Whether you’re hosting a Halloween party or spending a quietly terrifying night at home, a program of guaranteed chillers is a must. The best Halloween lineups include a variety of monsters—vampires and ghosts, werewolves and zombies, witches and serial killers—from a variety of eras. And though supernatural purists balk, more kicked-back viewers give the nod to adding a scary sci-fi title (or two) to the mix (think Them! (1954); The Thing From Another World (1951); The Thing (1982); or War of the Worlds (whether the campy 1953 movie or the grittier and more horrific 2005 Spielberg production)).
Just don’t forget the humor. The best scary movies layer their horrifying thrills with laughter (whether intentional or not!), giving viewers a chance to release that awful, awful tension and catch their breath before the next hair-raising shocker.
No, most guests don’t give TV screens their undivided attention at parties (they’re too busy mingling, noshing, and imbibing), but looping your petrifying playlist on the big screen with the sound turned down and the subtitles on provides constant background entertainment. An eerie electronica soundtrack punctuated with shrieks, groans, and creaking doors will add to the ambiance. (And the guests who do get completely sucked into the films will tell you it was the best Halloween party ever!)
Below are thirteen horror flicks (plus a bonus * sci-fi-horror picture, plus a bonus ** John Carpenter thriller) guaranteed to deliver terror and laughter to you and your guests on All Hallow’s Eve. (And there’s a list of kid-friendly fare at the end of this blog, in case you’re hosting a children’s party where psycho Norman Bates and a vamped-out Kiefer Sutherland would be too-too terrifying.)
So carve the pumpkin, pop the popcorn, crank up the fog machine, mix the Zombies and Bloody Mary’s, and dig up that Freddy mask you tossed into the closet a few Halloweens back. Get ready for one hell (or heck) of a Halloween night! [Major SPOILERS Ahead!]
Thirteen (Plus) Scary Movies
* Alien |Brandywine/20th Century Fox, Rated R, 1979 | In this Ridley Scott nail-biter, the spaceship Nostromo serves as a claustrophobic haunted house. All exposed pipes, grates, and conduits, the utilitarian interior of the craft looks and feels more like a spooky old haunted factory than a futuristic spaceship. And that’s perfect, because once a scouting party brings aboard a deadly alien parasite, that’s exactly what this vessel becomes, a floating house of horrors where an extraterrestrial creature slithers in the shadows, pops out of cabinets, and even bursts out of a (very) unlucky character’s abdomen! The creature can also attach itself to your face like a slime glove (that’s the facehugger, the aliens’ second stage of maturation). As the crew is picked off one-by-one by the acid-blooded alien, the tension grows, augmented by a moody, spare orchestral score by Jerry Goldsmith. The story is set in space but its centuries-old conceit is right out of the supernatural playbook: if you’re too curious an explorer, and too cavalier (or greedy) about what you discover, you’re going to stumble onto something deadly which will destroy not only you but anything with which it comes in contact. Cursed diamonds or cursed mummy scrolls or exotic ETs—once you’ve touched them, your doom is inevitable, and your demise will be gory. H.R. Giger’s sleekly chilling alien designs won him an Oscar, but Sigourney Weaver as Warrant Officer Ripley owns this film. She’s not the über-ripped matriarchal superhero she becomes in the sequel Aliens, but she’s the smartest person on the ship with the keenest sense of self-preservation. As bodies drop fast around her, she’s the main one putting together the puzzle pieces and crafting a viable escape strategy. But this is sci-fi-horror. And true horror forbids happy endings. So although Ripley escapes, her escape carries a sting in the tail, and her trauma will haunt her through multiple sequels. As in any good horror film, Ripley has been cursed. Alien is an excellent movie to screen on Halloween night, whether you get sucked completely into it, or your party guests merely enjoy its iconic images in fragments between drinks and conversations.
An American Werewolf in London | PolyGram/Guber-Peters/Universal, Rated R, 1981 | One of the fun things about 1980’s horror was that it often revived classic monster genres, breathing new life into them, jolting them with electricity. Tales that had become creaky clichés were reborn as modern, irreverently witty, yet thoroughly chilling films. What The Lost Boys would do for the vampire genre (see below), An American Werewolf in London did even better for the werewolf genre. The story begins simply enough: Two young American men, best friends, one rather brash, one sweetly innocent, backpack through the UK countryside and end up on the wrong Yorkshire moor at the wrong time. When the pub you stop at is called The Slaughtered Lamb and filled with silent, glaring locals, you know you’ve taken a wrong turn. Even worse, the boys don’t heed the warning to keep on the path. The next thing you know one boy (the brash one) has had his throat torn out, and the other (David, the sweet one) has been savagely bitten by … something. He blacks out, then wakes in a hospital. Nightmares ensue for the survivor, as well as waking nightmares that are grotesquely comic, dipped in the darkest gallows humor. Shacked up with pretty London nurse Alex Price (a fresh-faced Jenny Agutter, now nun Sister Julienne on Call the Midwife) while he recovers, David continues to be tormented by vivid bad dreams, even as London is terrorized by some vicious fiend, an eviscerating savage. Perfectly nice, inoffensive Londoners are being torn to pieces in parks and in the tube. It simply won’t do—and David’s brash best friend, back from the dead and looking none too well (like a loaf of sandwich meat gone bad) explains in a waking dream that David, bitten by a werewolf, is now a werewolf himself; it’s David who’s terrorizing London! Naturally David doesn’t want to believe this, nor does Alex when he confides in her. But as more and more pieces fall undeniably into place, David’s dead best friends and deceased victims urge him to end his life before he kills again. David must choose between self-sacrifice and life as a werewolf—a choice Alex helps him make in an emotional finale that might leave you reaching for a handkerchief (and earned Agutter a Saturn Award “Best Actress” nomination). Hilariously and darkly funny in a way that only the Brits can be hilariously darkly funny (it’s a joint US-UK production), with lots of colorful footage of early 80’s London, attractive stars, and a werewolf transformation scene that was revolutionary at the time and still packs punch today, An American Werewolf in London , if you screen it, will have your guests howling your praises! (Don’t worry; the movie’s a lot funnier than that joke!)
Burnt Offerings | UA/MGM, Rated PG (should be PG-13 or R), 1976 | “Bette Davis, we love you!” One of America’s all-time great movie actresses was known for standing up to mogul Louis B. Mayer back in Hollywood’s golden age, demanding high-quality scripts. But in her later years Miss Davis blithely kicked up her heels and seemed to find the fun in any role that came her way, cashing the paycheck and tearing into each part with her signature gusto. (Miss Davis always seemed to deliver her lines as if she was biting into a crisp apple, and found that it tasted very good.) In Davis’ sunset years, no film or TV role was too loony. This explains why we find an actress of her caliber portraying a beloved (if somewhat annoying) elderly aunt in Burnt Offerings, one of the best bad horror films ever made. Supernatural shockers (often adapted from novels) were popular in the late 1960’s through the 70’s (think The Exorcist (1973), The Omen (1976—see below), Rosemary’s Baby (1968—see below), and The Shining (1980—see below)), but for every supernatural cinematic masterpiece there was at least one zany, low-budget good time like Burnt Offerings. The plot is classically simple. A husband, wife, son, and the aforementioned old aunt vacation at a once lovely, now ramshackle mansion. The elderly woman who owns the mansion—so they are told—lives in seclusion on the top floor. Except for bringing her meals on trays, the family is to leave her the old recluse alone. The property is beautiful, though run-down, and at first it seems the family might be happy there. But their fondness for the house is short-lived. Increasingly bizarre and disturbing accidents occur, and the family soon notices that the house seems to be repairing and rejuvenating itself. And it is repairing itself, using the energy generated by their fear! (Or their life force, or something like that. Close enough.) Old Aunt Elizabeth, no fool, is the first to realize something evil is afoot, but because she’s elderly no one pays attention to her concerns—even after her sudden demise. Son David senses and sees things, too—but, after all, he’s just a kid. Plus, dad Ben (Oliver Reed) is too preoccupied by visions of an evil, grinning chauffeur whose eyes are hidden behind dark sunglasses (an image that, once glimpsed, will never leave you; I promise!) to pay attention to his son’s fears, and as for mom Marian (the wonderful Karen Black), she’s too busy cleaning the house, dressing like a Victorian matron, and spending an awful lot of time in the attic. (Hmmmmm. Should the family be worried?) Burnt Offerings is a bit of a misnomer. Nothing is burnt in this movie (except 116 minutes of your life that you’ll never get back). But figuratively speaking, the family is a sacrifice (an offering) that fuels the house’s regeneration. Just when you think Ben, Marian, and David have achieved escape velocity, and will break free of the mansion’s supernatural claws, Marian dashes back into the house to say goodbye to that nice old lady in the attic. (Horror Movie Rule 10e: Never dash back inside a haunted house to say goodbye to anybody. Also known as the “Get while the gettin’ is good” principle.) When Marian doesn’t return, Ben ascends to the attic, where he discovers the old woman is actually his wife! Yes. It’s true. Marian has been possessed (by the former owner, or the house, or something), resulting in a hot mess of an old-timey hairdo and sinister wrinkle makeup! Ben goes flying out a window, crash-landing in a gruesome bloody mess on the family car; a traumatized David is then mashed by a toppling chimney. The father and son’s horrific deaths return the house to its original glory, over which the possessed Marian will preside. Not the feel-good family film of the year, this (often unintentionally) funny and truly chilling scare-fest is a fun, over-the-top choice for a Halloween screening. (Burnt Offerings Drinking Game: Take a drink every time someone watching the film correctly predicts what’s going to happen next.)
The Changeling | Associated Film, Rated R, 1980 | No, not the gripping historic thriller starring Angelina Jolie (2008), but a gripping 1980 haunted house tale starring the one-and-only George C. Scott and his gravelly voice. In this movie, the erstwhile General Patton plays a composer who loses both his wife and daughter in a tragic accident. Deep in mourning, he moves into a gorgeous old mansion which he soon learns contains paranormal activity. The best ghost stories begin rather slowly and rise, steadily, inevitably, to a horrifying crescendo—and The Changeling doesn’t disappoint. Subtle hints that the house might be haunted become clear signs, and then terrifying disturbances, prompting Scott and love interest Trish Van Devere to investigate the history of the house and its former inhabitants. Perhaps because of their palpable chemistry (Scott and Van Devere were real-life spouses), they work well together, and they eventually uncover the house’s morbid and murderous secret. Can they use this knowledge to prevent another dramatic tragedy? (Um … no. Remember: A happy ending is against the rules in true horror films. But points to Scott and Van Devere for trying!) Lavish yet somber settings, a story that moves along at a good clip, Scott’s dry wit, séances, exhumations, poltergeist activity, and a vengeful ghost—what doesn’t this finely crafted film have? A winner whether you watch it with your full attention or screen it for intermittently attentive party guests, The Changeling should be near the top of your Halloween lineup.
** The Fog | AVCO Embassy, Rated R, 1980 | There’s something disturbing in the fog—and it’s not (just) the lovely Adrienne Barbeau’s weirdly creepy rasp as she portrays a DJ trapped in a lighthouse during a supernatural attack on coastal California. John Carpenter’s follow-up to the far superior Halloween (see below) has a thousand-and-one problems, but the hilariously terrifying whole rises well above its problematic parts. The fog, eerily lit, is genuinely creepy, and the Carpenter-composed soundtrack masterfully gooses the audience, keeping us on the edge of our seats. Carpenter exercises laudable restraint, hiding the monsters/ghosts/whatev in the swirling fog for most of the movie; it might have been a costume/effects-budget issue, but shrouding the monsters in the fog delivers maximum suspense. The plot is “ghost story traditional” on the one hand, the casting and execution fabulously wonky on the other. There’s the requisite drunken and disillusioned priest; John Houseman as the worst babysitter ever (who is letting him tell ghost stories to their kids on a lonely beach?); a charmingly miscast Jamie Lee Curtis, who isn’t believable for a second as a hitchhiking runaway, but you don’t care; a wry Nancy Kyes (aka Nancy Loomis) stealing scenes left and right; and Janet Lee (Jamie’s mother, best known for her shocking end-of-Act-I demise in Psycho (1960)) stealing the scenes back again. The small coastal town of Antonio Bay is all geared up to celebrate its centennial, but alas--all is not well. A cursed gold coin transmogrifies into a cursed piece of driftwood that bleeds seawater; the glowy fog rolls in; pirate hooks and knives slash indiscriminately, seeming to slay the innocent as well as the guilty; decapitated head and body parts roll; and, finally, the town’s greedy secret is revealed. Oh—since all that isn’t enough (!) there’s an earthquake, too! Word to the wise: If someone knocks on your door while you and your friends are watching The Fog--don’t answer! Because, as the disembodied voices warn in the film, “Six must die.” If you haven’t seen this movie yet, you’ll thank me after you do. Very few bad movies are this good.
Halloween | Falcon Intl/Compass Intl/Warner Bros., Rated R, 1978 | John Carpenter directed and co-wrote and scored this indie film; he probably served the coffee and snacks too! This low-budget movie (made for less than half-a-million dollars!) benefits from being the work of one main auteur, a single captain of the ship; Carpenter was able to shape it exactly as he wished without being buried under a blizzard of “notes” and “suggestions” from some remote producer. (Cowriter Debra Hill, with whom he presumably saw eye-to-eye, was the main producer.) The resulting film is a minimalist work of art, and was a game-changer for the horror genre. Halloween’s plot is skeletally simple and unencumbered, a small-town tale of innocence lost and the ties that bind. Wholesome and brainy Haddonfield high school student Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis, in a career-launching role) babysits two children on Halloween night; she prefers to babysit rather than to join her friends in their late-1970’s hedonistic pursuits. Unfortunately for everybody, this is the night that notorious local murderer Michael Myers escapes from his psychiatric hospital, steals a series of vehicles, and heads home to Haddonfield. The doctor who knows just how blankly, pitilessly evil Myers is tries to locate the disturbed young man before he can kill again. But the doctor (all of the authority figures in the film) is clueless when it comes to running Myers to ground. Myers, the infamous local “boogeyman,” stalks Laurie, kills her friends, and then tries to kill her and her young charges. While Laurie’s bravery and motherly instincts save her and the two children, she is deeply traumatized. What happens to Michael Myers? He survives multiple stabbings and a two-story fall, vanishing into the darkness from which he came. Halloween clearly had no effects budget to speak of, but it’s a movie of iconic images and powerful, ever-increasing dread, achieved solely through the camera-work, the tense score, and the actors’ deft performances. Carpenter and Hill nail the small-town details (the sweet but slightly bratty Tommy; the bullies; the genially inept sheriff; the broad expanses of lawn and shrouding hedges that alienate middle-class houses from each other) and lace the script with plenty of humor, relief valves for an audience being drawn ever-closer to the characters’ grisly dooms. The tremendous success of this one small film spawned a mega-franchise of Halloween sequels and merchandise that propelled Myers to an almost comical supervillainy. Halloween is how it all began. If you watch one movie on Halloween night, or screen one movie for your guests, you’re well-advised to make it Carpenter’s original Halloween.
The Lost Boys | Warner Bros., Rated R, 1987 | Equal parts comedy and horror, The Lost Boys is a vampire flick worth watching for the mid-80’s hair alone. Jason Patrick’s heroically moussed locks, Kieffer Sutherland’s bleached Billy Idol spikes, and the massive curly mane sported by hippie-ish vamp Jami Gertz threaten, at times, to take over the film. The actors’ hairdos are ably supported by heavy makeup (including eyeliner for the vamp dudes) and incredibly cool mid-80’s fashions. Guests watching this movie at your Halloween party with the sound turned down and no subtitles might assume this is a really long, really stylish video about an 80’s glam rock band with musicians that turn into (sometimes violent) vampires. And, well, it kind of is. But if you activate the subtitles, or turn up the sound, your guests will catch the sweet side of this movie; it’s not just a glam-vamp tale of temptation, it’s also a family story. Put simply, a divorced mom drags her two sons to a new town and a new life living with her dad. Dianne Wiest portrays the mother—and who plays endearingly inept-but-well-intentioned moms better than Dianne Wiest? In this seaside town where the big attraction is the amusement park, the brothers have to adjust to life with no father, no money, no friends, and a weird grandfather. The older boy (Jason Patrick) falls in with the vampire crowd, while his younger brother befriends the goofy local vamp hunters. When Patrick decides the reckless and cruel vamp life isn’t for him, the vampire gang and their mysterious leader mark Patrick (and anyone who helps him) for extinction. For the 80’s “latchkey” generation left so often to their own devices, with parents who worked multiple jobs, this is a tale of lost children and how they find (or further lose) themselves. In The Lost Boys, brotherly love and family solidarity prove to be the key to fighting off bad influences. That sounds preachy … But the film doesn’t feel preachy. The funny moments are well-orchestrated, falling right on beat, breaking the tension generated by the film’s more horrifying moments. Sutherland brings true menace to his role as the Lost Boys’ lieutenant. He is a bitter blond Peter Pan with a cut-glass, ice-cold sparkle in his eyes that viewers won’t see again for decades, not until Sutherland becomes icy patriot Jack Bauer. The Lost Boys twists and turns and surprises us as it unspools, and it even presents a satisfying conclusion. A scary movie; a funny movie; and everybody just looks so great through the whole thing in that slickly perfect 80’s way. So fire up The Lost Boys, a vamp pic your guests can really (wait for it … wait for it …) sink their teeth into. (Ouch!)
Night of the Living Dead | Image Ten/Laurel Group/Market Square/The Walter Reade Organization, Unrated (but consider it R), 1968 | “They’re coming to get you, Barbara!” So begins one of the scariest movies ever made. Barbara’s brother Johnny is clowning around in the graveyard; guess no one told him that horror movie jokesters with no respect for the dead—or undead—are often among the first to go when the claws and incisors start to fly! George Romero’s classic zombie film has inspired legions of undead sequels, parodies, and reimaginings (some by Romero himself), but this is the source, the original. Starkly shot in black-and-white for what appears to be the price of a cup of coffee, the film has no heroes, no villains, just a handful of ordinary people trapped in a claustrophobic farmhouse while flesh-chomping undead try to break inside. The lights and shadows and lurching zombies make this an outstanding video backdrop for your Halloween party. For those who get sucked into it, well, they can view the film as a fable of mindless 1960’s materialism, or the spread of communism, or conformity, or a prescient dark fairy tale about coping with mass disease and/or bioterrorism. Or they can just enjoy it as a white-knuckle horror film. What no one can do is escape. Because “Johnny’s got the keys.” And Johnny isn’t himself any more. You don’t watch Night of the Living Dead so much as you survive it.
A Nightmare on Elm Street | New Line, Rated R, 1984 | Before he was Captain Jack Sparrow or John Dillinger or even Edward Scissorhands, superstar Johnny Depp was part of the ensemble cast in a sweet little film called A Nightmare on Elm Street. OK. It’s not a sweet little film. It’s another 1980’s “latchkey kid” fairy tale, this one pitch-dark, about what happens to kids when their navel-gazing, neglectful parents aren’t paying attention. In this case, the children of Elm Street are taken by demented custodian Freddy Krueger to his infernal boiler-room lair. Once the parents (finally) catch on that Krueger is a predator, they solve the problem by torching him in his boiler room, burning him alive. Years later, when the children of Elm Street become teenagers, Krueger begins to invade their dreams. He is horribly burnt and maimed. He sports a striped red sweater, a fedora, and gloves with razor-sharp knives affixed to the fingers—these are his signature accessories. Teens comparing nightmares soon realize that they are all dreaming about the same monster, and they investigate the mystery of who Krueger is, and why he torments their sleep. Eaten with guilt about burning Krueger alive, the parents are close-mouthed and obstructive. As the movie unfolds the persistent teens learn who Krueger is—was—and why he’s targeting them, but not until most of the teens have been slain (often in comically grotesque ways), one-by-one, while they’re asleep and dreaming. Clearly the only thing worse than parents neglecting their children (thereby giving nuts like Krueger a chance to hurt them) is parents trying to protect their children, which results in charbroiled custodians who exact vicious revenge from beyond the grave. As is usual in these “latchkey” fables, adults are the cause of the problem and/or are somehow complicit in it—yet they refuse to believe that anything supernatural is happening. Adults are evil or clueless and controlling (just like in real life, kids!) … so if anything is going to be set to rights, the latchkey teens are on their own. Another trend that emerged in the 80’s was that heroines (rather than heroes) began to save the day. In A Nightmare on Elm Street we not only see Depp’s character Glen devoured by a mattress and churned into a bloody milkshake, we see an almost equally shocking thing: a young woman, Nancy (Heather Langenkamp), emerging as the heroine of the story. It felt startlingly fresh to those of us who watched Nightmare in theaters in 1984; woman-as-hero is old-hat now, but this is one of the films that opened that door. As with Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street was a watershed movie in other ways, birthing multiple sequels, crossover movies, and a merchandising empire. A certain little nursery rhyme from the film entered the culture; just try not to chant it after you see this film. (It starts “One, two, Freddy’s comin’ for you,” and ends “Nine, ten, never sleep again”.) If you haven’t seen Nightmare in years, now’s the time to see it again and share it with your party guests. “What the hell are dreams, anyway?” asks the heroine’s drunken mother. Who knows! But “Whatever you do, don’t … fall … asleep”!
The Omen | 20th Century Fox, Rated R, 1976 | Gregory Peck will forever be Atticus Finch in the brilliant film adaption of To Kill a Mockingbird—one of the greatest cinematic performances. Ever. But for horror fans, he will also forever be the horrified and disillusioned foster father of the antichrist. I refer, of course, to (fictional) American diplomat Robert Thorn in The Omen. When Thorn (Peck) is told that high-strung wife Katherine (Lee Remick) has miscarried at a Rome hospital, Thorn is only too happy to accept an orphan from a Catholic priest and pass it off as his and Katherine’s own infant. Katherine doesn’t know that little Damien isn’t her natural-born child—but she senses it. Something’s not … right. Thorn receives an appointment as ambassador to the UK. He and his family settle in a manor house that appears to be larger than Buckingham Palace, where life should be a dream. But Katherine still can’t bond with the boy (now five years old), or get past his oddities. Zoo animals go bughouse-crazy when Damien’s around, and the wee tot freaks out (to put it mildly) when brought into a church. And then Damien’s nanny hangs herself at his lavish birthday party. This sets in motion a parade of carnage, a nightmare centering, somehow, around Damien. His new nanny, Mrs. Baylock, and her Rottweiler, are fanatically protective of the boy but cold toward Katherine. A series of people—a priest, a photographer—try to convince Ambassador Thorn that there is something wrong with his boy. As the supporting-character death toll mounts, Damien injures Katherine by ramming his tricycle into the stepladder she’s standing on, pitching her over the rail (!) Thorn finally wakes up and smells the unholy cappuccino, embarking on a quest to discover Damien’s true parentage. What he learns is so distressing that he attempts to vanquish the child with sacred daggers on a church altar—but Mrs. Baylock and the Rottweiler and Damien’s fanatical followers and the local police are having none of that, and Thorn is killed before he can harm a hair of Damien’s unholy head. The Omen is among the best of what can be classified as tales of “unholy children”. During the 1950’s, 60’s and ‘70’s a bizarre “fear of offspring” seemed to invade the zeitgeist. Frequently repeated themes included children that were tainted or evil and/or children that were not the parents’ true child. This intergenerational unease was expressed in pictures like The Bad Seed (1956) (the child is psychologically/emotionally disturbed), Village of the Damned (1960) (the children are coolly evil alien spawn), and Rosemary’s Baby (1968) (the child is the antichrist). These films can be seen as modern variations on traditional changeling myths, driven by deep-seated fears of modern science in general and modern medicine in particular. In the case of The Omen, adorable little Damien survives to wreak more havoc in two sequels. With its stylish European and UK locales, Peck and Remick’s fine performances, and dramatic, Goldbergian death scenes every ten minutes or so, The Omen is a perfect horror flick for any grown-up Halloween fête.
Paranormal Activity IV | Paramount, Rated R, 2012 | Yes, the original Paranormal Activity (2007) is leaner, meaner, and more riveting if you’re watching by yourself or with a small group, eyes glued to the screen to catch every nuance and subtly ratcheted notch of terror. But if you’re screening films at a party, the much more colorful, action-packed, and visually interesting Paranormal Activity IV is the way to go. The editing is faster-paced, the Kinect infrared scenes are just plain cool, and the visual effects come at you fast and furious, so even someone half-watching while gabbing with other guests will find the flick entertaining. Those who do play close attention will learn more about the franchise’s mythology, the demon at the heart of it, and the worshippers who will stop at absolutely nothing to serve their evil master. Though you’d expect it to be getting stale at this point in the series, the “found footage” conceit is handled creatively. And the conclusion, as is usual with Paranormal Activity movies, is jaw-dropping. You’ll sleep with the lights on! (The next sequel hits theaters in 2015.)
Psycho II | Universal, Rated R, 1983 | The same disclaimer as above: Yes, the original Psycho, released in 1960 (one of Alfred Hitchcock’s leanest, meanest, black-and-white triumphs), is the one to watch if you’ll be paying close attention. Its slow-blossoming flow, which gathers momentum with the inevitability of a nightmare, rewards attentive viewers, as does the Bernard Herrmann score. By turns soporifically mesmerizing and viciously alarming, Herrmann’s soundtrack, like the film, both tranquilizes and assaults us. When the violins screech at key moments we feel the knife plunging into our own bodies. Psycho II is not such a masterpieces, but it is in its own right a horrifying little gem. Long wished for (at the time) by Psycho fans, the sequel Psycho II picks up immediately after Norman Bates is discharged from the asylum where he was confined for the murders he committed in the original film. During the time that this film was released, many psychiatric hospitals in the U.S. were being closed and patients were being sent back into the general population en masse. Psycho II seems to vibrate with the pervading public anxiety of the times; were the patients being released actually cured? Were they safe? In Act I, Norman certainly seems to be rehabilitated—but it’s a horror movie, so what fun would that be? Bodies begin to drop like flies as Norman labors to reopen the Bates Motel, and the viewer is left to wonder whether Norman is “up to his old tricks again” or whether he’s being framed or whether the ghost of “Mother” is protecting her boy. As the horror unspools, questions about Norman’s past that weren’t addressed in the first movie are resolved here; there are a few surprisingly tender moments; and the tables are turned as the villain becomes the victim (and vice-versa). Psycho II, filmed in vivid color with dramatic camera angles and swoops of the lens—not to mention an affecting score by Jerry Goldsmith—is the film in the Psycho canon to play at your Halloween party to provide a visually interesting and entertaining horror backdrop. (Look for a pre-NYPD Blue Dennis Franz as a seedy motel manager, and watch for Vera Miles, who had a key role in the original Psycho.)
Rosemary’s Baby | Paramount, Rated R, 1968 | Another “unholy child” movie (see The Omen above), Rosemary’s Baby centers on the banality of evil as expressed through a (mostly) elderly coven of New York witches. They convene at an apartment in the Bramford, a once-grand, now-decaying NYC building where two of the coven leaders live. (In this movie, the fabulous old Dakota serves as the fictional Bramford). During most of the picture the audience isn’t sure whether young Rosemary (the mother-to-be) is imagining or truly experiencing the witchcraft and devil worship that she suspects is happening all around her at the Bramford. Rosemary is an exemplar of the “noble mother”. As the movie progresses and she becomes more-and-more convinced that she is surrounded by evil, she will go to any lengths to protect her unborn baby. Of course, as is always the case in the true horror film, no matter what the heroine does or how noble she is, there’s no winning. Rosemary’s neighbors, her doctors, and even her husband are revealed to be participants in witchcraft and dark masses. The ordinariness of these people stands in stark (at times even comic) contrast to their powers. You understand why they have turned to the dark side: Their ambition vastly exceeds their reach; without occult assistance, they are merely banal men and women, including a flute-playing dentist. Ruth Gordon steals all of her scenes as the tacky neighbor who married up and then climbed even higher through devilish means. Young Rosemary, not a native New Yorker, has no fancy ambitions. She wants to be a good mother—which turns out to be the noblest and most dangerous thing anyone can try to be at the accursed Bramford! As the curtain falls on this dark fairy tale, we sense that Rosemary will be a good mother to her unholy child—at any cost, a grace note to the movie’s horrifying conclusion. This film will look grand on your big screen, a visual feast for party guests. The Dakota, with its dark, decaying beauty, has never looked better than in this film, and every frame sports a “Mad Men”-like late 60’s sheen, from the clean lines of Mia Farrow’s ensembles to her sleek Vidal Sassoon haircut. This is a movie that shows old New York transitioning into modern New York. Stylishly shot, witty, and nightmare-scary.
The Shining | Warner Brothers, Rated R, 1980 | Inspired by his 1970’s stay at the luxurious (and apparently very, very haunted) Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado, Stephen King penned one of his most widely read and widely praised novels ever: The Shining (1977). The wildly successful book spawned a wildly successful movie—but genius director Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film version of The Shining strayed far afield from King’s source material. King didn’t like Kubrick’s movie—apparently still doesn’t like it. Years after Kubrick’s version hit theaters, King had a new version of The Shining filmed, a mini-series that hewed closely to his book. It was a very good mini-series, and, yes, it stayed true to the novel—but Kubrick’s Shining is still the superior cinematic work. Haunted hotels are haunted houses on heavy vitamins—more angst, more trauma, more stairs to trip you up and more rooms in which to trap and torment you. Kubrick’s Shining is a hallucinogenic funhouse filled with agoraphobia-inducing expanses, western and Native American artwork, the color red—and ghosts. Lots and lots of ghosts. Ghosts that shapeshift. Ghosts that touch you, and physically hurt you. Ghosts that mix you a tasty cocktail while convincing you to axe your entire family. This is not a nice place. Like a mystical battery, the Overlook Hotel has recorded a century of negative energies charged by scandalous revelries and gruesome murders. The hotel plays this energy back for special guests like winter caretaker Jack Torrance, a recovering alcoholic (played by Jack Nicholson with alternating fits of lunatic gusto and catatonia) and his psychic son Danny. From spectral twins with creepy Village of the Damned British accents to elevators vomiting gallons of blood in dreamlike slo-mo, the hotel in Kubrick’s Shining is a wall-to-wall carnival of searing images that will haunt you long after the closing credits. And how about that Room 237? Sheer lunacy. (Room 237 is even the title of a fascinating exploration of Shining conspiracy theories.) Jack’s wife Wendy is mind-blind to the hotel’s ghoulish goings-ons. She helplessly watches her husband and son unravel before her eyes, her psychic son sinking into trances (it might be that lush and menacing synth score!) while her husband becomes a cold-hearted, murderous caricature of his worst self. The hotel wants Danny’s psychic energy, you see (his “shine”), and it wants Jack Torrance to deliver that energy via a spot of familial axe murder (hapless Wendy will just be collateral damage). As the cold Colorado snows encroach on the grand hotel, cutting it off from the outside world, Jack lifts an axe and stalks his loved ones in the haunted red halls. The chilling (literally) conclusion is a victory for another “noble mother” character, but even those who escape have clearly been scarred for life. If you screen The Shining at your Halloween party, be prepared for the nightmare visuals and entrancing score to traumatize your guests, too—but, you know, in a good Halloween kind of way!
The Uninvited | Paramount, Unrated, 1944 | One of the first movies to present spirit hauntings as a (mostly) serious subject, The Uninvited is one of the best early ghost films. Like many pictures made under the old studio systems, it offers a bit of everything for everyone. Costumes by Edith Head. Oscar-nominated black-and-white cinematography. A score by Victor Young (including the deathless classic “Stella by Starlight”). An adorable little dog that often seems smarter than the human characters. All that, plus Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey in top form, and a half-creepy, half-loopy ghost story on the oh-so-veddy-English coast. The film is moody, atmospheric, and sometimes downright silly—witness Milland’s character reeling queasily from seasickness when he goes sailing with his (much-too-young) love interest. But as the picture unwinds the menace becomes more and more real, and the disturbing origin of the haunting slowly comes into focus. Séances, seemingly vengeful ghosts, possession, phantom scents, and liberal little dashes of humor--The Uninvited serves it all up like a savory stew on a cold English night. Whether you’re riveted to the screen, or only dimly aware of it playing in the background, what you catch of The Uninvited will make you laugh and shiver while the Halloween good times roll.
Other Titles: Consider chillers like The Blair Witch Project (Artisan, Rated R, 1999) which put “found footage” horror flicks on the map; The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Decla-Bioscop/Goldwyn, Unrated, 1920) a brilliantly demented German Expressionist film; Damien: Omen II (20th Century Fox, Rated R, 1978) Three words: “Say it, Mark.”; Bela Lugosi defining the vampire count in Dracula (Universal, Unrated, 1931); Gary Oldman updating the count in the sumptuous and dark Victorian-era reboot [Bram Stoker’s] Dracula (American Zoetrope/Osiris/Columbia, Rated R, 1992); the pea soup-spewing, neck-revolving The Exorcist (Warner Bros., Rated R, 1973), a finely crafted tale of possession in spite of the over-the-top language and fluids; Boris Karloff defining the man-made monster for all time in Frankenstein (Universal, Unrated, 1931); the laugh-and-scream fest Gremlins (Warner Bros., Rated PG, 1984); The Haunting (either version, 1963 (Warner Bros., Unrated) or 1999 (DreamWorks, Rated PG-13)); the ethereally beautiful Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt in the lavish New Orleans-based period piece Interview with the Vampire (Geffen/Warner Bros., Rated R, 1994); Lady in White (New Century Vista, Rated PG-13, 1988), charmingly nostalgic as well as deeply disturbing; Nosferatu (Film Arts Guild, Unrated, 1922) a rogue re-telling of Stoker’s novel Dracula; Lon Chaney, Sr. revealing a face that still terrifies in The Phantom of the Opera (Universal, Unrated, 1925);Spielberg’s smash-hit Poltergeist (MGM, Rated PG (now it would be PG-13), 1982); the inimitable Vincent Price discovering a spine-tingling parasite in The Tingler (Columbia, Unrated, 1959), the Castle classic which zapped movie-goers with buzzers under their seats; and Lon Chaney, Jr., the one-and-only true The Wolf Man (Universal, Unrated, 1941).
Tasteful Host Tip: Avoid screening super-gory-and-dark slasher films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and early Wes Craven efforts; they might be too gruesome for your guests.
Themed Suggestions: If you and your guests are the laugh-a-minute type, make it a supernatural parody night, with movies from the R-rated Scream (Dimension, 1996 – 2011) and/or Scary Movie (Dimension/Weinstein, 2000 – 2013) oeuvre and camp classics like Love at First Bite (American International, Rated PG (it would be PG-13 now), 1979), or the G-rated comedy of the Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein (and The Invisible Man, and the Mummy, etc) series (Universal, 1948 – 1955). Or if you’re hosting a party for your teens and their friends, load up on teen-focused supernatural flicks like Blood and Chocolate (MGM, Rated PG-13, 2007), The Craft (Columbia, Rated R, 1996), and the Twilight Saga (Summit, Rated PG-13, 2008 – 2012), as well as screening TV eps of Angel (The WB, 1999 – 2004), Buffy the Vampire Slayer (The WB/UPN, 1997 – 2003), Grimm (NBC/Universal, 2011 – Present), Supernatural (The WB/The CW, 2005 – Present), and The Vampire Diaries (The CW, 2009 – Present). (A few episodes of paradocs Ghost Adventures (Travel Channel, 2008 – Present) and Ghost Hunters (SyFy, 2004 – Present) wouldn’t go amiss, either.)
Kid-Friendly Frights: Younger children should be safe with the mildly spooky scares and quality family fare of: Coraline (Focus, Rated PG, 2009) | Hocus Pocus (Walt Disney, Rated PG, 1993) | Hotel Transylvania (Sony/Columbia, Rated PG, 2012) | It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (Warner Bros./CBS, Unrated, 1966) | The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (Walt Disney, Rated G, 1949) | Monster House (Relativity/ImageMovers/Amblin/Columbia, Rated PG, 2006) | ParaNorman (Laika/Focus, Rated PG, 2012) | Sesame Street: A Magical Halloween Adventure (Sesame Street, Unrated, 2004)
Bottom line: There are so many fantastic (and fantastically awful) horror movies out there that as long as you include some humor and a variety of monsters and eras on your playlist, and tailor it to your guest list, you can’t go wrong.
[Leslie Le Mon is the author of the delightfully disturbing Cold Dark Harbor Redux: And Other Tales of Ghosts and Monsters, available at www.amazon.com and www.barnesandnoble.com. She lives in Los Angeles, two blocks from the haunted mansion in Insidious: Chapter 2 (PG-13, 2013).]