by Brian J. Showers, © October 2008

IT’S AUTUMN AGAIN and October is here. The weather is turning cool, the leaves are changing colour, and I’m getting a peculiar craving for—no, not blood—but a hot mug of apple cider! Complete with cloves, a cinnamon stick and fresh doughnuts. Here in Dublin the foliage doesn’t exactly catch fire the way it does in Wisconsin woods and a proper mug of cider is indeed hard to come by. But the weather is nearly always cool, and for me a certain Halloween atmosphere hangs in the air all the year round. Here’s another list of films to help you curl up with a hot cider while the autumn spirits rattle your windowpanes. Boo!

1. THE WOODS, Directed by Lucky McKee, USA, 2006

Rebellious Heather (Agnes Bruckner) is the new arrival at prestigious Falburn Academy, an isolated girls’ school located in the heart of a wild forest. On her arrival she meets Ms. Traverse (Patricia Clarkson) the cool and composed headmistress and the very embodiment of the school’s strict demeanour. Soon Heather attracts the friendship of mousy loner and fellow outcast Marcy, as well as the unwelcomed attention of Samantha, the school bully whose intimidation may hold a much different meaning. Legends of witchcraft and strange women in the woods are whispered in the dormitory late at night, and Heather learns that the school’s history is not confined to its past.

Lucky McKee wowed me with his unnerving directorial debut May in 2002; The Woods is his follow-up effort and once again he delivers a stylish supernatural chiller with more than a passing nod to Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977). In The Woods McKee continues exploring the same territory of the awkward young woman as he did in May and his Masters of Horror entry ‘Sick Girl’ (2006). Stylishly set in the 1960s, I quite like The Woods’s closed community setting, the sense of private school mythology, and just a hint of European faerie tale. The Woods is also notable for a dramatic role by horror ham Bruce Campbell, who proves quite capable in this capacity.

2. PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK, Directed by Peter Weir, Australia, 1975

St. Valentine’s Day, 1900. The students of Mrs. Appleyard’s girls’ school take a day trip to Hanging Rock, a million year old volcanic outcropping in remote south-eastern Australia. Shortly after their arrival, they discover all their watches have stopped at the exact same time. Soon after lunch, three of the girls set out to take measurements of the rock for an essay they are to write on return to school. Later, while everyone is napping in late afternoon shade, the girls’ mathematics teacher goes to search for them. On this idyllic summer afternoon, the three girls and their teacher disappear without a trace.

Picnic at Hanging Rock is not a midnight thunderstorm type of horror film. It is a Sunday afternoon meditation on primordial atavism. Director Peter Weir skilfully weaves a number of themes into what is essentially a story of an eerie and unknowable mystery: themes of natural beauty, of innocence and adolescence, of Australia’s ancient and mystical landscape, and of grafting the English lifestyle onto an untamed and possibly untameable land. As one of Mrs. Appleyard’s students remarks, ‘[It’s as if the Hanging Rock has been] waiting a million years . . . just for us.’

3. KWAIDAN, Directed by Masaki Kobayashi, Japan, 1964

Kwaidan is a portmanteau featuring four folkloric ghost stories: In ‘The Black Hair’ a samurai attempts to return to his faithful wife whom he has deserted for power and fortune. ‘The Woman of the Snow’ tells the story of a young woodcutter who meets a mysterious woman who commands him not to speak a word of her existence to anyone. In ‘Hoichi the Earless’ a blind bard sings a song of an epic naval battle to the ghosts of the dead soldiers who fought in it. And finally, ‘In a Cup of Tea’ is a tale about a man who is visited by ghostly stranger whose image he keeps seeing in a teacup.

At the time it was produced in 1964, Kwaidan was the most expensive movie made by a Japanese studio: the supernatural genre was shown genuine reverence and given a budget to match. These tales, based on adaptations of Japanese folklore by Lafcadio Hearn, are simple ghost stories. And director Masaki Kobayashi tells them with sombre beauty, a languid style and a jarringly minimal soundtrack. Kwaidan is three hours long and given the stories’ narrative simplicities, has a tendency to drag. But nevertheless it remains a rewarding and haunting piece of cinema for those who are patient enough to investigate.

4. THE HAUNTING OF #24 (Lie Still), Directed by Sean Hogan, UK, 2005

John Hare’s (Stuart Laing) life is in upheaval. He’s lost his girlfriend, his job and his home. In need of a place to forget and start over, John rents a tiny and slightly shabby bedsit, complete with a shadowy photograph of the house’s original owner. Until he meets the crazy woman next door, John suspects there might be no other people living in the house. But at night he sees tenants of a different kind when his unplugged television starts to broadcast weird images. With nerves frazzled and an increasing dependency on drugs, John begins to wonder whether he’s only imagining those scratching noises at his door or if they are only too real.

Ignore the low rating on the Internet Movie Database. I think this is a terrific film and one that is sadly overlooked. Originally titled Lie Still, The Haunting of #24 is as much a film about a man who becomes a living ghost as it is about a geographical magnet for broken souls, what is essentially a haunted house. Stuart Laing’s depiction of one man’s descent into isolation and madness is quite good, while debut director Sean Hogan does a respectable job with the film’s increasing sense of claustrophobia and dread. This is a good one for 3am viewing.

5. DEAD OF NIGHT, Various Directors, UK, 1945

A small party gathers in the living room of a small country home in England. Mr. Walter Craig (Mervyn Johns), the final guest, arrives with a most extraordinary case of déjà vu. Although Mr. Craig has never met the other guests before he recognises their faces, scraps of conversation, and to their amusement he even predicts the minutiae of the evening’s events. Talk of premonition leads each of the guests to tell their own stories of brushes with the supernatural realm. ‘And then quite suddenly the room goes dark . . . and that’s where my dream becomes a nightmare.’ Is Mr. Craig living in a recurring dream? When he wakes up will all the guests vanish into thin air?

Produced at England’s Ealing Studios, a company primarily noted for its comedies, Dead of Night was one of their rare forays into horror. And it was certainly a memorable one! Like Amicus’s Tales from the Crypt (1972), Dead of Night is a portmanteau film featuring five stories, including contributions by E.F. Benson (‘Hearse Driver’) and H.G. Wells (‘Golfing Story’). ‘The Ventriloquist’s Dummy’ is the story most will remember for Michael Redgrave’s performance as the psychotic ventriloquist as much as for the terrifying image of the dummy itself. But it’s the final bit of the framing narrative where the dream truly becomes nightmare!

6. NOSFERATU: PHANTOM DER NACHT, Directed by Werner Herzog, Germany/France, 1979

At the bidding of his giggling boss Renfield, Jonathan Harker (Bruno Ganz) undertakes the journey to the heart Transylvania where lies the crumbling ruins of Castle Dracula. There he meets the pale-faced Count (Klaus Kinski), whom he assists in helping to find a new home for his imminent move to Wismar, Germany. But Dracula has something more in mind than simply starting a new life. After Harker escapes the castle and returns to Wismar, stuporous and near death, he learns that he has assisted in ushering a terrible plague into the town: armies of rats, the Black Death, and an ancient and hungry evil.

On the surface it might seem like madness to remake F.W. Murnau’s masterpiece Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922). But neither director Werner Herzog nor star Klaus Kinski are strangers to madness. Herzog’s conscious treatment of Murnau’s film (and by extension Stoker’s novel) manages a sense of realism, especially in depicting the wild majesty of Transylvania, interspersed with frequent moments of the dreamlike and staged. This mixture is suitable for such a surreal nightmare. And while Kinski’s vicious and forlorn vampire is not quite the equal of Max Schreck’s ghoulish original, he still plays the part with a hideous intensity.

7. MIMIC, Directed by Guillermo del Toro, USA, 1997

Three years ago a deadly cockroach-borne disease known as ‘Strickler’s’ nearly wiped out an entire generation of inner city New York children. Saviour-entomologist Dr. Susan Tyler (Mira Sorvino) engineered the Judas Breed, a sterile generation of cockroaches that would wipe out their disease carrying counterparts. But now, three years after their success, something is happening on the streets of New York. The Judas Breed seem to have survived, people are dying, and sinister men in long coats are scuttling in the shadows. ‘Evolution has a way of keeping things alive.’

On the success of his independently produced debut Cronos (1993), Mimic became director Guillermo del Toro’s first foray into Hollywood. Due to constant studio interference, the film yielded mixed results. But brilliant flashes of del Toro’s trademark vision, presaging everything from The Devil’s Backbone (2001) to Hellboy (2004), still shine through: horror as perceived through the eyes of children, a fascination with the covered and subterranean, and a visual style that invokes a sense of awe in the most mundane set pieces. From the cover you might expect a B-grade action flick, but Mimic has much more intelligence and depth than that, and without sacrificing the sense of fun.

8. MONSTER MAN, Directed by Michael Davis, USA, 2003

Uptight, fanny-pack wearing Adam (Eric Jungmann) decides its time to declare his love to a woman who barely knows he exists. And so he sets off on a cross-country trip to do this on the eve of her wedding. Little does he know, his crude and loud-mouthed buddy Harley (Justin Urich) has stowed away in the back seat and is now along for the journey. After Harley opens his mouth a little too widely in a roadside diner deep in hillbilly country, an outsized monster truck and its demented driver stalk the duo. Throw in a seductive hitchhiker and a good dose of black magic, and you’re in for one wild ride!

Monster Man is essentially a college-buddy road trip comedy with the addition of a mutant hillbilly who drives a monster truck. True, Urich isn’t much more than a Jack Black clone, but his crass fat guy exchanges with co-star Jungmann are never the less amusing, endearing and hilariously tactless. And who hasn’t had a college pal like that? There’s also some good tension and fun scares, most of which play on the polar opposites of the characters. This film will likely remind some of you of Steven Spielberg’s debut tv-film Duel (1971).

9. 6 FILMS TO KEEP YOU AWAKE (Peclículas para no dormir), Various Directors, Spain, 2005-2006

This Spanish television series is similar to Showtime’s Masters of Horror (2005-2007), which aired at roughly the same time; but on the whole 6 Films to Keep You Awake is a much classier affair. If you keep even half an eye on Spanish fantastique cinema, you will recognise the creative talents involved with this series: Jaume Balagueró (The Nameless), Alejandro Amenábar (Abre los ojos), Enrique Urbizu (The Ninth Gate), Paco Plaza ([REC]), Ivana Baquero (Pan’s Labyrinth) and the inimitable Álex de la Iglesia.

While all of the episodes are meritable, two of the standouts in the series are de la Iglesia’s ‘The Baby’s Room’ (‘La habitación del niño’) and Balagueró’s ‘To Let’ (‘Para entrar a vivir’). In ‘The Baby’s Room’ a picture perfect couple move into their dream house with their newborn. Their dream turns to nightmare when a supernatural entity targets the baby. This disquieting episode is reminiscent of The Twilight Zone, the weird elements and unsettling ideas are tautly paced in de la Iglesia’s distinct style. In ‘To Let’ two desperate apartment hunters are drawn to a derelict building in a decaying industrial estate on the outskirts of town, where they meet the creepiest landlord imaginable. Together, each hour long episode showcases a different aspect of the broad genre known as ‘horror’.

10. THE HOST (Gwoemul), Directed by Joon-ho Bong, South Korea, 2006

Something gigantic and amphibious is living in the Han River in central Seoul, and one idyllic afternoon, amidst picnickers and sunbathers, it decides to make its toothy, slime-covered debut. Enter Gang-du Park (Kang-ho Song), a lazy, bumbling, twenty-something who helps run his father’s canteen on the shores of the river. During the chaos and confusion of the rampage, the monster carries away Gang-du’s sister, Hyun-seo (Ah-sung Ko). Biological warfare is suspected, and it is up to Gang-du and his family to breach the American military’s security zone to rescue her from the beast’s lair.

Simply put, The Host is a rampaging monster movie in the grand tradition of King Kong (1933), Godzilla (1954) and Jaws (1975). And like these films, it is not just a monster movie, but also a wicked satire. Where The Host is perhaps different than these films is how it oscillates between serious and comedic tones, the later of which even occasionally veers into slapstick (the good kind). In addition to terrific monster sequences, the film focuses on Gang-du’s dysfunctional family, and how they’re able to pull together in a time of need. A good monster flick is always about the human condition. The Host is no exception.

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