment. The make-up effects are notably repulsive, though wholly appropriate. As for the third entry, Ginger Snaps Back, let's just say you're better off re-watching Dog Soldiers or An American Werewolf In London.

9. DON'T LOOK NOW, Directed by Nicholas Roeg, Italy/UK, 1973

After the tragic drowning of their daughter, architect John Baxter and his wife Laura (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie) relocate to Venice to restore a historic church. During lunch at one of Venice's sunny café's, Laura meets two batty old sisters: one of which is a blind psychic who claims she can see the Baxters' daughter. Laura accepts the sisters' guidance, and becomes concerned for her husband's safety when they advise him to leave the city. But John is sceptical, even when he starts having his own visions of their dead daughter along the dark canals of Venice.

Venice, the true star of this 1973 film, is a beautifully photographed city of churches, bridges, and canals. While there's only one scene that's outright terrifying--one that your mind will scurry to comprehend--the haunted atmosphere of the film builds unstoppably, making Don't Look Now a unique horror experience. It may not be surprising that this film has more of a following in Europe than in America. And while Don't Look Now certainly is not for everyone, if you're looking for a dreamy and surreal horror film that you can spend hours discussing with your friends, this might be the one for you.

10. DEAD END, Directed by Jean-Baptiste Andrea & Fabrice Canepa,      France/USA, 2003

On the Harrington family's annual Christmas drive to grandma's house, Mr. Harrington (Ray Wise) decides to take the scenic back route. After hours of driving down a woodland road with no turnoffs, the Harringtons think they might be lost, and begin to grate each other's nerves as only family can. When they pick up a dazed lady in white and her oddly silent baby, things begin to get weird. Especially when they see signs for Marcott, a town that isn't on any map. And when family members start to disappear, the situation becomes positively desperate.

Dead End is an entertaining and unsettling black comedy with a simple premise that is reminiscent of the best episodes of The Twilight Zone. The amusing dialogue between family members will remind you of your own family car trips at their worst. While the entire film takes place in a car and on a forest road, Andrea and Canepa's clever direction keeps each scene fresh. Combined with an excellent cast, including truly stellar performances by Ray Wise and Lin Shaye, this is one of the best films you've never heard of, but need to see.

All contents of this page are © Brian J. Showers 2003-2013. All individual copyrights are retained by the creators.
Nothing may be reproduced without written permission.