Happy Happy Halloween, Halloween, Halloween....I realize people all over the world will be logging on to this blog to know what movies they should queue in their horror movie marathons.And who am I to disappoint them?
Untold hours of my life spent watching truly horrific (as in, horrifically awful) horror movies comes in handy for once, as I unveil my recommended Halloween playlist.
Most horror movies are terrible. The likelihood of any particular horror movie being any good is much lower than the same likelihood for a comedy, or a drama, or an action film. Even browsing the horror shelf in a DVD shop makes you feel rather soiled and seedy, considering that most of what they contain is simply pornography for sadists.
The idea that a horror film, like any other film, requires a plot, and a theme, and dialogue, and characterization, seems quite foreign to the majority of film-makers.
But there are exceptions, like...
1) The Ring (2002)
This is the American remake, not the Japanese original, which I haven't seen.
Horror can be a vehicle for making deep and complex statements about the human condition and man's place in the universe. Or it can simply be a means of scaring the pants off the audience. The Ring is the latter. The characters are wafer-thin, there seems to be no discernible theme to the story, and visually it is not only uninspired but downright unappealing, as though it has been filmed through a blue filter to make it look cold and alineating. But as an exercise in sheer scarifying, it doesn't get better than this.
The story revolves around a video-tape that causes death within seven days. The tape itself, which is simply a montage of unsettling and banal images, is one of the creepiest things I've ever seen.
This is the last film that seriously scared me. I saw it in the Savoy in O'Connell Street and I remember regretting that I'd gone to see it as I walked out of the cinema. That night, I woke up in the early hours of the morning and the television was on downstairs. Now, my father always falls asleep watching television, so there's nothing odd about that. But considering televisions switching themselves on played a big part in the movie, it creeped the heck out of me.
2) Plague of the Zombies (1966)
I wish I liked Hammer horrors. They're English, old-fashioned, quaint, and everything else that should endear them to me. But...they're awful. They're really and truly awful.
Most of them, anyway. There are a few exceptions, and Plague of the Zombies is one. The plot? A mine owner in Cornwall has found a workforce who never moan...I mean, who always moan...well, you know what I mean.
It's quite simply a competent piece of film-making, which is a rarity in the Hammer canon. It has all the usual strengths of Hammer-- the classy sets, the period atmosphere, the sheer Englishness-- with few of the usual Hammer faults. the And it's dashed spooky. The famous graveyard scene, which you will not forget, established so much of the iconography of the zombie genre. But let's not hold that against it, eh?
3) Carrie (1976)
The best film ever made from a Stephen King book, in my view. It is so dramatically compelling that it is almost painful to watch. I've always been in awe of the elegance of the plot; the whole tragedy flows inexorably from that first unforgettable scene, when Carrie has her first period in the school changing rooms and doesn't realize what is happening. School is probably the most traumatic and terrifying experience any of us ever go through, and Carrie captures the fearfulness of that experience magnificently.
4) From Beyond the Grave
This film is something of a secret handshake amongst horror film fans. If you're not a particular fan of horror films, you're unlikely to have heard of it. If you are, it's likely to be one of your favourites. I don't mean that it's one of that most odious class of motion picture, a "cult movie". All the people I know who love it are ordinary people with respectable haircuts and no particular propensity for black t-shirts. But it sticks in the mind. It's the best of the seventies Amicus anthology horrors, where several stories are linked by a frame narrative. Most of them are pretty good, but this one is head and shoulders the best.
In this case, the frame narrative involves various customers entering an antique shop which is owned by a mysterious old codger played by Peter Cushing. He gives every customer an opportunity to swindle him, but if they do...well, what happens if they do is the subject of each story.
The unpleasant-yet-oddly-pleasant sense of disorientation is what makes this film so memorable. The characters seem to inhabit a deceptively humdrum world where karma is waiting around every corner, and where karma has a macabre sense of humour.
The final segment, which centres around an antique door which opens onto a blue-tinged room inhabited by a Restoration-era occultist, is the peach. But it's all good. Not the easiest to track down, but worth it, if you do.
5) Blacula (1974)
Every horror night needs its comic relief, and Blacula will surely supply it. Not that this is a comedy horror. It's not even one of those "so-bad-it's-good" movies. It's pretty competently made, and not nearly as goofy as the campy title would suggest. It's good enough to be watchable, but silly enough to make you laugh.
Blacula is, as you can guess, and as the trailer (which was included as an extra on my DVD) proclaims, "Dracula's soul brother". He's an African prince who was bitten by Drac himself on a visit to Transylvania. Accidentally released from his coffin in the seventies by two super-camp gay lovers, who think the whole spooky Transylvanian castle is simply too ravishing, he makes a bee-line to America (I forget why) and is soon wowing the denizens of hot night-clubs with his cape and old-world charm. "That is one strange dude!", one "cat" proclaims-- twice.
A black detective begins to suspect something odd and possibly vampiric going on with a string of murders. In one effective scene-- actually, the same scene mentioned above-- the detective and Blacula (out and about under his real name, Mamuwalde) find themselves sitting together in a nightclub. There is one snatch of dialogue which I think is utterly priceless. Since I can't track it on the internet, and my copy of this DVD is on loan to a friend, you'll have to take my word that this is a fair paraphrase:
Detective: Mamuwalde, do you know anything about vampires?
Mamuwalde: All through history, man has believed in strange creatures which lie outside the realm of scientific knowledge.
Detective: You obviously know a great deal about this subject.
But Blacula isn't just one big giggle. For all its risible moments, it's a fairly decent movie with some spooky scenes.
6) The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970)
Subtitled "A Much Underrated Movie". Well, not really, but look for any reviews on the internet and you'll see what I mean.
Roger Moore stars as a straight-as-an-arrow, old-fashioned businessman who, after nearly dying in a car accident, finds that he has a doppelganger who is doing awful things and getting him blamed for them. The doppelganger is soon mounting a hostile take-over bid on our hero's life.
This is a very well-written, well-acted and well-produced supernatural thriller, with considerable depth. But I like it mostly for the business world that it portrays; a rather urbane one of serious-looking moustaches, offices full of artistic bric-a-brac, gentleman's clubs, and oak-panelled board rooms.
7) Scream (1996)
I generally hate slashers films but Scream is in a class of its own. There was never anything like it before and there's never been anything like it since-- especially not the three sequels. (Actually, Scream 4 was quite good but still not a patch on the original.)
I think this film, like The Breakfast Club, succeeds due to the paradox that teenagers are 1) often obnoxious and arrogant and narcissistic, but also 2) vulnerable and endearing and brimming over with life. If adults spoke and behaved like the kids in Scream do, we would hate them, and cheer when they get bumped off. But anyone watching this movie should really be either a teenager himself (or herself), or else remember what it was like to be a teenager. So we forgive them, and feel horrified as the body-count piles up. It's also a plausible explantion for why the characters can be so sassy and cynical, making wisecracks while a serial killer is bumping their schoolfellows off.
And this film is smart. Movies that try to be smart and fail to be smart are just embarrassing. Scream really is smart. It plays with the conventions of the genre, often ironically. "Never, ever say, 'I'll be back'", one character announces, as he explains the rules for surviving a horror movie. "Because you won't be back".
The killer, Ghostface (as he has been dubbed by fans), is a marvellous creation. Although he taunts his victims over the phone, once he appears he never says a word and is utterly focused upon despatching them. His mask is based upon Munch's The Scream, and its contorted features and gaping mouth are truly chilling.
The final scene, where the killer is unmasked and the central character finds herself facing a carefully-engineered fate, is disturbingly realistic and vivid, perhaps because of the believability of the characters. A masterpiece of suburban horror.
That leaves my final two movies, Dead of Night and (da-da-da, the winner!) The Wicker Man. As it happens, I've written reviews of both of them before (one for my workplace newsletter, another for my friend Anna's website) and so I take the liberty of reproducing them here....
8) Dead of Night (1945)
This is one of the the greatest horror films ever made.
Mind you, I think there are only two great horror films—- Dead of Night and The Wicker Man, from 1973.
You might assume from that I’m not a fan of the horror genre, but you’d be dead wrong.
I am a fan of horror films, but I hate admitting it. I know the images that the word “horror film” conjures up for most people. Chainsaws, screaming teenagers, axes, screaming teenagers, hockey masks, innards, screaming teenagers, nipples, blood and screaming teenagers. After all, most horror films are like that. Most horror films are awful beyond words.
Dead of Night is nothing like that. There isn’t a single drop of blood, for a start. There are no chainsaws, no psychopaths, no “jump moments”. The whole thing is terribly English and pleasant—- but far more frightening than any amount of serial killers. This film operates on chills, not spills.
An architect, Walter Craig, is invited to a country house. A small company is gathered there for the weekend. As soon as he lays eyes on them, Craig declares that he’s seen them all in his dreams—- that he’s dreamed about this moment many times before. One of the guests is a psychoanalyst(with, naturally, a heavy Central European accent). He sets out to debunk the architect’s claim- —but, one by one, the other guests tell of their own encounters with the paranormal. As the storytelling progresses, Craig remembers more about his recurring dream....to the point where “my dream becomes a nightmare.”
Dead of Night is a portmanteau film, an anthology film containing several short stories within a framing narrative. The format was used to good effect by the UK’s Amicus and Tigon studios in the seventies, but none of them can equal Dead of Night. There are five stories (including, like many anthology horrors films, one funny story for comic relief). The final story is the most famous, and also the most copied-— a stark tale of a ventriloquist apparently possessed by his dummy.
I can see why this last story is so celebrated, but the climactic ventriloquist tale is actually my least favourite of the stories. It just seems too intense for this very understated film. The four other stories are much more subdued.
There’s the one about the little girl playing hide and seek in a strange house. She finds herself wandering into a bedroom and talking to a rather old-fashioned boy who laments that his sister is horrible to him and wants to kill him. This is pretty much the standard ghost story, told time and again, and its presence in Dead of Night seems entirely appropriate. The classic horror film should contain the classic ghost story, shouldn’t it?
There’s the tale of an injured motor-car racer who looks out his hospital window and sees a hearse parked outside—- the driver smiles at him and announces, “Just room for one more inside, sir"...
There’s the story of a woman who buys her fiancé a mirror (“You know how difficult it is to buy presents for men—- they always seem to have everything they want”). Unbeknownst to her, the mirror previously belonged to a man who murdered his wife—- and, before you can say "Jack-o'-Lantern", her husband-to-be starts seeing funny things in it, and behaving in a most curious and un-English manner.
And there’s the afore-mentioned comic relief story, involving two obsessive golfers who play a match to decide which of them will marry their mutual love. The loser commits suicide by walking into a lake—- but learns on the Other Side that he was cheated, and decides to come back for revenge. This story was cut from the film in America, which is a pity—- it’s genuinely funny, and varies the tone nicely.
What makes Dead of Night such a great movie?
I think it’s the perfect mix of the two elements horror needs—- creepiness and cosiness.
When do people most love to hear ghost stories? On a winter’s night, when the wind might rattle the windowpanes, but everybody is warm and comfortable inside. Most horror doesn’t work because it breaks the one great rule of scary stories— that rule being that less is more. One creaking floorboard at the right moment is spookier than any amount of axe-wielding maniacs.
As for the cosiness, there is no film so very English as this one. It’s as English as Agatha Christie novels, fish and chips, hot water bottles and Toby jugs. The house guests remain unflappable and invincibly cheerful through all the paranormal talk. Lots of drinks are poured. The best line of the film (delivered during the comic relief story) describes Dead of Night’s atmosphere to a tee: “Just because a chap becomes a ghost, surely it doesn’t mean that he ceases to be a gentleman.” (But then again, gentlemen can do some very nasty things...)
9. The Wicker Man (1973)
Horror is the most disappointing of film genres. It could do so much, and yet (most of the time) it does so little. Think about it. A horror film could be about anything. Crime films need criminals, murder mysteries need corpses, romantic comedies need lovers, but there are no requirements when it comes to horror. Life is full of shadows, and absolutely anything can be scary. “Fifteen apparitions have I seen”, wrote Yeats, “the worst a coat upon a coat-hanger”. (Not entirely sure what he meant, but it seems apt here.) And yet horror films usually give us the same thing over and over; maniacs chasing teenagers, depressed vampires, scientific experiments gone wrong, and over-exuberant clowns.
The fraction of horror films that are really great is vanishingly small, but The Wicker Man is prominent amongst them. Released in 1973, it passed unnoticed at first. It has since attained cult status, but don’t hold that against it. You don’t need a goatee beard and a Ramones t-shirt to enjoy this film.
Edward Woodward, playing a fervently Christian police sergeant, receives an anonymous letter from a Scottish island, telling him that a little girl has gone missing. He goes to investigate, but the islanders—- who are all authentic practicing pagans, and as shifty and taciturn a bunch as you could ever hope to meet—- claim never to have heard of the girl.
Nevertheless, Sergeant Howie eventually finds her name in a school attendance ledger, and tells Lord Summerisle, the magistrate of the island (played by Christopher Lee) that “I think Rowan Morrison was murdered, under circumstances of pagan barbarity that I can scarcely bring myself to believe as taking place in the twentieth century.” But what can he do when Lord Summerisle himself is an enthusiastic pagan, and even the child’s mother won’t talk?
There are several things that make The Wicker Man a great horror film. First, the story unfolds from the first moment to the last, unlike so many horror films that are one fifth exposition followed by four-fifths jumping, screaming and slashing.
There is a great performance from Christopher Lee, in his personal favourite from all his films (in fact, he did this one for free).
But the real genius of The Wicker Man is that it takes something which is usually seen as quaint and even cringe-inducing—- that is, British folk tradition—- and makes it eerier than you could have imagined possible.
The sight of Christopher Lee in a woman’s wig doing a sort of Morris dance might sound risible. It’s not. Oh goodness, it's not.
The atmosphere of living, menacing paganism is built up with exquisite little details; bread baked in the shape of John Barleycorn, the spirit of the fields; an “evil eye” symbol painted on a fishing boat; a grotesque fanged face painted on a door-knocker. That most of the film takes place in sunlight, and in homely settings like a pub and a school and a public library, only heightens the sense of realism—- and of weirdness.
Then there is the unforgettable ending—- one of the most chilling and well-contrived in all cinema.
The best horror seduces as much as it horrifies. Our modern lives are so starved for tradition and transcendence and rootedness that the very idea of a pagan community on some Scottish island can’t help stirring our blood. So pop The Wicker Man in your DVD player this Halloween—- and perhaps the monster masks of the local trick-or-treaters might take on a whole new aspect for you...