When it comes to good Halloween horror flicks, do you ever feel like you pick up the same boxes at the video store? “Rosemary's Baby,” “Psycho,” “Scream,” “Halloween”? This year I wanted something a little different. So I asked some close friends and scary movie fanatics for the names of some of their favorite movies. I ended up with a list of more than a dozen films. My criteria were that the movies be ones I hadn't seen before and that I didn't want them to be too famous.
Below are the six movies I enjoyed most. They feature all kinds of villains, everything from aliens to witches to brutal killers. They share a surreal quality — the characters tend to question what's in front of their eyes. All of them also have a bit of humor, though some less intentional than others. Hopefully, these films will give you some good ideas when you hit the video store this Halloween season.
What’s not to like here? Great ’70s hair, a leading man (Bill Thornbury) who seems more than a wee bit stoned throughout the entire film, and a 13-year-old kid (Michael Baldwin) who gets a chance to ride a motorcycle and shoot a Colt 45. The ’70s were such a good decade.
Director Don Coserelli (“Bubba Ho-Tep,” “The Beastmaster”) wrote and directed this horror flick about a mysterious tall man (Angus Scrimm) who’s doing a bit of graverobbing at the local funeral parlor. When Mike Pearson accidentally stumbles upon him, he’s determined to break every scary movie rule in the book (like breaking into a funeral home in the dead of night with just a lighter) to figure out what the heck is going on. In the meantime, big brother Toby is scoring chicks, making music and planning to get the heck out of their little town. But he too, along with good friend and ice-cream man Reggie, gets dragged into the mystery. One of Reggie's best lines: “This guy’s not going to leak all over my ice cream, is he?”
This is pretty low-budget stuff. The bad guys look like “Star Wars” Jawas and the biggest special effect is a flying silver ball and a white room (“2001” influence alert!) filled with what look like tiny trash cans. But, believe it or not, "Phantasm" is still scary. The way Coserelli uses sound, especially the sound he uses for those little Jawa guys, really adds to the scare factor. And the Tall Man growling “Boy” is sure to stay with you. The plot itself may be a bit of a headscratcher, but you will definitely go away from “Phantasm” highly entertained.
“Carnival of Souls” (1962)
This little zombie flick from 1962 is just plain entertaining. After Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss) and her friends are run off the edge of a bridge during a drag race, she is the only one to emerge from the water seemingly unscathed. She decides to start her life in a new town, plying her trade as a church organist. “A church is just a place of business to me,” she says. She rooms in a boarding house with the kind Mrs. Thomas (Frances Feist): “You can take all the baths you want” and the rather lecherous Mr. Linden (Sidney Berger). Yet, something is drawing her to the deserted carnival in town and she’s having some rather strange incidents since she’s moved to town. Is she going crazy or is there really something out there?
Berger’s Mr. Linden absolutely makes this movie. Proving that the best counterpoint to a good scare is a good laugh, his unbelievably smarmy character is incredibly fun to watch. This movie isn’t just laughs though, it’s got some good jerk-you-out-of-your-seat moments and the photography (particularly during some of the carnival scenes) and creepy organ-laced score only add to the rather head-trippy effect. (Note: Once you've seen the movie, you may want to get the doing the commentary. He's hilarious.)
Years before he directed “Hellboy,” Guillermo del Toro made a little tale about an old man and his very strange bug-shaped gizmo. "Cronos" is a vampire movie, but not in the typical sense. It’s in Spanish (with English subtitles), yet one of the characters occasionally just speaks English. “Cronos” tells the story of Jesus Gris, who, along with his granddaughter, Aurora, stumbles upon a device that promises to extend life. Ron Perlman (del Toro’s “Hellboy” star) is on board as the nephew of a dying man who wants that device to extend his own life. Though Perlman is more interested in getting a nose job (I really couldn’t make that up), he serves his uncle because he hopes to someday inherit the man’s money. Perlman is actually quite funny throughout the film — he wears gray power suits and carries a deck of cards with various noses he’s trying to decide between.
Inevitably, Gris stumbles upon the secret of the device and succumbs to some of its, shall we say, powers. Watching him take his first taste of blood of a public restroom floor may scare the daylights out of those of you who are into those paper toilet-seat protectors. And a scene of a mortician sewing up a corpse’s lips will probably creep out even the most seasoned “Six Feet Under” watcher. Though this movie isn’t overtly scary, it has a great mix of mystery, creepiness and humor. Perfect for any Halloween night.
Some argue that Japanese horror films are far superior to their American counterparts. Well, I'm not sure about that, but they are definitely even less squeamish about violence than we are —who would have thought it? In this film, widower Shigeharu Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi) decides with some pressure from his son that it’s time to remarry. Aoyama is not much for the singles scene, however, so he and a buddy decide to hold a casting session for the leading female role in a not-all-together-real movie. The audition scenes are actually quite funny as Aoyama and his buddy both interview a series of perky model-actress types. But Aoyama has already decided on someone based on the essay attached to her resume, a rather shy, soft-spoken — and in his words, “obedient” — girl named Asami Yamazaki (Eihi Shiina). Though his friend has a bad feeling about this girl, Aoyama decides to take a chance and ask her out.
What’s so great about this movie is how normal it seems — at first. Director Takashi Miike (“Dead or Alive: Hanzaisha”) introduces the scary elements of this film very slowly and at first he does it through these very quick cuts, so you barely even get a chance to take in what you’re seeing. He also uses a dreamy quality making both the lead character and the audience question if what’s happening is what’s actually happening. This movie is very violent — and in very creative ways. Let’s put it this way, if you’re the kind of person who has to look away when your doctor gives you a shot, this is not the film for you. Everyone else, enjoy the mayhem.
“The Innocents” (1961)
What would Halloween be without a good ghost story? Deborah Kerr (“From Here To Eternity”) stars in this adaptation of Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw.” And if that sentence makes this movie sound like some stodgy bore, I can assure you it's not. This story of a governess who is sent to a country house to care for two orphaned children is deliciously creepy. When Kerr’s character discovers that there may be some ghosts of past residents, she slowly becomes unhinged as she grows more and more fearful. Kerr is the standout in the cast; your opinion about her character may change throughout the film and this in part has to do with how many levels Kerr gives her. There is one kiss in this movie that must rank among cinema’s creepiest smooches. Michael Stevens is also great as the young Miles, who seems too old for his years and is a perfect sparring partner for Kerr.
“The Others” director Alejandro Amenábar must have been inspired by this film, because that film has a very similar look and feel, with its big house and semi-creepy children. The two films, however, have decidedly different twists. The best part about the film is that the ending is somewhat ambiguous, so that you get to judge the spooky events for yourself. (Note: This movie is not yet available on DVD.)
When Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) shows up to attend a prestigious European ballet school, she has the misfortune of arriving the same night one of the students is brutally — and I do mean, brutally — murdered. Something strange is going on in that dance academy and Suzy and friend Sara (Stefania Casini) are determined to find out what. Sure, their dance instructor may remind you a bit of Cloris Leachman’s Frau Blucher character from “Young Frankenstein” and the mysterious headmistress seems to snore like a bear, but does that necessarily mean something awful is going on? Well, yes.
This is actually part of director Dario Argento’s still unfinished trilogy, which also includes the 1980 film, “Inferno.” Argento creates a very dreamlike look in “Suspiria,” which is enhanced by bathing certain scenes in blue, red or green light. The music he uses, by the aptly named rock group Goblin, adds to the atmosphere, and is definitely unlike any soundtrack you’ve ever heard in a scary movie. Though this is a fairly violent movie, it’s tempered by the fact that the gore is almost intentionally fake looking. Still, it will probably keep you from attending ballet school in some mysterious European country anytime soon.
Okay, so those were my favorites, but now I need more scary movies to watch, so please use the form below to tell me some of your scary flick picks (no spoilers, please). Responses may be edited for length.
Also, check out Chris Bahn's from last year for scary Halloween movie thrills.