by Brian J. Showers, © October 2007

I LOVE OCTOBER. I wish it lasted longer than just thirty-one days. It's got something to do with the crisp air, the prolonged evenings, and the autumnal shroud that hangs over everything. In fact, I love October so much that I wouldn't be opposed to swiping a few more days from that miserable February and re-allotting them this way. Below is this year's list of noteworthy films; some you may have missed, others you might want to revisit. You'll notice that four films date from 2006. I could have included more. Must have been a good year for fright films. Boo!

   Directed by Scott Glosserman, USA, 2006

Jason Voorhees, Freddie Krueger, and Michael Myers. These unstoppable killers stalk their teenage prey with seemingly supernatural powers. They make it look so easy! But how do they do it? Grad student Taylor Gentry (Angela Goethals) wants to find out, and so she and her amateur film crew follow serial killer Leslie Vernon (Nathan Baesel) as he prepares for his night of terror. Leslie is a normal guy with a good-humoured passion for his craft, but he's also deadly serious about it, and like his heroes, Jason, Freddie and Michael, he will let no one stand in his way.

Bouncing effortlessly between mockumentary and the slasher flick, this clever film delivers the goods in both departments. Director/co-writer Scott Glosserman's deconstructionist approach is a refreshing new take on the venerable and oft-maligned slasher genre. Drawing on thirty years of tradition, killer Leslie Vernon, perfectly played by Baesel, takes us through the steps of becoming an effective serial killer: physical training, creating a back story, choosing a final girl, and preparing for slaughter night. Though billed as a comedy/horror, there are moments in this film when Vernon's disturbed mind is terrifyingly real.

2. THE LONG WEEKEND, Directed by Colin Eggleston, Australia, 1978

Peter and Marcia disregard all that is around them: from their crumbling relationship to their respect for the natural world. Their last chance at fixing their marriage is a camping trip to the remote coast of northern Australia. As soon as they arrive, Marcia starts spraying pesticide while Peter chugs beers and shoots his new rifle. The environment seemingly feeds off their foul temperaments as their quarrels escalate. Soon they find themselves haunted by unnerving howls and whines from deep in the woods, and a dark shape lurks in the water near the beach.

The threat in The Long Weekend is often formless and indistinct, but the horror it poses is never the less real. Although low budget, Eggleston's direction is subtle, continually inventive and never gives into the silliness that befalls killer animal movies, with which this film shares a few traits. The Long Weekend is a film that successfully channels its literary predecessors, such as Arthur Machen's nature-run-amok novella The Terror, and Algernon Blackwood's stories of the unknowable forces of nature.

3. AFTERLIFE (TV series), Various Directors, UK, 2005-2006

Alison Mundy (Leslie Sharp) has a talent she is not entirely comfortable with. She can see, hear, and communicate with the dead. Or rather, whether she likes it or not, the dead communicate with her. Alison has moved to Bristol to start a new life, and does not expect to meet Robert Bridge (Andrew Lincoln), a university psychology professor and staunch sceptic. Despite their conflicting worldviews, Robert is fascinated with Alison, and decides to write a book about her experiences. What Robert is not prepared for is emotional turmoil when Alison claims to have a message from his dead son. "You don't choose the spirits, they choose you."

Series creator and writer Stephen Volk (Ghostwatch) has produced one of the most terrifying television programmes in recent memory. Each standalone episode is a modern ghost story that mixes psychical tension with real world atmosphere. Through its two seasons, Afterlife explores Alison and Robert's complex and often conflicting relationship as they try to understand the spiritual world from their own perspectives. Unfortunately for North Americans, Afterlife is currently only available as a Region 2 DVD, but if you ever need an excuse to buy a region-free DVD player, here it is.

4. FREAKS, Directed by Tod Browning, USA, 1932

The setting is a sideshow carnival somewhere in Europe, populated by an array of diverse characters such as the bird girl, bearded lady, human skeleton and the half-boy. Hans, a midget, has eyes for trapeze artist Cleopatra, the peacock of the air, and wishes only to please her. Little does Hans know, Cleopatra and her strongman lover Hercules have designs on his fortune and will do anything to get it. But they do not reckon on the code of the Freaks. As the barker says at the beginning of the film, "Offend one, and you offend them all."

In his follow up to Dracula, Tod Browning stunned the world with Freaks by casting real sideshow acts. Some critics thought the film's graphic depiction of sideshow life was demeaning or inhuman; others believed it was a compassionate portrayal of a proud outsider community. Shortly after its release, the film was pulled from cinemas, banned in most countries and otherwise "lost". It was re-discovered by the counterculture in the 1960s when the word "freak" took on more a positive meaning. Fans of HBO's Carnivàle will want to buy a ticket and step right up.

5. INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, Directed by Philip Kauffman,
   USA, 1978

What do you do when someone you know is no longer themselves? Health Department official Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams) thinks just that about her husband. Believing that his co-worker is suffering from delusions, Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland) takes her to see self-help guru Dr. David Kibner (Leonard Nimoy) who has recently seen an escalation in this particular psychosis. But what if the paranoid rantings of his patients are in fact sane observations? And if those they fear are not themselves, then who are they?

You will forgive me for slyly recommending three movies at once. Wisconsin-born writer Jack Finney's classic 1955 sci-fi novel has been filmed four times: 1956, 1978, 1993 and 2007. I can't speak for 2007, but each of the first three films is expertly nuanced to the paranoias of their respective decades. Kauffman's version is my particular favourite. The cast is unbeatable: in addition to the above, there's Jeff Goldblum and Veronica Cartwright who play health spa and mud bath owners where one of the more terrifying scenes takes place. You won't want to fall asleep during this classic thriller!

6. THE LAST WINTER, Directed by Larry Fessenden, USA, 2006

Something is off in the wilds of Alaska. The temperature is fluctuating, the permafrost is melting, and something beyond human understanding is slowly waking up. North Industries have set up a drilling outpost on protected land, and James Hoffman (James Le Gros) is sent to make sure they comply with environmental regulations. Ed Pollock (Ron Perlman), on the other hand, just wants to get the oil out of the ground, and at any price. American's want oil independence, and this may well be their ticket. But what no one expects is what comes out of the ground with it.

Bleakness and remote desolation come to mind when viewing The Last Winter. Like Fessenden's 2001 effort Wendigo, this film is subtle and strives to convey an unconventional brand of horror atypical of the modern genre. The interpersonal drama that comprises the bulk of the film is reminiscent of John Carpenter's The Thing, but the horror is altogether its own breed. The Last Winter does not rely on gore and cheap scares. Instead it invokes a sense of awe and wonder-reminiscent of Blackwood, Machen and Lovecraft-and from that, a sense horror. While this film may not be a future classic, I have a feeling that Fessenden will eventually make one.

7. THE MASK OF SATAN (La machera del demonio),
   Directed by Mario Bava, Italy, 1960

Dr. Kruvajan and his young assistant Dr. Gorobec are travelling through the wilds of Moldavia to a medical conference in the Ukraine. When their carriage looses a wheel in a dark forest, they take the opportunity to explore the ruins of a ruined crypt nearby. There they find the corpse of Princess Asa Vajda (Barbara Steele), who was tried for witchcraft by her brother two centuries earlier, and entombed with an iron mask nailed to her face. Injured by a bat, Dr. Gorobec unintentionally spills blood on Asa's lips, causing her to rise from the grave and take vengeance on the descendents of the House of Vajda.

The Mask of Satan, also known as Black Sunday, was Italian horror maestro Mario Bava's debut film and is considered by many to be his greatest. This film's gothic sensibilities lie somewhere between Universal's chiaroscuro horrors of the 1930s and 40s, and Hammer Studio's more grotesque updates of the later 1950s. Filmed almost entirely on sound stages and on a low budget, Bava allowed his innovation and training as a painter to influence each masterful composition. Though black and white and nearly 50 years old, the gore and special effects are shockingly visceral.

8. THE ABANDONED (Los Abandonados), Directed by Nacho Cerdà,
   Spain/UK/Bulgaria, 2006

Russian born, American raised Marie 'Milla' Jones (Anastasia Hille) returns to her crumbling ancestral farm in remote, rural Russia to seek her roots. Once there her driver abandons her, and she is left to fend for herself in the descending dark. Marie literally finds herself that night when she meets her milky-eyed and pale-skinned doppelgänger that blankly wanders the unkempt estate. A stranger claiming to be her twin brother Nicholai (Karel Roden) has seen both of their shambling doubles wandering the farm for days, and warns Marie that they may be a sign of their futures as well as an insight into their pasts.

I don't know about you, but I've had an intense fear of doppelgängers since the "Mirror Image" and "Afterhours" episodes of The Twilight Zone. The Abandoned is Spanish director Nacho Cerdà's first feature film, and I hope it's not his last. Certainly not fast-paced horror, The Abandoned is a low-key mood piece that requires some patience, but I think the ending pays off. The notably drab grey and green colour palette is by cinematographer Xavi Giménez (The Machinist), and invokes a feverishly surreal quality that runs the length of this film.

9. DOLLS, Directed by Stuart Gordon, USA, 1987

Young Judith is on holiday somewhere in the European countryside with her wicked step-mother (Carolyn Purdy-Gordon) and indifferent father. When their car gets caught in the mud during a fierce storm, they seek shelter with an elderly doll maker (Guy Rolfe) and his wife, who live in a mansion filled with pale porcelain faces and lace dresses. Soon other refugees arrive, including kind-hearted Ralph and two rude punk rock chicks. On this longest night of the year, tiny beings with twittering voices and pattering feet mete out justice to the immoral.

Stuart Gordon is at his best when he mixes horror with the blackest of humour, and both are on show in his grim faerie tale, Dolls. Gordon mines the same vein with Dolls as he does with his excellent Lovecraft double-header, Re-Animator (1985) and From Beyond (1986). The special effects that bring the sinister dolls to life are surprisingly good and suitably creepy. It may amuse some to learn that Guy Rolfe went on to star in four instalments of the Puppet Master series. This film is lighter in tone and probably served best with beer and a bowl of delicious cheez doodles.

10. KING OF THE ANTS, Directed by Stuart Gordon, USA, 2004

Sean Crawley (Chris McKenna) is an affable fellow who keeps to himself and is simply trying to get through life with a succession of odd jobs. At one of these jobs he meets Duke Wayne (George Wendt), a dubious electrician who offers him a gig working for low-life real estate magnate Ray Mathews (Daniel Baldwin). It seems the city accountant (Ray Livingstone!) is investigating Mathews, and Mathews needs someone who can intimidate. But Crawley does his job a little too well, and instead of paying him, Mathews would prefer he just disappear.

Stuart Gordon must have been flying even further below the radar when he made King of the Ants. Admittedly I'm not a big of revenge films, which is essentially what this is, but there's a sense of Greek tragedy in Sean Crawley's plight. Continual plot twists keep up a brisk pace, while questions of human nature give this film an intelligent edge. There's plenty of graphic mayhem--this is after all a Stuart Gordon film--but none of it seems gratuitous and instead comes off as appropriately surreal. Chris McKenna plays a likeable "protagonist", and I love watching George Wendt play the bad guy (see John Landis's Masters of Horror: Family).

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As an added apology for being so late with the list this year, here are two more suggestions that you can enjoy immediately. Both are short films available for viewing online.

11. THE TEN STEPS, Directed by Brendan Muldowney, Ireland, 2004

The first short is of Irish origin called The Ten Steps and was directed by Brendan Muldowney. I won't say too much about this thoroughly spooky tale, but it involves a girl's descent to the basement fuse box of an old house in the wake of a power outage. The short played theatrically in Dublin, rather oddly, before Wolf Creek, a film with which The Ten Steps has nothing in common.

12. MONSTER, Directed by Jennifer Kent, Australia, 2005

The second short comes from Australia and was directed by Jennifer Kent. It's called Monster, and I saw it last spring at a horror film festival in Edinburgh. Although Monster's direction and art design are playful, perhaps reminiscent of early Peter Jackson, Kent comes through with a wonderfully creepy tale. The story centres on a single mother and her young son whose overactive imagination is more than a handful.

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