We all have our Halloween traditions. Some take the kids from house to house for candy. Some of us dress up in costumes and go to parties. In my family, each year at this time it’s traditional for us to seal up our fortified compound, pop some corn, and watch horror movies until All Saints Day.
Horror is an inherently conservative film genre. From horror pictures, we learn that government programs cannot in fact save us from ultimate evil. No social worker ever shows up to save the day when rampaging werewolves are at the door. It’s only when a masked serial killer is stalking our cabin that we truly learn that ability to employ controlled violence, in self-defense, is the only way we’re ever going to see the next dawn.
On that note, I’ve been asked to select a few horror films that readers might enjoy this holiday season. Eight have been selected, from a variety of decades and subgenres. They are ranked not in order of quality, or chronology, but by violence and shock value. The first two might be suitable for viewing with older children. After that, all bets are off.
We begin with:
NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955)
LOVE and HATE tattooed upon the knuckles of his hands, Robert Mitchum rampages through this Charles Laughton film as a fraudulent preacher murdering southern widows for their fortunes. The strangest picture on this list, Night of the Hunter is both a horror movie and a demented musical, with much of the film given over to song. Audiences in the 1950s weren’t sure what to make of it, but this relatively obscure gem is a horror classic. Mitchum’s appearance, in particular, is one of the finest portrayals of screen villainy ever filmed.
Night of the Hunter is creepy, but in accordance with its times shows a minimum of violence. More deliciously scary than flat-out horrifying, this is a film that one could safely watch with a teenaged or perhaps younger child, guilt free.
LET THE RIGHT ONE IN (2008, Swedish)
This is the movie that fans of Anne Rice were hoping for in place of “Interview With The Vampire.” All of the vampire tropes are here, but presented through a lens far more witty and intelligent than what we usually get from Team Edward. Let the Right One In is both a love story and a coming of age story, as a miserable, outcast boy forms a friendship with the much wiser girl next door, who may just happen to be several hundred years old and have an insatiable thirst for the blood of the living. And yet it’s tragic. The boy will become a man. The girl next door will forever remain … a girl.
Better written acted than most horror films, to say nothing of the vampire dreck mainstream Hollywood foists upon the kids, this is a film that could be watched with teenagers, though parents might be advised to scan through it beforehand. It does have a few scenes of violence that may shock the impressionable. There is an American remake of this film. You should avoid it.
None of the remaining films on this list is suitable for children.
THE THING (1982)
Fresh from reviving a dying horror genre with 1978’s low budget shocker “Halloween,” John Carpenter turned his talents to more ambitious things, remaking a 1950s monster movie classic that originally starred James Arness (of TV’s “Gunsmoke” fame) as a man in a rubber suit. Carpenter’s remake, the story of a group of Antarctic explorers menaced by a being from another world, is in all ways superior.
Fans of literary horror have been known to lament that the stories of H. P. Lovecraft, perhaps America’s most influential horror author after Poe, have never received a decent cinematic treatment. Au contraire. In The Thing, Carpenter set out to make and succeeded in producing an explicitly Lovecraftian movie. Most horror films concern such petty trifles as Man’s inhumanity to Man, or perhaps Vampire or Demon’s inhumanity to Man. Rarely do they approach the sort of cosmic horror, in which Man is shown how little he matters in this universe, that we find in The Thing.
Like “The Thing,” David Cronenberg’s Scanners is ostensibly a science fiction film, but that’s just window dressing for the gross-outs. And Scanners delivers the gross-outs in spades. While the movie’s notoriety today may stem from a charming .GIF file featuring an exploding head, Scanners has aged quite well. This tale of a diagnosed schizophrenic who discovers that the “voices in his head” are real, and are coming from other people, leads into a plot of conspiracy and government / crony-capitalist corruption, through a corporate attempt to take over the world using an army of pharmaceutically created telepaths.
Does that sound far-fetched? Consider the extent to which our economy today strangles true innovation and free enterprise, where government is treated as a revolving door through which lobbyists pass in and out, wielding state power in one administration only to collect a pay-day at state protected corporations in the next. The conspiracy-riddled world of Scanners is one in which outlandish fantasies, such government appointing an unqualified power-hungry lobbyist to manage a global plague, are easy to imagine.
THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974)
Perhaps the most profitable “Drive-In” movie ever made, Chainsaw is an odd counterpart to Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” both films loosely based on the career of Ed Gein, a Wisconsin serial killer and … well, enough about Mr. Gein. Like Psycho, Chainsaw features no “gore” and surprisingly little blood, despite its lurid title.
Chainsaw’s plot is, in every way, identical to that of a “Scooby Doo” cartoon: a gang of dirty Austin hippie kids, complete with a Chevy van, descend uninvited onto the property of a hardworking Texas frontier family (one with rather extreme notions on the sanctity of property), and proceed to meddle. The trespassers are punished one by one, each in turn learning a valuable lesson about the importance of minding one’s own business and leaving one’s neighbors in peace. In the film’s final seconds, we’re treated to a surprisingly balletic work of interpretive dance by “Leatherface,” the nominal hero of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968)
“They’re coming to get you, Barbara.” And they were. George Romero’s black and white classic wasn’t the first zombie film, but it invented the modern genre that continues with The Walking Dead, complete with a sudden eruption of mass homicide, long boring stretches of interpersonal conflict between characters one hates, and most importantly, the feast. Over 45 years old, Night of the Living Dead still packs more punch than most Hollywood horror product. More than any film I can name, Night of the Living Dead feels like a nightmare captured on celluloid.
While its most enduring legacy is a flood of, mostly lesser, zombie movies, Night of the Living Dead also helped to inspire the film industry’s “voluntary” age rating system of G, PG, R, and now PG-13 and NC-17. Roger Ebert’s 1969 “review” of Night, really the story of a shockingly irresponsible theater owner who played the film at a Saturday kiddie matinee and the foolish parents who allowed their 9 year-olds to see it, tells the tale.
THE VANISHING (1988, Dutch)
I’m of two minds about this film, which concerns a Dutch gentleman’s obsessive quest to find out what hapened his girlfriend, who simply disappears one bright sunny afternoon at a crowded gas station: First, it is high art, something that cannot be said of many horror movies. That said, though it contains, literally, no violence, The Vanishing is so disturbing that I will never see it again. Apologies: If I tell you anything more about this movie, it would ruin one of the best “shock endings” the cinema has produced.
This is a movie that should be seen once, and probably only once. Avoid the inferior American remake, starring Jeff Bridges and Kiefer Sutherland, at all costs. If you can sit through this film, your reward will be a cinematic experience you will never forget.
EVIL DEAD II: DEAD BY DAWN (1987)
Sometimes evil can be a subtle thing, deceiving us as we wend our way through a moral hall of mirrors, never knowing right from wrong. On the other hand, sometimes evil is a face-biting monster demon made out of trees. At such times, the only moral thing to do is to strap on one’s chainsaw-hand, cry “Groovy!” and let slip the double-barreled Boomsticks of war.
And that’s just what Bruce Campbell does in Sam Raimi’s sequel to the original Evil Dead, transforming over the course of the film from a terrified victim to a death-dealing colossus of demon-slaying. As much an action film and a “Three Stooges” style physical comedy as a traditional possessed zombie movie, Evil Dead II contains unbelievable amounts of blood and gore, but the violence is so over-the-top, indeed cartoonish, that viewers often laugh as they cringe. Under no circumstances should this unrated film ever be seen by children, but strong-stomached adults will enjoy the roller coaster ride.
Happy Halloween! And may your candy ever be Almond Joy, not Mounds.