Monday, October 19, 2009

The Hallowed Holiday Spirit

As my good friend G.W has already noted, over at his blog Secret Mountain Laboratory, our favorite holiday is fast approaching. You can't find a better set of suggestions to prepare for Halloween than G.W. has brewing over that the Lab. El Senor' Ferguson has recently  suggested a set of short films to help get you in the mood for the holiday. I'm jumping in to add my two cents and suggest some feature length films to help you get ready for the wonderfully insane holiday we love so much.

10) Let's get the obvious out of the way from the start. Halloween. In 1978, John Carpenters little film that could was unleashed on the unwitting suburban masses. Inspired by a combination of Hitchcock films and Italian giallo's from the 1960's, Carpenter takes every bit of slow build suspense he can and stuffs it into the suburban setting. The titular Michael Myers became a part of the cultural vernacular, a film franchise was spawned, and it scared the hell out of teenagers everywhere. If you've never seen Halloween, you're missing out. I'm betting that you've probably not seen it because it has the reputation of being the beginning of the slasher genre. Here's what you don't know. Unlike the imitations that came afterward, this is a nearly bloodless film. Halloween doesn't rely on blood and guts to achieve it's aims. There's some great cinematography in this film, as well as the completely awesome, over the top Donald Pleasance  performance that's incredibly entertaining. Jamie Lee Curtis is introduced to movie going audiences as Laurie Strode, the character fans of the series that followed couldn't wait to get to see again. If you've never seen it before, it can really still throw the fright into people. 

9) I'd put this higher up on the list, but it's the only of the films that is in theaters now (opening nationwide this weekend). Paranormal Activity is a great scare. That's really all there is to it. If you were ever one of those kids who dared your friends or were dared by your friends to go running into the local house with the haunted history attached to it, Paranormal Activity feels very much like that. Except, you're an adult now, and you're just not used to being that damned scared anymore. It's pulse pounding, suspenseful and the film succeeds in making you basically do that to yourself because it shows you so little. I've been beating the drum for this movie for a few months now, and I'm not going to stop because it has gotten a nationwide release and it has already become incredibly successful for the $15,000 it cost to make. I've been beating the drum for this film, and have continued to because it is just that fun to watch. GO SEE THIS IN THE THEATERS NOW!!!! 

8) Halloween is a fun holiday, and it should involve some kind of imagination, that kind you used to have when you were a kid. That's why Phantasm makes the list. It's all about imagination. Don Coscarelli did a great job of putting something on film which is familiar enough to keep you going, but which has enough imagination that it really takes on a kind of dream like quality. It's not for everyone, for that reason. You're not dealing with a reality you understand, but it is a reality which does have all of it's own logic, and sticks to it. Coscarelli manages to really get the feel of that childlike imagination into the fabric of the film, and that's not a small thing for any film, much less one started, and completely in such a D.I.Y. kind of way. I also can't get away without mentioning the seventies vibe to the film. It makes for some good laughs now. Angus Scrimm puts in a great performance as The Tall Man, a character which has developed it's own cult following in the horror community and the festival circuit.

7) Speaking of fun, another ghoulishly good flick for the Halloween season is Night Of The Creeps. This one is finally coming to DVD and Blu-Ray on Oct. 27th. We've got an alien invasion film, a zombie film, bits of slasher film, and fifties B movie all wrapped up into one decidedly absurd package by one Fred Dekker. You might not be familiar with the name, but the chances are that if you're in your early to mid-thirties (or are just a film geek like me), you've heard of The Monster Squad, Dekker's other film from the 80's. Night Of The Creeps is a lot less kid friendly than The Monster Squad, if only for the level of gore thrown about. Take heart if you're a non-horror lover, most of the gore in this one is strictly for gags. It's both a send up of the B-movie monster flicks from the fifties, and a loving homage at the same time. It's got a little bit of everything and is generally well made enough, and doesn't take itself seriously enough for most people to enjoy it.

6) It's time to get a few genuinely scary flicks in, because after all, it is Halloween, and what better time of year to allow yourself to get the pants scared off of you from the comfort of your own living room. Hence, I give you The Shining.Aside from the obvious, the things people always say about The Shining being terrifying, Jack Nicholson being brilliant, Kubrick being one of the greatest film makers of all time, and the beauty of the location and cinematography, there's something else I absolutely love about it. When I talk to people who don't generally like horror films, it's invariably the exception they make. When you bring up The Shining, they'll say, "That was a great movie. It scared the crap out of me." In other words, it's one of the truly rare gateway films the horror community shares with the rest of the film community, The Silence Of The Lambs being the other big one.  There's never a bad reason to watch The Shining. This and the next film were the first two horror films I ever saw, and they scared the living daylights out of me. From that point forward I was hooked.

5) I've met a few people who have seen The Exorcist and claim it was not at all scary. Somehow, I don't believe them at all. If nothing in this film unsettles you or downright scares you, I'm going to throw in the suggestion that you may not be human or you may really need to go in and talk to someone about that. I saw this for the first time when I was ten or so years old. Some of you might be thinking that is way too young for a kid to see a film like this. Unfortunately for my parents, I'd picked up a voracious reading habit, and believe me, there are much more disturbing books in the world than this was a film. I was looking for them. 1984 probably frightened me more than this at that age, and probably still does. The point is, I can remember seeing both The Exorcist and The Shining and being scared to pieces as a kid, and never wanting them to end. This might be a strange twist of personality, but there seem to be a lot of us out there, so I'm not too worried. It was the very first blockbuster film, also incredibly controversial (the two were probably connected), and remains a must see for all up and coming horror fans. It also touches somewhat on some of those weird, strange superstitions that Halloween and many of it's traditions have come from. Namely, keeping evil spirits at bay. Maybe a Jack-o-lantern would have done Reagan some good, but somehow, I don't think so. Truly scary stuff. Kudos to Dick Smith for a make-up effects creation and William Friedkin for a film that a miscarriage, fainting, vomiting, and people leaving the theaters in tears have all been attributed to. Beyond all of that though, like The Shining, this is masterful film making. There are some actual adult, serious themes at work in the film, beyond just the creature effects and disturbing nature of the content. There are also adult performances (something missing from too many of the contemporary scare flicks). Every performance in this film is outstanding. Some of you might know that for a good while, I usurped the name Damian Karras as an nom de plum on the intrawebs. That was specifically a tribute to the character and the actor who played him because this film and the character are so perfectly crafted. As a side note, if you don't know much about Jason Miller, the actor who portrayed Karras, his is an interesting story in it's own right. He was a Pulitzer Prize winning playwright, among other things.

4) The classic. The one. The only. Night Of The Living Dead gripped audiences and changed the course of cinema history. That might sound a little hyperbolic. If you think so, consider this, Night Of The Living Dead was originally being shown as a Saturday matinee, basically for children, because that's when horror movies were being shown in 1968. If you haven't seen the film, I can tell you this much, the difference between the horror films which had been shown to kids in matinees then and what NOTLD was is the difference between Star Wars and Schindler's List. Both of those films are about saving people from oppressive regimes. One of them is light hearted, fantasy, the other is a grim, horrifying, and emotionally traumatic. Night Of The Living Dead got yanked from the matinee spot as soon as critics got their shot at it, as it should have. It then went on to become the first of the Midnight Movies, achieving cult status and establishing the idea that there was a population of people out there who specifically wanted to see films that were out of the mainstream. It's been placed in the Library of Congress National Film Registry as a film deemed "historically, culturally, or aesthetically important." This is serious horror. I also contend that without it, the independent film movement we all enjoy so much today either wouldn't exist or at the very least, wouldn't be something which could be accessed by people outside of the largest metropolitan areas. It's one of those rare films that changed everything. Here's the reason it makes the list of Halloween horror flicks: we're still celebrating Halloween. Horror films still make big, big money. We still get dressed up in costumes, put out jack-o-lanterns, give out candy and all of that stuff. Given the difference in what we know now scientifically, and where we are religiously (almost all of these customs date back to pre-Christianity), why the hell are we still doing these things? Night Of The Living Dead, the film and it's history are a better explanation for that than any sociology textbook could ever give. It's the tie between those ancient fears and our modern society and what they have in common. A bonafide masterpiece.

3) From the horrifyingly unsettling to the horrifyingly absurd. Dead Alive is one of Peter Jackson's (you know, that guy who made that trilogy for nerds and geeks called The Lord Of The Rings) early works. A.K.A Brain Dead, depending on where you live, this is often referred to, as the line on the poster says, as "the goriest fright film of all time". But, this is in no way a serious film. Dead Alive has more in common with The Three Stooges than it does Night Of The Living Dead. All of the gore in the film is meant to make you slap your forehead and exclaim "oh WHY?!", not make you wretch. It's fun stuff, and Brain Dead may have been a better name for the film because it is essentially brain dead. The only intent here is to make you laugh at how gloriously insane and gory this film actually is. Jackson uses some semblance of a plot about a monkey from Skull Island (oh yeah, he did that remake about the huge monkey as well) which is dragged back to New Zealand as a zoo attraction. Well, apparently anyone it bites becomes a flesh eating zombie. Our hero, on a clandestine date, finds his smothering mother has been following him when she's bitten by the ugliest simian you've ever seen. From there, things go downhill, and it's funny as hell. It's really fun stuff from a man who later proved himself to be a master film makers, and who horror fans are happy has shown he sure has a love for gore.

2) This film laid the groundwork for so many that followed, it's hard to leave it out of  any list of horror films. But, considering the general tone of the film, it fits here on a list of Halloween films. It's fun, kind of scary, kind of weird, experimental, and do it yourself, imaginative film making at it's best. Evil Dead 2 is as much Three Stooges as it is horror film, it's the #1 reason Bruce Campbell has become a cult hero, and it was the very first suggestion that Sam Raimi could possibly be a master film maker.  I saw this for the first time when I was probably fourteen or fifteen, and my reaction to it was, "I didn't know you could do that in a movie!" and not just in the sense of the incredible gore (because there's lots of it, again comedic in tone), but in the way the story is told and in the cinematography as well. There is a kind of kinetic quality to this film that is extremely rare. It just seems to be moving along at an incredible pace, that even when the on screen action slows down, it's either in service to the comedy or the suspenseful aspects of the film. This is just a great, fun, incredibly inventive film. 

1) There's a new king in town. As of this year, Halloween has a new favorite film for the season. Will I always love John Carpenter's Halloween? Yes. Will it always have a special place in my heart because it was one of my very first and longest lasting "favorite movies"? Absolutely. But, the thing about Trick 'r Treat is that it's an anthology, with every film being related to something that is directly related to so many of our different Halloween traditions. It's a lot of fun, extremely well made and the love for both this style of film and for the holiday itself are palpable in viewing the film. Like Paranormal Activity, this film made a big splash at the film festivals and got picked up by a larger studio, and sat on the shelf for two years. This didn't get released to theaters specifically because the studio was afraid to release it opposite any of the Saw films, which have ruled the Halloween box office for some six years now, possibly a seventh if this year continues the trend. I can't think of another film which is so specifically about Halloween, and which tells it's stories with such skill. In short, it gets the top spot for the combination of great content related to Halloween, and really good film making. Trick 'r Treat is the kind of film that needs more support and more attention from the masses. If you're of the mind that horror has become too focused on torture, degradation and lost it's eye for the fanciful and fantastic, this is perfect for you.


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