Fright Club: Non-Franchise Halloween Movies

So, there’s this one set of movies you may or may not be aware of about a guy with a William Shatner fixation just trying to get home in time for Halloween. You may have heard of it.

Here’s the thing, there are also other Halloween-themed movies you could watch this holiday if you’re so inclined. Loads of them. And while we feel like you probably know which Michael Meyers movies to skip (5 & 8), which to love (1, duh), and which to watch for the ironic enjoyment (6—we’re looking at you, Paul Rudd!), you might need some direction outside that series. So, here are our five favorite non-franchise Halloween horror movies.

5. Night of the Demons (1988)

It’s Halloween night in the late Eighties and a bunch of high school kids decides to go hang out at Angela’s party because, as the resident goth girl, “Halloween is like Christmas to Angela.”

Where’s the party? At the old, abandoned funeral parlor built over sacred land above some kind of demonic water source. Natch.

Do not be confused – Night of the Demons is not exactly recommended viewing. It’s terrible. Once you get past its dirt-cheap sets and TV-level staging, you’ll notice that the film boasts among the most stilted and cardboard dialogue of any film from the Aquanet decade.

But Angela (Amelia “Mimi” Kinkade) looks cool. Every goth chick— Fairuza Balk’s Nancy Downs from The Craft in particular—owes Angela a little respect. And professional dancer Kinkade does the demonic transformation justice. The acting is atrocious—all of it— but the film boasts a campy, nostalgic, oh-so-80s quality, and we never disagree with Bauhaus on a soundtrack.

4. Murder Party (2007)

Jeremy Saulnier is a filmmaker worth watching. Murder Party is not the near-masterpiece of Blue Ruin or Green Room, but it is a savvy, funny, fun change of pace.

Chris Sharp plays lonesome loser Christopher. Alone with his selfish cat on Halloween night, he decides to follow a whim and hit the party advertised on a flier. A “Murder Party.”

Fun!

What Saulnier pieces together could have dripped with condescending judgment, as a group of insecure art students plot to kill the poor guy as a piece of art that will impress Alexander (Sandy Barnett) enough to nab them the grant Alexander keeps lording over them.

The comedy is more self-referential and human than snide, simultaneously mocking and empathizing with the group of artists as well as their would-be victim.

Funny, tender, biting and often quite bloody and energetic, Murder Party does not suggest the style of film to come from Saulnier, but it predicts a filmmaker who knows what he’s doing.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qI_DqgxNR7U

3. Ginger Snaps (2007)

Ginger and Bridget, outcasts in the wasteland of Canadian suburbia, cling to each other and reject/loathe high school (a feeling that high school in general returns).

On the evening of Ginger’s first period, she’s bitten by a werewolf. Writer Karen Walton cares not for subtlety: the curse, get it? It turns out, lycanthropy makes for a pretty vivid metaphor for puberty.

This turn of events proves especially provocative and appropriate for a film that upends many mainstay female cliches. Walton’s wickedly humorous script stays in your face with the metaphors, successfully building an entire film on clever turns of phrase, puns, and analogies, stirring up the kind of hysteria that surrounds puberty, sex, reputations, body hair, and one’s own helplessness to these very elements.

A well-timed Halloween party allows Ginger to display her new look and skills in as insightful a high school horror film as you’ll find, peppered equally with dark humor and gore.

2. May (2002)

Who wants a little romance? How about the tale of a wallflower, the blossom of new love, the efficient use of veterinary surgical equipment, and a good sized freezer?

Lucky McKee’s 2002 breakout is a showcase for his own talent as both writer and director, as well as his gift for casting. The entire ensemble surprises with individualized, fully realized, flawed but lovable characters, and McKee’s pacing allows each of his talented performers the room to breathe, grow, get to know each other, and develop a rapport.

More than anything, though, May is a gift from Angela Bettis to you.

May’s vulnerability is painful yet beautiful to watch, and it’s impossible not to hope that cool outsider Adam is telling the truth when he reassures her, “I like weird.”

McKee’s film pulls no punches, mining awkward moments until they’re almost unendurable and spilling plenty of blood when the time is right—on Halloween night, of course.

He deftly leads us from the sunny “anything could happen” first act through a darker, edgier coming of age middle, and finally to a carnage-laden climax that feels sad, satisfying, and somehow inevitable.

1. Trick ‘r Treat (2007)

Columbus native Michael Dougherty outdid himself as writer/director of this anthology of interconnected Halloween shorts. Every brief tale compels attention with sinister storytelling, the occasional wicked bit of humor and great performances, but it’s the look of the film that sets it far above the others of its ilk.

Dougherty takes the “scary” comic approach to the film—the kind you find in Creepshow and other Tales from the Crypt types—but nothing looks as macabrely gorgeous as this movie. The lighting, the color, the costumes and the way live action bleeds into the perfectly placed and articulated moments of graphic artwork—all of it creates a giddy holiday mood that benefits the film immeasurably.

Dylan Baker (returning to the uptight and evil bastard he perfected for his fearless performance in Happiness) leads a whip-smart cast that includes impressive turns from Brian Cox, Anna Pacquin, Leslie Bibb and Brett Kelly (Thurman Merman, everybody!).

And it’s all connected with that adorable menace, Sam. Perfect.

HAPPY HALLOWEEN!

Halloween Countdown, Day 30: Hellraiser

Hellraiser (1987)

“The box…you opened it. We came.”

Man, those cenobites were scary cool, weren’t they?

Hellraiser, Clive Barker’s feature directing debut, worked not only as a grisly splatterfest, but also as a welcome shift from the rash of teen slasher movies that followed the success of Halloween. Barker was exploring more adult, decidedly kinkier fare, and Hellraiser is steeped in themes of S&M and the relationship between pleasure and pain.

Hedonist Frank Cotton solves an ancient puzzle box, which summons the fearsome Cenobites, who literally tear Frank apart and leave his remains rotting in the floorboards of an old house. Years later, Frank’s brother Larry moves into that house with his teenage daughter Kirsty and his new wife Julia (who, oh yeah, also happens to be Frank’s ex-lover).

A gash on Larry’s leg spills blood on the floor, which awakens the remains of Frank, who then requires more blood to complete his escape from the underworld. Julia, both repulsed and aroused by her old flame’s half-alive form, agrees to make sure more blood is soon spilled.

Meanwhile, young Kirsty accidentally opens the puzzle box, and when the Cenobites come for her, she offers a deal:  let me go, and I’ll lead you to Uncle Frank.

What? A teenager in a horror flick doing some cool headed problem solving?

It was another way that Hellraiser rose above some weak production elements to stand out, and hail the arrival of Clive Barker as an important new name in horror.

Listen weekly to MaddWolf’s horror podcast FRIGHT CLUB. Do it!

Halloween Countdown, Day 9: The Babadook

The Babadook (2014)

You’re exhausted – just bone-deep tired – and for the umpteenth night in a row your son refuses to sleep. He’s terrified, inconsolable. You check under the bed, you check in the closet, you read a book together – no luck. You let him choose the next book to read, and he hands you a pop-up you don’t recognize: The Babadook. Pretty soon, your son isn’t the only one afraid of what’s in the shadows.

It’s a simple premise, and writer/director Jennifer Kent spins her tale with straightforward efficiency. There is no need for cheap theatrics, camera tricks, or convoluted backstories, because Kent is drilling down into something deeply, frighteningly human.

Like a fairy tale or nursery rhyme, simplicity and a child’s logic can be all you need for terror.

Kent’s film is expertly written and beautifully acted, boasting unnerving performances from not only a stellar lead in Essie Davis, but also the alarmingly spot-on young Noah Wiseman. Davis’s lovely, loving Amelia is so recognizably wearied by her only child’s erratic, sometimes violent behavior that you cannot help but pity her, and sometimes fear for her, and other times fear her.

Likewise, Wiseman delivers as a tender, confused, dear little boy you sometimes just want to throttle. Their naturalistic performances genuinely showcase the baggage that can exist between a parent and a child.

Radek Ladczuk’s vivid cinematography gives scenes a properly macabre sense, the exaggerated colors, sizes, angles, and shadows evoking the living terror of a child’s imagination.

Much of what catapults The Babadook beyond similar “presence in my house” flicks is the allegorical nature of the story. There’s an almost subversive relevance to the familial tensions because of their naked honesty, and the fight with the shadowy monster as well as the film’s unusual resolution heighten tensions.

The film’s subtext sits so close to the surface that it threatens to burst through. Though that does at times weaken the fantasy, it gives the film a terrifying urgency. In the subtext there is a primal horror, a taboo rarely visited in film and certainly never examined with such sympathy. Indeed, the compassion in the film may be the element that makes it so very unsettling.

Eerily familiar yet peculiar and unique, The Babadook immediately ranks among the freshest and more memorable films the genre has to offer. It also marks a filmmaker to keep an eye on.

Listen weekly to MaddWolf’s horror podcast FRIGHT CLUB. Do it!

Day 31: It Follows

It Follows (2015)

David Robert Mitchell invites you to the best American horror film in more than a decade.

It Follows is a coming of age tale that mines a primal terror. Moments after a sexual encounter with a new boyfriend, Jay discovers that she is cursed. He has passed on some kind of entity – a demonic menace that will follow her until it either kills her or she passes it on to someone else the same way she got it.

Yes, it’s the STD of horror movies, but don’t let that dissuade you. Mitchell understands the anxiety of adolescence and he has not simply crafted yet another cautionary tale about premarital sex.

Mitchell has captured that fleeting yet dragging moment between childhood and adulthood and given the lurking dread of that time of life a powerful image. There is something that lies just beyond the innocence of youth. You feel it in every frame and begin to look out for it, walking toward you at a consistent pace, long before the characters have begun to check the periphery themselves.

And though the entire effort boasts the naturalism of an indie drama, this is a horror film and Mitchell’s influences are on display. From the autumnal suburban loveliness of the opening sequence to the constantly slinking camera, the film bears an unabashed resemblance to John Carpenter’s Halloween.

Mitchell borrows from a number of coming of age horror shows, but his film is confident enough to pull it off without feeling derivative in any way. The writer/director takes familiar tropes and uses them with skill to lull you with familiarity, and then terrify you with it.

Maika Monroe – hot off an excellent turn in The Guest – anchors a cast of believable teens, absent mindedly bored with their adolescence. The performances across the board are fresh and realistic. The gang of buddies movies languidly toward adulthood in a time outside time – their lives speckled with TV antennas and wall phones but also e-readers. This inconcrete time period allows the film a nostalgic quality that any audience can tap into.

The shape shifting entity itself appears in a variety of forms, each a more lurid image direct from some nightmare.

Mitchell’s provocatively murky subtext is rich with symbolism but never overwhelmed by it. His capacity to draw an audience into this environment, this horror, is impeccable, and the result is a lingering sense of unease that will have you checking the perimeter for a while to come.

Listen weekly to MaddWolf’s horror podcast FRIGHT CLUB. Do it!

Monsters Jump Off the Page

Goosebumps

by Christie Robb

It’s been over 20 years since the publication of R.L. Stine’s classic Goosebumps #1: Night of the Living Dummy. And now, a generation who whiled away the nighttime hours gripping paperbacks with white knuckles can bring a new crop of kiddos to experience the thrills of Stine’s monsters, this time on the big screen.

In Goosebumps the movie, teenage hunk Zach (Dylan Minnette) moves with his mom to the ‘burbs. He is lucky in that his next-door neighbor is a quick-witted and gorgeous girl, Hannah (Odeya Rush), who immediately whisks him away to the neighborhood’s abandoned amusement park. However, he is unlucky in that her dad (Jack Black) is a curmudgeon who pops out from windows and in between the slats of fences to warn Zach to stay away or else something bad will happen.

Believing Hannah to be held captive by her overbearing dad, and after overhearing some screaming, Zach lures the dad away and breaks into the house accompanied by his timid, socially awkward friend Champ. In searching for Hannah, they discover a shelf full of Goosebumps manuscripts. And open one. Chaos ensues.

It appears Zach’s prickly neighbor is reclusive author R.L. Stine who, with the help of a magical typewriter, brings his imaginary monsters to life, but traps them inside the pages of his locked manuscripts.

The real trouble begins when Slappy (the antagonist from Night of the Living Dummy) escapes and steals the collection of manuscripts, releasing the full extent of Stine’s imagination upon the town—from the Werewolf of Fever Swamp, to a giant praying mantis, to freeze-ray wielding aliens, to murderous garden gnomes. It’s kind of Cabin in the Woods for tweens.

The movie is relentlessly paced as the crew dashes from one crisis to the next, concocting a zany plan to defeat all the monsters. The scares provided by the monsters and creepy crawlies are balanced by pratfalls, cheeky dialogue (See Zach’s aunt’s description of Stine’s smell: “… like mint and B.O. It works.”), and scene-stealing supporting characters.

Goosebumps is not without its flaws, however. It woefully underutilizes some cast members – Amy Ryan (Birdman) and Ken Marino (Wet Hot American Summer) in particular. Like the book franchise on which it is based, the movie is fairly predictable, at least for the older folks in the audience. There are some logical inconsistencies (for example, the lights are still running in the abandoned amusement park) and a definite lack of diversity in casting. But, nevertheless, it’s a seasonally-appropriate, Danny Elfman-scored thrill that will keep folks entertained without fostering nightmares.

Verdict-3-0-Stars

Halloween Countdown, Day 17

The Host (2006)

Japan may have left its monster movie past behind it, moving on to horrifying, circuitous tales where ghosts and technology intertwine, but in 2006, Korea took its own shot at the Godzilla fable. The sci-fi import The Host, which tells the tale of a giant mutant monster terrorizing Seoul, has all the thumbprints of the old Godzilla movies: military blunder, resultant angry monster, terrorized metropolis. Writer/director Joon-ho Bong updates the idea, and not solely with CGI.

The film opens in a military lab hospital in 2000. A clearly insane American doctor, repulsed by the dust coating formaldehyde bottles, orders a Korean subordinate to empty it all into the sink. Soon the contents of hundreds of bottles of formaldehyde find its way through the Korean sewer system and into the Han River. This event – allegedly based on fact – eventually leads, not surprisingly, to some pretty gamey drinking water.  And also a 25 foot cross between Alien and a giant squid.

Said monster – let’s call him Paul – exits the river one bright afternoon in 2006 to run amuck in a very impressive outdoor-chaos-and-bloodshed scene. A dimwitted foodstand clerk witnesses his daughter’s abduction by the beast, and the stage is set.

What follows, rather than a military attack on a marauding Paul, is actually one small, unhappy, bickering family’s quest to find and save the little girl. Their journey takes them to poorly organized quarantines, botched security check points, misguided military/Red Cross posts, and through Seoul’s sewer system, all leading to a climactic battle even more impressive than the earlier scene of afternoon chaos.

The film’s decidedly comedic tone gives the film a quirky charm, but seriously diminishes its ability to frighten. Host does generate real, claustrophobic dread when it focuses on the missing child, though. Along with its endearing characters, well-paced plot, and excellent climax, it makes for one of the best creature features to come along in decades.

Halloween Countdown, Day 16

 

The Wicker Man (1973)

In the early Seventies, Robin Hardy created a film that fed on the period’s hippie- versus-straight hysteria. An uptight Brit constable Sgt. Howie (Edward Woodward) flies to the private island Summerisle, investigating charges of a missing child. His sleuthing leads him into a pagan world incompatible with his sternly Christian point of view.

The deftly crafted moral ambiguity of the picture keeps the audience off kilter. Surely we aren’t to root for these heathens, with their nudey business right out in the open? But how can we side with the self-righteous prig Howie?

Hardy and his cast have wicked fun with Anthony Shaffer’s sly screenplay, no one more so than the ever-glorious Christopher Lee. Oh, that saucy baritone! We love him in the role of Lord Summerisle, though it helps that he gets all the great lines. For instance, “Shocks are so much better absorbed with the knees bent,” he deadpans.

When Howie asks, “And what of the one true God?”

Summerisle responds, “Well, he’s dead. He had his chance and, in modern parlance, blew it.”

Blasphemy indeed! No wonder Howie’s so up in arms. Plus there’s that naked barmaid and her sexy come-hither dance.

Truth be told, Brit Eckland’s seductive dancing looks more like a temper tantrum mixed with a seizure, but on Summerisle you can let your freak flag fly.

Howie won’t be tempted by the barmaid, though. And as the tale meanders unpredictably forward, he might have wanted to rethink that.

The film is hardly a horror movie at all –more of a subversive comedy of sorts – until the final reel or so. Starting with the creepy animal masks (that would become pretty popular in the genre a few decades later), then the parade and the finale, things take quite a creepy turn.

It’s a different type of horror film, one with a cheery disposition and sense of wicked fun that puts you in an uncomfortable position. Brilliantly told, impeccably filmed and hard to forget, it’s worth digging up this season.

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=21gb49H-Uo4

Halloween Countdown, Day 14

Carrie (1976)

The seminal film about teen angst and high school carnage has to be Brian De Palma’s 1976 landmark adaptation of Stephen King’s first full length novel, the tale of an unpopular teenager who marks the arrival of her period by suddenly embracing her psychic powers.

Sure, the film opens like a ‘70s soft core porno, with images created by a director who has clearly never been in a girls’ locker room and therefore chose to depict the one in his dirty, dirty mind. But as soon as the bloody stream punctures the dreamlike shower sequence, we witness the definitive moment in Mean Girl Cinema. The “plug it up” refrain, coupled with Sissy Spacek’s authentic, even animalistic portrayal of panic, sets a tone for the film. Whatever Carrie may do, we (the voyeurs, no doubt more like the normal kids than like Carrie) are to blame.

This film exposes a panic about the onslaught of womanhood. The same panic informs The Exorcist and dozens of others, but De Palma’s version offers more sympathy than most. King’s tale may link menstruation with female power and destruction, but De Palma mines the story for an underdog tale that more foreshadows Columbine than Jennifer’s Body.

Spacek is the perfect balance of freckle-faced vulnerability and awed vengeance. Her simpleton characterization would have been overdone were it not for Piper Laurie’s glorious, evil zeal as her religious nutjob mother. It’s easy to believe this particular mother could have successfully smothered a daughter into Carrie’s stupor.

Senior prom doesn’t go as well as it might have for poor Carrie White or her classmates. Contrite Sue Snell (Amy Irving) – who’d given up her own prom so her boyfriend Tommy (William Katt and his awe inspiring ‘fro) could take Carrie – sneaks in to witness her own good deed. Unfortunately for Sue, the strict rules of horror cinema demand that outcasts remain outcasts. Sure, Sue shouldn’t have been mean to Carrie in the first place, but being nice was the big mistake. Only bad things would follow.

De Palma and screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen wisely streamline King’s meandering finale. From the prom sequence onward, De Palma commits to the genre, giving us teen carnage followed by the profoundly upsetting family horror, finished with one of cinema’s best “gotcha” moments.

 

Halloween Countdown, Day 11

The Conjuring (2013)

If there’s a sure fire hit for your Halloween viewing pleasure, it’s the scariest movie of 2013: The Conjuring.

Welcome to 1971, the year the Perron family took one step inside their new home and screamed with horror, “My God, this wallpaper is hideous!”

Seriously, it often surprises me that civilization made it through the Seventies. Must every surface and ream of fabric be patterned? Still, the Perrons found survival tougher than most.

The farmhouse’s previous residents may be dead, but they haven’t left, and they are testy! So the Perrons have no choice but to look up paranormal investigators Lorraine and Ed Warren – the real life couple linked to many famous American hauntings, including one in Amityville, NY. The Conjuring is allegedly based on one of the couple’s cases.

Yes, this is an old fashioned ghost story, built from the ground up to push buttons of childhood terror. But don’t expect a long, slow burn. Director James Wan expertly balances suspense with quick, satisfying bursts of visual terror.

Wan cut his teeth – and Cary Elwes’s bones – with 2004’s corporeal horror Saw. He’s since turned his attention to something more spectral, and his skill with supernatural cinema only strengthens with each film.

Ghost stories are hard to pull off, though, especially in the age of instant gratification. Few modern moviegoers have the patience for atmospheric dread, so filmmakers now turn to CGI to ramp up thrills. The results range from the visceral fun of The Woman in Black to the needless disappointment of Mama.

But Wan understands the power of a flesh and blood villain in a way that other directors don’t seem to. He proved this with the creepy fun of Insidious, and surpasses those scares with his newest effort.

A game cast helps. Joining five believably terrified girls in solid performances are Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, and the surprisingly well-suited Ron Livingston as the helpless patriarch. The usually sublime Lili Taylor is uncharacteristically flat as the clan’s loving mother, unfortunately, but there’s more than enough to distract you from that.

Wan’s expert timing and clear joy when wielding spectral menace help him and his impressive cast overcome the handful of weaknesses in the script by brothers Chad and Carey Hayes. Claustrophobic when it needs to be and full of fun house moments, The Conjuring will scare you while you’re watching and stick with you after. At the very least, you’ll keep your feet tucked safely under the covers.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vjk2So3KvSQ

Halloween Countdown, Day 10

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1989)

Like Snowtown Murders, released more than two decades later, Henry is an unforgivingly realistic portrayal of evil. Michael Rooker is brilliant as serial killer Henry (based on real life murderer Henry Lee Lucas). We follow him through his humdrum days of stalking and then dispatching his prey, until he finds his own unwholesome kind of family in the form of buddy Otis and his sister Becky.

Director John McNaughton’s picture offers a uniquely unemotional telling – no swelling strings to warn us danger is afoot and no hero to speak of to balance the ugliness. He confuses viewers because the characters you identify with are evil, and even when you think you might be seeing this to understand the origins of the ugliness, he pulls the rug out from under you again by creating an untrustworthy narrative voice. His film is so nonjudgmental, so flatly unemotional, that it’s honestly hard to watch.

What’s diabolically fascinating, though, is the workaday, white trash camaraderie of the psychopath relationship in this film, and the grey areas where one crazy killer feels the other has crossed some line of decency.

Rooker’s performance unsettles to the bone, flashing glimpses of an almost sympathetic beast now and again, but there’s never a question that he will do the worst things every time, more out of boredom than anything.

It’s a uniquely awful, absolutely compelling piece of filmmaking.