HALLOWEEN FILM RECOMMENDATIONS 2006
by Brian J. Showers, © October 2006
WELCOME TO OCTOBER! It's been a full year and presumably you have had enough time to watch all the films on last year's list. Understandably, horror is not a genre for everyone. But even the most ardent non-fan gets that annual itch, and with any luck you too will find something to instill you with a pleasing terror. And for those who have spent the long, hot summer months impatiently awaiting the season of chills, here is another round of films for you to hunt down at your local video store. Boo!
1. MASTERS OF HORROR, Season One, Various Directors, USA, 2005
The concept for Showtime's Masters of Horror series is simple: take thirteen of the top directors in the genre and give them carte blanche to scare us however they want within the confines of one hour. The directorial line-up for season one included the likes of Tobe Hooper (Texas Chainsaw Massacre), Lucky McKee (May), John Landis (An American Werewolf in London), Don Coscarelli (Phantasm), Joe Dante (The Howling), Dario Argento (Suspiria), Takashi Miike (Ichi the Killer), and more! Most of the resulting episodes are already available on DVD with a plethora of extras.
Mastermind of horror Mick Garris (The Stand) wanted each episode to look like the work of its respective director and--from the two highly entertaining episodes I've seen so far: John Carpenter's "Cigarette Burns" and Stuart Gordon's "Dream's in the Witch-House"--they do! Carpenter's entry concerns a collector (Udo Kier) who hires film expert Kirby Sweetman to track down a legendary film called Le Fin Absolut du Monde, which supposedly drives its viewers to violent madness. Gordon has used his allotment to adapt a Lovecraft story about a graduate student (Ezra Godden) haunted by a witch hiding between dimensions in the corner of his room. Pure Gordon!
2. MARTIN, Directed by George Romero, USA, 1977
Young Martin Madahas (John Amplas) is sent by his family in Indianapolis to live with his elderly cousin Cuda (Lincoln Maazel) in Pittsburgh. But Cuda might be crazy. A superstitious immigrant from the old country, he is convinced that Martin is an 84-year old vampire. "Nosferatu! First I will save your soul, then I will destroy you." Cuda is seemingly insane, that is, until we find out Martin also believes that he is a vampire--only without the "magic parts". By day Martin delivers groceries from his cousin's shop, by night he prowls the decaying city's suburbs with a syringe and a razor blade.
Martin is a character study that is as sombre and melancholic as its 1970s industrial backdrop--a unique and modern approach to the old horror chestnut of the vampire. Romero has infused Martin with his trademark social commentary, using the depressed economy of his hometown to his full advantage. And the ambiguity of Martin's state--psychological or supernatural--lingers even after the credits roll. It's a pity that this film is not even half as well known as Romero's Living Dead series. Keep an eye open for cameos by effects wizard Tom Savini and the director himself.
3. I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE, Directed by Jacques Tourneur,
Paul Holland (Tom Conway) is a plantation owner who hires Betsy Connell (Frances Dee) as a nurse for his wife Jessica. On her arrival to the island, Betsy learns that Jessica was left in a trance-like state by tropical fever. She also learns through a local calypso singer that Paul's alcoholic half-brother, Wesley Rand (James Ellison) may have something to do with both Paul's troubled mind and Jessica's condition. Influenced by local superstition, Betsy begins to wonder whether Jessica is actually the victim of fever or if she is in a state of living death--a zombie. When nothing works to cure Jessica, Betsy turns to the mysterious beliefs of the islanders and Damballah, the voodoo priestess.
RKO's I Walked With a Zombie is another remarkable Jacques Tourneur/Val Lewton collaboration on a miniscule budget. The setting of this film is a Caribbean island with its hot winds, Venetian blinds, the field workers' conch horns and ritual drumming. The traditions and superstitions of the servants are ubiquitous and captivating. I Walked With a Zombie is a love story with shades of Jane Eyre, and not without its creepy scenes. The most celebrated of which is Betsy and Jessica's midnight stroll through the cane fields where they encounter skeletal Carrefour (Darby Jones), keeper of the crossroads.
4. CLUB DREAD, Directed by Jay Chandrasekhar, USA, 2003
Coconut Pete's Pleasure Island Resort is a booze, tiki and calypso paradise run by washed-up 1970s songster Coconut Pete (Bill Paxton). And it's all fun in the sun until a machete-wielding serial killer starts offing Pete's often amorous employees. When the murderer begins leaving clues based on Pete's old drug-inspired shanties, there may be a stronger motive than originally suspected. Is the killer Dave, Pete's brain-dead nephew and heir to the island resort; Lars, the resort's new masseuse and Coconut Pete groupie; Sam, the resort's fun police; or one of the many guests who are otherwise oblivious to the murderer in their midst?
Before this fall's hit Beerfest, comedy troupe Broken Lizard gave us Club Dread. As in all their movies, the jokes fly fast and dumb--but what they lack in intelligence they make up for with charm and pure entertainment. Broken Lizard's comedy-horror spoof on the slasher genre delivers yucks, guts and even a little suspense. There are enough red herrings dropped throughout that you will be guessing who the killer is until the very end. And it might be smart to keep piņa colada ingredients on hand just in case the tropical mood strikes you.
5. THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, Directed by Terence Fischer,
Baron Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) is a madman condemned to a remote Swiss asylum. With less than hour before his execution, Frankenstein calls upon a priest, not for spiritual comfort, but to intimate his strange tale: With the help of his tutor Paul Krempe (Robert Urquhart), young Frankenstein fostered a dedication to science that rapidly turned into obsession. As an adult, this uncontrollable passion for his work drove him to bribery, grave robbing, adultery and murder. His ambition was to build a Creature (Christopher Lee) from cadaverous parts--to create life from death.
This is considered the first proper horror film from the celebrated Hammer Studios. Unlike James Whale's 1933 adaptation for Universal Studios, Terence Fischer's take on Mary Shelley's classic story is full of Technicolor lust, piercing screams and gruesome nastiness marking a new age for horror films. Cushing's Frankenstein is unapologetic and without conscience, and Christopher Lee's turn as the Creature is easily as memorable as Boris Karloff's. At nearly fifty years old, The Curse of Frankenstein is still a fresh, undamaged specimen.
6. DISNEY'S THE LEGEND OF SLEEPY HOLLOW,
Directed by Clyde Geronimi & Jack Kinney, USA, 1949
Ichabod Crane is an itinerant schoolmaster new to the tiny village of Sleepy Hollow. The pedagogue immediately ingratiates himself to his pupils' mothers--especially if they happen to be good cooks. But when he sets his sights on the coquettish Katrina Van Tassel, daughter of the richest farmer in the valley, he invokes the ire of the mischievous Brom Bones. At the Van Tassel's annual harvest celebration, waggish Brom relates to one and all the legend of the Headless Horseman who haunts the woods yonder. And, lo!, Ichabod, the firmest believer in ghosts and goblins, must now make his way home through the haunted hollow.
"For now the forest seemed to close in behind him, and every small detail of Brom's awful story returned to haunt his recollection." Disney's The Legend of Sleep Hollow has been a favourite of mine since Beta. Bing Crosby's mellow narration and the animators' autumnal backdrops masterfully set the stage with seasonal atmosphere. Disney's images of the lanky Ichabod Crane and Herculean Brom Bones are near iconic, as is Ichabod's terrified flight through the woods from the Headless Horseman. There is no better adaptation of Washington Irving's immortal tale than this.
7. CARNIVAL OF SOULS, Directed by Herk Harvey, USA, 1962
After a drag race that ends in tragedy, sole survivor Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss) begins putting her life back together by moving to a new town. Mary finds a room in a boarding house, takes a position as a local church organist and begins living her life anew. But her new life turns surreal when a cadaverous gaunt man (Herk Harvey) begins haunting her from a distance. Increasingly disconnected from reality, Mary reaches out to those around her, but the more she struggles to maintain lucidity, the more isolated she becomes.
Ever wonder who directed those old filmstrips they used to show in grade school? Well, Herk Harvey was responsible for a ton including such films as What About Juvenile Delinquency? (1955), The Innocent Party (1958), and Pork: The Meal With a Squeal (1963). But Harvey also directed Carnival of Souls, an honest to God creeper reminiscent of the old Twilight Zone TV series. Shot in black and white on a low budget, this is the sort of film you catch on late night television that keeps you unnerved long after its finished.
8. INFERNO, Directed by Dario Argento, Italy, 1980
Rose Eliot (Irene Miracle) has recently become obsessed with a book called The Three Mothers by enigmatic architect E. Varelli. The book describes the abodes of three witches: Mater Suspiriorum in Freiburg, Mater Lachrymorum in Rome, and Mater Tenebrarum in New York. Rose sends a letter to her brother Mark (Leigh McCloskey) in Rome, but Rose is deep into the mysteries of the building, and for her it is already too late. When Mark rushes promptly to her aid in New York, he learns that Rose's apartment building may be the secret dwelling of Mater Tenebraerum, and he too becomes ensnared by the diabolical puzzle.
Dario Argento sculpts scenes, painting each frame with vivid colors, directing his actors as he would ballet dancers. Inferno is the thematic follow up to Suspiria (1977) and the second installment of his "Three Mothers Trilogy". Argento directs this film with twice the amount of garish flair as its predecessor and--often at the sake of plot--pushes us even closer to the edge of surreal nightmarish fantasy. If you enjoy Argento's stylistic sensibilities, chances are you'll be blown away by this film's production design, especially the scene in the flooded sub-cellar!
9. 'SALEM'S LOT, Directed by Tobe Hooper, USA, 1979
The Marsten House, gutted by fire, has stood vacant on a hilltop overlooking the small town of Jerusalem's Lot for years. Until the arrival of antiques dealer Mr. Straker (James Mason), who takes up residence there and begins preparing the way for his mysterious partner Mr. Barlow. Returning to 'Salem's Lot is novelist and native son, Ben Mears (David "Hutch" Soul), whose boyhood obsession with the haunted mansion has recently turned literary. But something else, something ancient and evil, has also come to the tiny community, and one by one it's bleeding its residents dry.
Described by Stephen King as, "Dracula meets Peyton Place," this tightly paced, made-for-TV adaptation delivers a succinct punch. Director Tobe Hooper wastes no time in introducing the various members of the community including Larry Crockett the realtor (Fred Willard), Father Callahan, schoolteacher Jason Berk, and the local gravedigger. 'Salem's Lot is populated so well with characters that you can actually hear the murdered town's last gasp in the film's climax. Of course, the crowning jewel is Mr. Barlow, the most unsettling vampire since F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu.
10. THE TOOLBOX MURDERS, Directed by Tobe Hooper, USA, 2004
The Lusman Arms is a historic Hollywood apartment building undergoing extensive renovations. Much to the disappointment of its new residents, Nell Barrows (Angela Bettis) and her husband Steven (Brent Roam), these "renovations" seem to be indefinitely ongoing. The electrics are faulty, the faucets run with brown water and the walls are paper-thin. Left alone to unpack while her husband interns at the local hospital, Nell begins to realize that those screams from the other apartments might not be actors rehearsing their lines. With the building's guts exposed, it is only a matter of time before its sinister past is also uncovered.
The Toolbox Murders is an inventive "re-imagining" of the 1978 flick of the same name, and Tobe Hooper's formal return to the horror genre after nearly a decade of dabbling in television. Low budget and gritty, capitalizing on the "back to the 70s" look, Hooper's primary stroke of genius was to cast fan favorite Angela Bettis, who adds an enjoyable presence to the proceedings. As in 'Salem's Lot, Hooper has populated the Lusman Arms with enough interesting and bizarre characters to get us through an entire toolbox worth of slaughters. The Toolbox Murders is a fun and scary film that reminds me why I like horror films in the first place.
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