HALLOWEEN FILM RECOMMENDATIONS 2009
by Brian J. Showers, © October 2009
LAST NIGHT WAS a perfect autumnal evening here in Dublin: a pink and orange sky, a thin layer of leaves on the sidewalk that crackle under shuffling feet, and a gentle chill to usher in my favourite season. It's almost time to indulge in jack-o-lantern carving (and roasted seeds and my fantastic pumpkin pie), a batch of homemade salsa (for some reason salsa has become one of my own October traditions), and of course another round of horror films to make you jump with fright, or as ghost story scribe Edith Wharton would have put it, to experience "the fun of the shudder". So without further adieu . . . Boo!
1. THE MACHINIST (El maquinista), Directed by Brad Anderson, Spain, 2004
Factory worker Trevor Reznik (Christian Bale) is a man plagued by unknown torments. He has neither slept nor, judging from his emaciated form, has he eaten in over a year. Trevor's life is a sequence of routines as he shuffles from one grey day to the next, leaving behind post-it notes to remind himself of daily trivialities. Then one day Trevor meets Ivan, a mysterious co-worker he has never met before who is both gregarious and sinister in equal measure. When cryptic post-it notes begin to appear around Trevor's apartment — ones he did not write himself — he begins to wonder if Ivan might be behind his increasingly surreal and nightmarish anguish.
Brad Anderson's 2001 haunted house film Session 9 easily ranks as one of my all time favourites. It's an excellent film that is honestly and supremely creepy, guaranteed. If Session 9 is Anderson's haunted house opus, then in The Machinist Anderson explores the idea of a haunted man. Its often languid and increasingly oppressive and Kafka-esque pace has much in common with the dream-like reality of Hitchcock's Vertigo than it does a standard horror film. Even the soundtrack is reminiscent of Hitchcock composer Bernard Hermann. And finally, Bale reportedly lost a sixty pounds for this roll. Startling effective, but probably very dangerous: the man's dedication is admirable.
2. THE WOMAN IN BLACK, Directed by Herbert Wise, UK, 1989
The widow Drablow has recently passed away, aged 72, and Mr. Arthur Kidd (Adrian Rawlins), junior solicitor, is sent by his superior to the market village of Crythin-Gifford to sort out her estate, Marsh House, situated on a remote tidal island. Mrs. Drablow has no family and no friends. In fact, hardly anyone shows up to her funeral, save for a ghostly woman dressed in black. Soon Mr. Kidd finds himself alone amidst the clutter of Marsh House, with no one around for miles, save the clamour of a phantom coach accident that echoes through the dense sea-mist each night, and increasing visits from the woman in black.
This is one for fans of the classic English ghost story. Based on Susan Hill's popular novel, and the celebrated stage play by the same name, The Woman in Black is unfortunately quite difficult to come by on DVD these days due to legal difficulties—but it is definitely worth seeking out. This period, made-for-television film was produced by Granada Television (who are responsible for the Sherlock Holmes series starring the iconic Jeremy Brett) and scripted by the great Nigel Kneale (best known for the Quatermass teleplays), which accounts for the film’s successful foreboding atmosphere. Don't be surprised if your heart skips a beat during the film's numerous effective scenes. With thanks to Roger Johnson.
3. THE OLD DARK HOUSE, Directed by James Whale, USA, 1932
It was a dark and stormy night . . . and three motorists lost in the Welsh mountains are driven off the road by bad weather and mudslides. They seek shelter in the ancient country house of Horace Femm (Ernest Thesiger) and his sister Rebecca—both half-mad and afraid of . . . something. The motorists finally persuade their reluctant hosts to allow them to stay, but soon enough the storm worsens and the cackling in the attic only grows louder. There’s a mystery to be solved in the old dark house, and the cold light of morning is still a long way off.
The Old Dark House, as the title implies, is rife with horror cliché: young lovers, simmering madness and a dark secret. But with undercurrents of sexual tension, more than a passing nod to Poe, and director James Whale’s (Frankenstein) wonderfully sardonic humour, these clichés feel fresh, and the film is engaging to the final scene. The relationships between the members of the Femm family are particularly uncomfortable to watch, let alone the pervasive presence of their glowering mute servant, Morgan (Boris Karloff!), who casts an ominous shadow over the proceedings. A lesser director would have butchered the premise—Whale delivered a classic.
4. SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES Directed by Jack Clayton, USA, 1983
Young Jim Nightshade and Will Halloway are two of a kind: Jim is dark and brooding; Will is fair and bookish, yet they could be mistaken for brothers. On an autumn afternoon they meet a lightening rod salesman who warns them that a great storm is approaching. That night, through the shadows and down the centuries, comes Dark’s Pandemonium Carnival. The proprietor, Mr. Dark (Jonathan Pryce), offers the citizens of Green Town their dearest wishes: a mirror maze that shows true desires, a merry-go-round that both gives and takes life, and more. When Mr. Dark seeks to make Jim his permanent business partner, Will must save his friend or forever lose him to the autumn people.
The two creative minds behind Something Wicked, Jack Clayton and Ray Bradbury, are no strangers to the genre. Jack Clayton’s masterpiece The Innocents (1961) is a personal favourite; and of course literary titan Ray Bradbury, on whose classic novel this movie is based, needs no introduction. The opening scenes of harvest fields and pumpkin patches remind me of a perfect midwestern autumn. And while the Dust Witch, Mr. Dark and his midnight denizens are creepy in their dark garishness, Bradbury has also crafted a story about real fears, such as the loss of a parent, that each of us experiences as we pass into adulthood.
5. THE WOLF MAN, Directed by George Waggner, USA, 1941
Lawrence Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) has returned to his ancestral home, Talbot Castle, after the untimely death of his brother. Shortly after his homecoming, he finds himself escorting a beautiful shop assistant (Evelyn Ankers) to visit a carnival fortune teller. On his way home that night, Talbot is attacked by a shadowy beast. When he sees the old gypsy woman the following evening, she tells him that he too is now cursed. Now Talbot suffers from memory loss, and a growing suspicion that the old legends might actually be true. "Even a man who is pure at heart, and says his prayers by night, may become a wolf when the wolfsbane blooms, and the autumn moon is bright."
What can be said about this terrific film that hasn’t been said before? This might be my favourite classic Universal monster movie (With Creature from the Black Lagoon a close second). The Wolf Man truly features an all-star cast from the golden age of horror cinema: Lon Chaney Jr., Claude Raines, Ralph Bellamy, Béla Lugosi and Maria Ouspenskaya. Film scholar Tom Weaver’s informative commentary for The Legacy Collection edition is definitely worth a listen if you can find it. From the fog-filled forests surrounding the gypsy camp to the on-screen transformation created by make-up effects genius Jack Pierce—you simply can’t go wrong with The Wolf Man!
6. THE TWILIGHT ZONE, Various directors, USA, 1959-1964
The second of October marked the fiftieth anniversary of one of my favourite television programs of all time. I have memories of watching The Twilight Zone as a child on Sunday afternoons, on random cable channels at 3am as a teen, and now as an adult on DVD whenever I damn feel like it! Nearly everyone recalls these odd and often unsettling science fictions, morality tales, and even the occasional uplifting fantasy; but the heart-pounding tales that lie "between the pit of man's fears and the summit of his knowledge" are the ones best remembered. With the entire series on DVD, you should have no trouble finding "that one episode" that scared you half to death as a child.
There are a number of horror gems among the program's 156 episodes. The following episodes are lodged in my brain beside my own primal fears and secret worries. "It's a Good Life", about a frightfully omnipotent youngster; "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" shows us bestial malice on the wing of an airplane; "Nick of Time", introduces a subtly disturbing mystic seer machine; an elderly woman receives mysterious communications in "Night Call", an ever-present traveller pursues a woman cross-country in "The Hitch-hiker", a ventriloquist believes his puppet is alive in "The Dummy"; "The After Hours", follows a woman trapped in a department store; and, my favourite, "Mirror Image" about a woman who sees her double in an empty bus depot.
7. THE MOTHMAN PROPHECIES, Directed by Mark Pellington, USA, 2002
Shortly after the tragic death of his wife, and a bizarre encounter on the interstate that jars his sense of fragile sense of reality, journalist John Klein (Richard Gere) finds himself stranded in the depressed mining town of Point Pleasant, West Virginia. With the help of the local police sergeant (Laura Linney), Klein investigates his brush with the unexplained, meeting others who have experienced a similar entity they describe as the Mothman. But Klein's persistent investigation seemingly triggers the mysterious beings to take a similar interest in him. And amidst his paranoia and commotion, all signs point to a much larger catastrophe on the horizon that will affect the entire community.
The Mothman Prophecies is an odd film and doesn’t fit comfortably into any one genre. But it's a thoroughly — and thoughtfully — creepy film whose host of unexplained occurrences will leave the viewer with an unsettled notion of realities and entities beyond our understanding. This is pure horror in my book, executed in the style and tone of the X-Files. Key lines: "I think we can assume that these entities are more advanced than us. Why don't they just come right out and tell us what’s on their minds?" "You're more advanced than a cockroach, have you ever tried explaining yourself to one of them?" This one's for fellow Mothman enthusiast Steve Duffy.
8. THE LAST MAN ON EARTH, Directed by Sidney Salkow, USA/Italy, 1964
Robert Morgan (Vincent Price) is the last man on earth, but he is far from the planet’s only inhabitant. By day Morgan tends to his daily routine: replacing broken mirrors on the doors, reinforcing boards over the windows, and hanging strings of pungent garlic outside his house. But when darkness falls, the moaning masses of the undead surround his home, calling out for Morgan to join them. In his isolation, Morgan ponders his increasingly pointless life: until he meets the first living woman he has laid eyes on in years. However, she may not be as human as she leads him believe, and Morgan’s entire existence is about to turn on its head—again.
The Last Man on Earth is based on Richard Matheson’s classic 1954 vampire novel, I Am Legend. It was also filmed in 1971 as The Omega Man, starring Charlton Heston, but let’s not talk about that. For my money, Vincent Price's portrayal of the secluded Morgan remains the best. Images of the gasmask-clad Price throwing bodies into a smouldering pit, emphasised with shots of Los Angeles' empty streets, conveys a pervasive sense of loneliness that disturbs me still. George A. Romero admits his great debt to this film with regard to his own masterpiece Night of the Living Dead (1968). These two films would certainly make a terrific double-feature!
9. ROMAN, Directed by Angela Bettis, USA, 2006
There's not much in life for Roman (Lucky McKee) to look forward to. His life is a progression of solitary habits. He keeps to himself during his lunch breaks, and when he gets home from work his only companions are a cigarette and a beer. Instead of a television, Roman aims his chair at his front window where he waits each day for his beautiful neigbour (Kristen Bell) to walk past. Roman never expects that the Girl will ever talk to him — until one day, she does. He eventually invites her to his apartment, but in his awkwardness it all goes horribly wrong. Now Roman has a corpse in his bathtub, and a new girl about to enter his life.
You saw director Lucky McKee's breakout film May (2002), right? If not, you're missing out! Roman is in more ways than one May's companion. McKee directed Angela Bettis in May, but for this film they reversed rolls. Where May focused on an awkward woman searching for love, Roman shows us a similarly maladjusted man: a character who needs companionship, but is unsure quite how to go about finding it. While not as slick as May, Bettis' variation on the loner theme is every bit as disturbing to watch. Under Bettis' direction you can feel a growing dread. You won't know how Roman's going to end — you just know it's going to end badly.
10. SALVAGE, Directed by Jeff and Josh Crook, USA, 2006
You might think Claire Parker (Lauren Currie Lewis) is a typical small town girl. She has a boyfriend, she works late nights at a convenience store, and she has a mother who worries about her. But Claire is different. Every day she must relive the events that lead up to her own brutal murder. With full knowledge of what will happen next, Claire soon begins to put together pieces of a larger puzzle — but at the end of each day she must confront her terrible fate. The only thing left for Claire to do is to try to break the nightmare cycle by figuring out what connects her with her murderer.
There's a good reason why this low-budget thriller is compared to the classic Bill Murray comedy Groundhog Day. But Salvage (aka Grotesque) is far from funny. It takes the same general premise and turns it into a waking nightmare. Sure, you might be able to guess the ending, but this only adds to the pervasive sense of inescapable fate, which is essentially what this film is about. It was also shot on digital video, which can be either noticeably distracting or disturbingly real. But despite any shortcoming, Salvage makes for perfect 3am viewing. The sort of thing you discover flipping through channels while half-delirious. Salvage is a gripping mystery worth staying up past your bedtime to watch.
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. FRANKENSTEIN, Directed by J. Searle Dawley, USA, 1910
If you've never seen Edison Studios' Frankenstein, do yourself a favour and take the twelve minutes to watch it. It is the first film adaptation of Mary Shelley's famous novel. Corny in places, yes, but I think you'll be pleasantly surprised at how effective the film is. And Charles Stanton Ogles' performance as the Monster is as ghoulish and memorable as Max Schreck's Count Orlock.
12. WHISTLE AND I'LL COME TO YOU, Directed by Jonathan Miller, UK, 1968
Michael Hordern plays a nervous and eccentric professor holidaying on the Suffolk coast. He spends his days mumbling to himself, filling the hours with golf and lonely walks along the wind-swept beach. But his uneventful days take a turn for the worse when he finds, and blows, an old whistle with a peculiar Latin inscription on it. Admittedly this adaptation of M. R. James's celebrated ghost story is a slow burn. That said, it is also one of the best. Just below you will find Part One. Click here for Part Two and Part Three.
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