Driving down to pick up my son at the train station this blustery day, I passed a group of little kids already in costume, doubtless on their way to a pre-Halloween party.
I have to admit, they looked mighty cute, and for a moment I felt a pang of nostalgia for the years when my own children were this age, and totally into the trick-or treating ritual.
Then -- on further consideration, I realized I don't much miss this aspect of the holiday. In my memory, it all boiled down to four little Farrs running around the house completely wired on the most intense sugar high of the year. Often upset stomachs would follow.
Yes -- been there, done that.
Truthfully, Halloween is even more fun now that all the juvenile fuss is behind me, because all I need worry about is which movie will do the best job of petrifying me this year.
My own personal exploration along these lines inspired me to compile a fresh list of skin-crawling entries that in my view do full justice to the spirit of Halloween.
Freaks (1932) -- In a traveling circus, beautiful but treacherous trapeze artist Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) learns that fellow worker Hans (Harry Earles), a midget, has money, and plots to marry him, then bump him off to get it. She doesn't count on the fact that Hans is part of a very tight circle of sideshow performers, and that they always protect their own kind. Reviled and in some places banned on release, Tod Browning's horror classic is like nothing else you'll ever see -- bizarre, bold, and altogether brilliant. A standard soap opera premise is elevated by the conceit of "normal" people as villains, "freaks" as heroes. Browning gets the most out of his unusual cast, mostly non-actors, and creates an eerie, chill-inducing atmosphere throughout. Don't miss that knockout climax.
Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (1956) -- In Everytown, USA, your neighbors are acting strangely. They may look the same, but something has gone dead inside them. Soon, strange pods are discovered, and it appears they serve to replicate aliens as these same neighbors, thus beginning an insidious takeover of the earth itself. Dr. Milles Binnell (Kevin McCarthy) and Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter) are the first to stumble upon this horrible and incredible phenomenon, and it falls to them to warn everyone else. But just whom can they trust? My personal sci-fi favorite from the fifties, this enduring cult favorite is an ingenious nightmare vision that reflects the paranoia of the time created by McCarthyism. Absent of the effects that characterize more recent entries in this genre, the film remains genuinely creepy strictly on the basis of story, direction and performances. Stars McCarthy and Wynter carry the film beautifully, and director Siegel brings the same flair to this that he would to movies like Dirty Harry a full decade later. One of those rare "B" movies that earns a solid "A".
Repulsion (1965) -- One weekend, Helene Le Doux (Yvonne Furneaux) and boyfriend Michael (Ian Hendry) leave Helene's withdrawn sister Carole (Catherine Deneuve) in the London apartment they share, and we witness Carole's mental disintegration, rooted in a visceral contempt for men. Pretty as she is, it's difficult for the opposite sex to leave Carole alone, including ardent admirer Colin (John Fraser). Colin has definitely picked the wrong girl. Still, we're not sure whether Carole's deadly acts are real -- or whether they exist only in her own twisted mind. Roman Polanski's first English-language film makes for a potent shocker, as we watch a human psyche unravel, with violent implications. The young Deneuve is mesmerizing as the demented Carole, a tragic but terrifying creature well past the point of no return. Unsettling, first-rate psychological horror.
Suspiria (1977)-- Aspiring dancer Suzy Banyon (Jessica Harper) arrives at a European ballet school where she quickly senses more than a touch of the supernatural. Soon a series of ghoulish crimes confirms Suzy's worst fears and she must try to escape. But will she live long enough even to make an attempt? Genuine chills and mayhem aplenty from shock-meister Dario Argento, Suspiria is anything but subtle, with some obvious dubbing work likely to cause some opening nervous chuckles. But you won't be laughing for long, as initial eeriness quickly segues to sheer terror, with some extremely gory, over-the-top set pieces you won't soon forget. Look for old Hollywood star Joan Bennett in her last film role as the head of the ballet school. Without question, Argento's finest and creepiest hour.
Dawn Of The Dead (1978) -- As an onslaught of flesh-eating zombies turns Pittsburgh and other major cities into hellish wastelands of walking dead, National Guardsman Peter (Ken Foree) and helicopter pilot Stephen (David Emge) are forced to take refuge in a vast shopping-mall complex, along with Stephen's girlfriend, Frances (Gaylen Ross). For a while, they indulge themselves in the now-desolate consumer's paradise, but a menacing crew of bikers is about to turn their hiding place into the venue for a bloody confrontation with the undead. George Romero's ghastly sequel to his legendary Night of the Living Dead is equally brilliant and perhaps even more unsettling. It is also spine-chillingly funny, making blunt comparisons between the dead-eyed, gore-loving zombies and vapid American consumers. But for all its satirical wit, Dead also features riveting action sequences, culminating in the final showdown involving soldiers, bikers, and endless waves of zombies. Tom Savani's ghoulish effects are not for the faint of heart, so be sure you're in the mood for explicit slaughter!
The Shining (1980) -- Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson), a frustrated writer, takes a job as off-season caretaker at a remote hotel with wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and son Danny (Danny Lloyd). The cavernous, empty place holds past secrets that won't stay hidden, and over time, the atmosphere begins to affect Jack's temperament -- for the worse. When Jack finally grabs an axe and starts bellowing "Heeerre's Johnny!", you'll be sorely tempted to rush for the exits yourself. This brilliant, creepy horror entry from wunderkind director Stanley Kubrick boasts mesmerizing camera work and several bizarre, arresting set pieces. Nicholson is a marvel to watch as his character evolves from a slightly odd but functioning adult to raving psychopath. Scatman Crothers is also memorable as the hotel's only other resident. Based on Stephen King's book, the film has Kubrick's slightly twisted genius all over it. Look for those wild tracking shots as Danny rides his tricycle indoors, and we get to join him for one extremely spooky ride.
Poltergeist (1982) -- A typically average American family of four, including parents Steve and Diane (Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams) moves into what seems like a normal suburban home, but soon a series of strange events makes it evident that a nasty paranormal presence is lurking about. And when that presence starts asserting itself even more, watch out! Tobe Hooper's modern haunted house movie (scripted by Steven Spielberg) first creates a general feeling of unease, then unleashes a torrent of thrills and horror on its audience. Though slightly less raw than other modern spook-fests (it actually earned a PG rating), this entry still hits you where you live, recalling those vivid, terrifying nightmares of childhood. Among its solid cast, Beatrice Straight delivers a standout performance as a psychic. Highlights: that closet scene, and the "little" lady who comes to clean. Brrrr! Not suitable for younger children.
Ringu (1998) -- After learning that her niece Imako perished in an accident, TV journalist Reiko (Nanako Matsushima) decides to look into the matter, and is disturbed to learn that three of Imako's friends also died on the same day. The connection, she discovers, is an eerie video they'd watched together exactly one week before. Told of an urban legend about a videotape that kills those who view it, Reiko hunts down a copy and, after absorbing its grainy, haunting imagery, becomes convinced she too will die in seven days. With its creepy premise and tense, unsettling atmosphere, Nakata's made-for-TV psychological horror film became a surprise blockbuster in Japan, inspiring two sequels and an inferior American remake. What makes the original so scary is its unrelenting air of foreboding, not Hollywood-style shock tactics. When Reiko enlists the help of her ex-husband Sanada, a math expert, the mystery thickens. Ringu is not just a stylish, masterfully paced ghost story, it's also a sinister metaphor for the dark allure of our media-saturated age.
Pulse (2001) -- After Taguchi (Kenji Mizuhashi) fails to show up for work at an outdoor nursery, his co-worker Michi (Kumiko Aso) goes to his apartment hoping to retrieve an important floppy disk. Instead, she arrives just in time to watch Taguchi hang himself, then dematerialize through a wall, leaving a sooty black burn-and the disc. Meanwhile, college student Ryosuke (Haruhiko Kato) enlists the help of computer savvy Harue (Koyuki) when he stumbles onto a spooky Web site that appears to be a virtual purgatory for spirits of the dead. What's the connection, and why does Tokyo suddenly seem so empty? Kiyoshi Kurosawa (no relation to Akira) turns his attention to alienation and loneliness in the age of the Internet in this mega-creepy apocalyptic ghost film, following a loose band of Tokyo youths trying to make sense of a rash of suicides. As with Ringu, frightening paranormal encounters crop up without warning in this mysterious and unsettling entry, which imagines the Internet as a portal for lonely specters trying to reach out and touch someone. Kurosawa's young cast is brilliant, and his enigmatic storyline soon resolves in a breathtaking aerial image that is as unexpected as it is poetic and poignant. Need a good scream? Take my Pulse.
The Orphanage (2008) -- When the children's home where she grew up goes up for sale, Laura (Belen Rueda) buys the old seaside manse with her husband, Carlos (Fernando Cayo), with the intent of turning it into a home for special-needs kids. But almost as soon as they move in, their young son Simon (Roger Princep) begins to act out, speaking eerily of imaginary friends. One day, he vanishes into thin air, and Laura, distraught and convinced she hears her child crying, seeks the help of a medium, Aurora (Geraldine Chaplin), to find him. Produced by Guillermo del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth), Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona's maiden feature is a chilling and often shocking puzzler about a woman who uncovers dark secrets about her own past in the spooky manor where she spent her youth. Bayona handles the jumps and starts like an old hand, drawing us toward the truth with one heart-arresting scene after another. Did someone abduct Simon? Has he been murdered? And who's the creepy kid in the sackcloth mask? See "The Orphanage" for smart thrills, and a grave finish that may leave you in tears.
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