Friday, October 28, 2011

COOL FLICKS: A List of Movies for Halloween

Don't piss off the gypsy lady! Lorna Raver in Drag Me to Hell
Halloween is right around the corner and I thought I'd make a list of some suitably creepy ghost movies, monster movies and supernatural thrillers that would make the perfect mini film festival for anyone who wants a night filled with scares. My list, not surprising to many of you, features overlooked or under-appreciated movies and does not include the usual movies that crop up year after year on similar lists. I've arranged the films in reverse chronological order and not by my preference which is always difficult for me to do.

Drag Me To Hell (2009) - Hands down one of the best modern horror movies and a throwback to the old 1970s horror movies I loved as a teen. Genuinely scary, surprisingly funny, and completely entertaining. Amazing performance by Lorna Raver as a gypsy woman who curses a poor bank loan officer (Alison Lohman) forced to be cruel in order to keep her job. Directed by horror master Sam Raimi it's a return to his old style of movie making dating back to his Evil Dead days. The musical score by Christopher Young starts off this movie on the perfect eerie note and is one of the best of any horror movie in the past twenty years. Warning: Some very disgusting gross-out scenes that seem to be done more for laughs than scares.

Them (2007) - No, not the movie about the giant ants. A terrifying French film based on a very real and truly horrible news story. Couple rents a house in the Romanian woods and something in the forest doesn't want them in there. This movie scared the crap out of me. It's most successful at being ambiguous about the menacing beings taunting the couple. Are they ghosts? Are they creatures? Are they even human? You don't find out until the final minutes.

The Host (2007) - A fantastic monster movie from Korean filmmaker Joon-Ho Bong. Who knew a monster movie could also be a moving family drama? And it's very funny at times as well.

A Tale of Two Sisters (2003) - Another Korean movie. This one is one of the best of a slew of Asian horror movies that have been remade as much more inferior American movies. A combination of ghost story and murder mystery with fairy tale influences, this is a movie best seen without knowing a thing about it. Beautifully filmed, top notch acting, and a very original story that packs quite a gasp inducing surprise ending.

Dagon (2001) - The only Lovecraft inspired movie I recommend. I pretty much hate all the rest of them. (Though Call of Cthulhu, a cleverly done silent movie, has some wonderful moments.) Dagon is a blend of the creepy and the goofy and the gory. Campy over-the-top performance from Ezra Gooden in the lead and a very sexy villainess in Raquel Meroño (shown at left). Excellent final sequence so obviously inspired by the pulp magazines of the 1930s. True cineastes will recognize that the entire movie's look, story and performance style is a homage to the Spanish-made horror movies of the 1970s. Want a real monster movie Halloween treat? Watch this one.

Race with the Devil (1972) - Not exactly supernatural horror but scary all the same. Two couples on vacation in their souped up RV are pursued by members of a devil worshiping cult when they accidentally witness a secret ritual performed in the woods. Great chase scenes and action sequences. Above par for similar 1970s movies but avoiding gore and overuse of special effects and musical cues to scare an audience. I don't think this is available on DVD, though there may be bootleg or homemade versions for sale out there somewhere.

Chris Udvarnoky & Uta Hagen have a little chat in The Other
The Other (1972) - Few good twin/bad twin movies can match this for real chills and horror. Twin brothers Niles and Holland are coached by their eccentric grandmother to play a very special game that calls upon a supernatural power they all share. One of the twins goes a little too far with his game playing. The scenes when the family look for a missing baby have stayed in my memory for decades. Powerful and touching performance from Uta Hagen as the grandmother. And the two boys who play the twins are rather amazing for child actors. Too many movies have ripped off this plot and none of them have really succeeded as well as this true original. Directed by Robert Mulligan best known for To Kill a Mockingbird.  Based on the classic modern horror novel by Thomas Tryon.

Tales from the Crypt (1972) - I have to put this on the list for nostalgia's sake. Images and scenes from this horror movie have been indelibly burned into my memory since I first saw it when I was 11 years old. Five different stories in one movie - all about cruel, nasty or selfish people who get their comeuppance. It's kind of a mixed bag as far as quality frights go, but two of the stories are truly nightmare inducing. The first story with Joan Collins as a woman driven to murderous rage at Christmas time is really a crime story not a horror tale and it's an idea that's been recycled many times. One is a retelling of "The Monkey's Paw", another is a retelling of M. R. James' "Lost Hearts" with Peter Cushing in the lead role. The one with Cushing and another with Nigel Patrick in charge of a home for blind men are the best of the lot.

Horror Hotel (1960) [AKA The City of the Dead] - Spooky story about a college girl researching witchcraft at the creepy Raven's Inn run by the forbidding Mrs. Newliss. Christopher Lee (only a minor role here) and Patricia Jessel turn in top notch performances. Venetia Stephenson as the hapless Nan Barlow is a a great scream queen. This deeply affected me when I first saw it as a teen and over 40 years later I still count it as one of the best horror movies dealing with witches. An underrated classic.

Dead of Night (1945) - "Room for one more, sir." Several people tell stories of strange and weird events in their lives. This, I think, is the granddaddy of all similar anthology horror movies. Two stories are based on E. F. Benson tales, another is from H. G. Wells. Michael Redgrave as a tortured ventriloquist (below) would inspire many, many ventriloquist horror story rip-offs.

The Devil Commands (1941) - Fairly faithful adaptation of the excellent science fiction/horror novel The Edge of Running Water by William Sloane. Mad scientist unable to accept his wife's death goes to great lengths to invent a method of communicating with the dead. Boris Karloff in the lead role as good as ever is supported by Ann Revere (seen at left) who turns in one of her most impressive performances as a manipulative medium. Weird and nightmarish. Too many have dismissed it for being low budget or old-fashioned or stupid (it's not) and completely miss the point of its fantastic and allegorical elements. Directed by film noir pioneer Edward Dmytryk.


  1. I'm sorry, John, but there's not a single movie on this list that I will be watching any time soon. How can you watch this stuff?

    I've never been one to enjoy being frightened or horrified or just plain scared. I don't get it.

    Maybe when I was a girl I might have, can't remember. But I doubt it. Though I know I used to watch a scary movie here and there. But obviously I've been warped for life.

    Having said that, I still get a kick out of reading your posts, John. Yours is one of the more interesting of the book blogs I peruse.

  2. Whilst I realise that the TALES FROM THE CRYPT is partly there due to nostalgia, I think that FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE (aka BEYOND THE GRAVE)from the same company is a slightly better movie. Various customers of Peter Cushing's TEMPATIONS LTD (OFFERS YOU CAN'T REFUSE)come to supernatural bad ends. All four of the stories are very good, but one with Ian Bannen and Donald Pleasance is especially creepy.

  3. Ah well, Yvette, to each his own. I was addicted to horror and monster movies from a very early age, I read a lot of gory fairy tales and monster books. As I grew older I ventured into the ghost story, mystery novels about witchcraft, and my fascination for tales of horror and movies about the supernatural did not wane. I have a good understanding of why I am drawn to works of fantasy and especially dark fantasy to which horror belongs but I am not going to explain myself in a comment. Let's just say I have always been one of those "outsider" and misfit kids who escaped into a world of fantasy because his childhood was a horror story in itself. Enough said.

  4. Sextonblake -

    I like FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE. I only recently saw it for the first time. You're right - overall much better than TFTC. My favorite is the story with Margaret Leighton as the kooky medium. Played mostly for laughs and really over-the-top. Everyone mentions the Pleasance story as the best, but it didn't do much for me. I agree that his daughter Angela was VERY creepy in that role.

  5. I'm sorry if I touched a raw nerve, John. Didn't mean to. I escaped myself when I was a kid, but for me it was westerns and musicals. :)