With Halloween just around the corner, Movie Scene offers some suggestions for your night of cinematic fright
By MATT NANIA
Scene Movie Editor
Horror movies have generally gotten a bad rap. Your idea of a horror flick probably involves some demon from the underworld devouring the brain (or lack there of) of a screaming, large-breasted female. Or maybe what comes to mind is a slasher film, where a mad serial killer stalks a screaming, large-breasted female. If you're a little older or if you watch late night TV, you may be more familiar with the old black-and-white classics, where a pale supernatural figure emerges from the shadows, first to frighten and then to seduce (you guessed it) a screaming, large-breasted female.
Well, the movies we recommend for Halloween don't fit into any of those categories although you'll find that they all share certain traits with these "traditional" (that is, traditionally bad) examples of the horror genre. Instead, we've selected a group of smart, psychologically sophisticated horror movies, ones that scare us without asking us to suspend all logic and taste.
Alright, you'll still have to suspend some logic and taste, but that's what makes them horror movies, right?
"The Exorcist" (1973)
"The Exorcist" presents a fascinating exhibition of unlikely conflicts: the Devil versus a small girl, religion versus logic and modern times versus ancient beliefs. This constant opposition between dueling worlds is why "The Exorcist" brings such raw emotions to the surface for its viewers. You are never comfortable and you can never relax while watching this film.
"The Exorcist" begins when Regan (Linda Blair), the 12-year-old daughter of Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn), becomes ill in some very strange ways. She gets thrashed around by unseen forces, pees on the carpet and displays a sudden, prolific ability to spout vile and inventive profanity. After taking Regan to every doctor in the Western world, and receiving no explanation for these bizarre phenomena, Chris's once-firm belief in Reason is shaken. Desperate, she begins to wonder if Regan is possessed by the Devil. Chris asks Father Karras (Jason Miller) to check her daughter out, and then, if necessary, to perform an exorcism to drive the spirit from Regan's body.
Sounds like schlock, right? Well, audiences in 1973 didn't think so. Rumors sped across the country that people were vomiting in the aisles and women were scared into giving birth. Well, it's not that scary, but it did bring audiences to an entire new level of disturbing realism. A great horror film by all means, "The Exorcist" is a cinematic landmark in its own right.
Frightful Fact: Actress Mercedes McCambridge was called upon to provide Regan's "demon voice." In order to get the right inflection, she was fed raw eggs, alcohol and cigarettes, and was strapped to a chair.
Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho" is so terrifying that almost 40 years after it was first released, filmmaker Gus Van Sant was moved enough to remake it shot-for-shot.
Notwithstanding the benefits of modernity that come with a current version like less embarrassing clothes and cooler cars the classic version of this creepy flick is just that: a classic. "Psycho" launched a whole new conception of fear upon the American public.
Before 1960, the source of evil in horror movies was usually a clownish-looking guy in a Wookie outfit or something equally ridiculous. "Psycho" showed us that the greatest potential horror doesn't come from "The Deep," a la Mystery Science Theater 3000 buffoonery. The greatest threat comes from the guy next door.
Filmed in Freudian psychology's heyday, this film is largely a story of a boy and his mother, and Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) is a very big part of that very dysfunctional relationship. Caught in the middle is Marion Crane (Janet Leigh).
Viewers should be amazed at how current the plot twists and sinister behavior seem in this movie. In fact, you'll be tempted to conclude, like the proverbial guy who reads Shakespeare for the first time, that "Psycho" is just one clichι after another. Wrong. This is where they all came from: the origin of cinematic mental anguish.
Frightful Fact: During the making of the famous "shower scene," chocolate syrup was used for blood, since it shows up nicely on black and white film.
"Rosemary's Baby" (1968)
"Rosemary's Baby" is Roman Polanski's finest work next to "Chinatown." Based on Ira Levin's novel, "Baby" is a chilling film filled with great atmosphere and wonderful acting. It deals with some painful topics and has an excellent psychological thriller storyline. Although the plot deals with the Devil, don't get the wrong idea; unlike "The Exorcist," it deals primarily with witchcraft and occultism. "Rosemary's Baby" strikes a perfect balance of suspense and the supernatural, and the real and unreal. Throughout the film there's always the question of whether or not Rosemary's (Mia Farrow) suspicions are real or whether she is just paranoid or perhaps even mad. This leads to a lot of great scenes and ultimately to the unforgettable finish.
Frightful Fact: The film's theme, "The Lullaby of Rosemary's Baby," performed by Farrow, reached No. 11 on the Billboard charts.
The '80s gave rise to a proliferation of slasher movies. From "Friday the 13th" to "Nightmare on Elm Street," making cheap horror flicks seemed to be a sure-fire way to make money. But what started it all? Why did Hollywood put so much money into producing so many bad movies? The answer: "Halloween."
The plot is relatively simple: it's Halloween night, and Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis) is babysitting two kids. Her friends, who also live in the neighborhood, are more interested in hooking up with their respective boyfriends. But psycho Michael Myers (who has just escaped from a mental institution and, naturally, always wears a mask) is out to kill them. Standard horror fare ensues.
But any good horror movie is only as good as its villain, and this is what makes "Halloween" so much better than all the other slasher clones that came after it. The opening five minutes are presented entirely from Michael Myers' warped point of view (some consider those five minutes to be among the creepiest film sequences ever). Here's a movie that realizes that something doesn't have to jump out of a bush to be scary. It's often more terrifying knowing exactly what's coming.
For a horror movie, "Halloween" contains almost no blood. But try watching this one late at night, and you'll see how good it is.
Frightful Fact: The mask Michael Myers wears is actually a William Shatner "Captain Kirk" mask spray-painted white.
"Silence of the Lambs" (1991)
"Silence of the Lambs" assembles one of the most powerful combinations of acting, writing and direction in modern moviemaking to remind us of the infinite depth of human depravity.
Anthony Hopkins glides through his performance as the evil Hannibal Lecter with gripping understatement, unveiling for us everything we fear most about the dark side of the human psyche. Hannibal's no howling lunatic or crazed animal. He's intelligent, cultured, charming and wholly devoid of any moral qualms.
Jodie Foster is equally compelling as FBI Agent Clarice Starling, the perfect foil: a winsome and willing neophyte special agent who charms Hannibal. The dynamic between these two actors is tremendous and they both won Oscars for their performances.
The plot is addictive, as we watch Foster and her FBI team attempt to capture a serial killer on the loose, she coaxes clues from Hannibal the incarcerated godfather of all serial killers as to how the killer thinks and what he may do next.
Much of the movie's plot focuses on this second killer, nicknamed "Buffalo Bill," but he's not really all that interesting, except for his rather extreme take on cross-dressing. There is no doubt that you'll leave this movie more afraid of Hannibal than of anyone else.
Frightful Fact: The role of Clarice Starling was originally offered to Michelle Pfeiffer.
"The Shining" (1980)
Without Stanley Kubrick and Jack Nicholson, "The Shining" would be just another haunted house flick. This film, like all his others, is so much Kubrick that it carries the title "Stanley Kubrick's The Shining." His signature techniques helped craft it into the classic it is today. Although Kubrick was difficult to work with, his perfectionism is evident in the final product.
Likewise, Nicholson's depiction of a man teetering on the brink of insanity is brilliant. We watch as the madness slowly settles in and explodes fiercely into this man, transforming him from one who is trying repair his fragile family life into a stark raving lunatic bent on destroying everything he loves.
With "The Shining," Kubrick and Nicholson succeed on all levels and deliver a film that warrants its placement among the best in the horror genre.
Frightful Fact: Nicholson was up for the part of Father Karras in "The Exorcist" before Jason Miller took the role.
Ok, so maybe intelligence and sophistication aren't what you're looking for on Halloween. You want a lot of gore and an abundance of outlandish creatures. Perhaps you like your horror films with a healthy dose of science fiction or comedy. Or maybe you just have a thing for zombies. Whatever it is, we got you covered.
"The Evil Dead" (1982) and "Evil Dead 2" (1987)
"The Evil Dead" was Sam Raimi's (a cult horror film god) first masterpiece. The plot goes something like this: five college students travel to a cabin in Tennessee. The cabin is really creepy. They explore it and find a tape recorder that has a professor reading a cursed book. The tape raises evil spirits, and soon (after a particularly violent vine-rape scene) one of the women is possessed. To protect themselves, the students lock the new "evil dead" in the cellar. One by one each of them is taken over by evil forces, until only Ash (played by another cult god, Bruce Campbell) is left.
"Evil Dead" is a tour-de-force of wild blood and special effects that's so over-the-top it's hard to take seriously. It's a ton of fun, but not sophisticated in any sense of the word. It is an absolute must-see for gorehounds. All others beware.
As for the sequel, "Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn," Raimi's clever filmmaking and knack for twisted slapstick humor made it over from the original. This time both qualities have been heightened so that the comedy is equal to the horror, whereas the original was much more of a straight out splatter film. Through this perfect melding of comedy and horror, "Evil Dead 2" manages to capture the appeal of the original while creating a more entertaining film where everything is exaggerated to the extreme. There's more blood, more violence and more twisted humor, much of which is inspired by slapstick comedy routines.
Frightful Fact: Green-dyed creamed corn was used for the zombie guts.
"The Rocky Horror Picture Show" (1975)
The greatest cult classic of all time is an instant choice for Halloween. "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" is a hilarious horror-comedy-musical starring Tim Curry, Susan Sarandon and Barry Bostwick, which attained its cult status by playing at midnight movie showings ever since its initial release back in 1975. A testament to the utterly bizarre, "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" is an excellent choice for a Halloween-themed party.
Frightful Fact: The film was originally banned in South Africa just weeks after its release, but not before it had been seen by an estimated 250,000 viewers.
Ridley Scott's "Alien" is quite possibly the greatest science fiction-horror film of all time and, despite the inarguable success of James Cameron's sequel "Aliens," the original is still the best in the series. It is the perfect melding of sci-fi and thriller, creating a pulse pounding film that keeps viewers on the edge, especially during the last hour, which begins with the classic "chest-popping" scene.
Like a Last Supper in space, this act is the last peaceful moment before everything comes crashing down. A new threat literally comes out of nowhere. What's left is an amazing scene that must have made audiences in 1979 freak out, and it still holds up very well when viewed today. If you're looking for a great sci-fi-horror film, they don't get much better than "Alien."
Frightful Fact: In an early draft of the script, Ripley was a man.
"The Frighteners" (1996)
"The Frighteners" is first-rate goofy fun, and get this: it actually has a plot. Granted, it's a fairly derivative plot, incorporating elements from "Ghostbusters," "Ghost" and various other supernatural flicks, but director Peter Jackson (who's helming the upcoming "Lord of the Rings" trilogy) manages to combine these influences into a surprisingly satisfying blend of over-the-top comedy and ghoulish horror. Best of all, Jackson knows how to use exciting special effects technology without letting it run roughshod over the narrative. All in all, "The Frighteners" is a big-budget movie that actually delivers on its promise of escapist entertainment, without insulting the audience's intelligence in the process.
Frightful Fact: During the making of the film, lead actor Michael J. Fox repeatedly blew his lines by calling a fellow co-star "Doc" the name of Christopher Lloyd's character in the "Back to the Future" movies.
"Interview with the Vampire" (1994)
No list of Halloween movies would be complete without a vampire flick. And "Interview with the Vampire" is one of the few horror films out there that takes its subject seriously.
Based on Anne Rice's novel of the same name, "Interview with the Vampire" presents a twist on the bloodsucker myth by telling the tale from the viewpoint of the vampires.
Director Neil Jordan creates a beautiful and disturbing world in which these creatures live. Due to the nocturnal nature of vampires, the film is set almost exclusively at night. The streets of New Orleans in the 1700s are appropriately dank, but the vampires of this film do not spend much time hunting in the streets. These are high-society vampires, and they are constantly placed in opulent settings, making it easy for them to prey on the rich upper crust.
Jordan does a marvelous job of bringing Rice's vision to the silver screen and the film oozes with rich imagery and atmosphere. "Interview" is one of the best vampire movies ever made, easily blowing away Francis Ford Coppola's "Bram Stoker's Dracula," and is thus a worthy selection for Halloween.
Frightful Fact: Anne Rice was originally unhappy with the casting of Tom Cruise in the role of Lestat. Upon seeing his performance, she apologized.
All of the films we recommend are ideal candidates for Halloween movie watching. Most will scare you to bits, others will gross you out and even a few will make you laugh some are capable of doing all three. Regardless, Halloween's the perfect time for friends and families to just sit back, relax, and enjoy the horror show.
Contact Matt Nania at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All Scene Stories for Friday, October 19, 2001