As October moves inexorably to its close, my thoughts turn to Halloween and all things scary, not counting Sarah Palin and Wall Street. I'm now an empty-nester, so this year no trick-or-treating or other adolescent shenanigans will deter me from staging my own personal, private horror movie festival.
Many people (in my experience mostly women) profess to be constitutionally incapable of stomaching this genre. Still, when a horror movie really connects, it enters the popular culture in a big way: witness "Psycho", "Jaws", "The Exorcist" and "Silence Of The Lambs". Akin to where you were on 9/11, many viewers can vividly recall the circumstances under which they saw each of these films, and just how it affected them for days if not weeks to come.
Yet other lesser-known horror entries also exist, both from other countries and our own past, that remain worthy of attention, particularly if you've seen all the more obvious choices more than once. For your Halloween delectation, here are just a few:
I Walked With A Zombie (1943)/The Body Snatcher (1945)- This double feature on a single DVD includes two of producer Val Lewton's landmark films: first, director Jacques Tourneur's "I Walked A Zombie" (1943), about nurse Betsy Connell (Frances Dee), hired by handsome, mysterious Paul Holland (Tom Conway) to care for his wife on his remote Caribbean plantation. It seems Mrs. Holland suffers from some severe mental distress which keeps her in a perpetually zombified state. Could the island's mysterious voodoo rituals be responsible for her condition? The second entry, Robert Wise's "The Body Snatcher" (1945) takes us back to the late nineteenth century, when a shortage of cadavers forces Doctor MacFarlane (Henry Daniell) to employ sinister grave-robber John Gray (Boris Karloff) to keep him adequately supplied. Soon the doctor's protégé Russell Wade (Donald Fettes) discovers this dirty little secret, and this, combined with Gray holding MacFarlane's crimes over him, brings matters to a violent head. These titles are two of Lewton's best, with "Zombie" a stand-out, due to its sublimely creepy atmosphere, a literate script (reputedly based on "Jane Eyre"!), and charismatic turns by both the gorgeous Dee and Conway. Exploration of voodoo practices adds spice as well. "The Body Snatcher" is also a grabber, with excellent character actor Daniell in top form, and Karloff riveting as the sneering, cold-blooded Gray, a role that displays the star's impressive acting chops without all the Frankenstein make-up. "Snatcher" also includes a secondary role for Bela Lugosi as MacFarlane's servant Joseph. Sadly, Bela's career was on the wane at this point, and "Snatcher" would mark Karloff and Lugosi's last screen outing together.
Fiend Without A Face (1958)- Near a U.S atomic base in Manitoba, research scientist Professor Walgate (Kynaston Reeves) unleashes an army of brain-shaped monsters - complete with spinal chords to strangle their victims - when his mind-control experiments go awry. It's up to the intrepid Major Cummings (Marshall Thompson) to save the day, and it won't be easy, as the suspicious and resentful villagers blame the American military for all the trouble. "Fiend" succeeds admirably as a campy, diverting skin-crawler that channels the prevailing atomic anxieties of the 1950s. This memorable "B" entry has a neat twist, though - the creatures are actually materializations of their creator's thoughts. Though decidedly gory for the time, this inventive, well-executed nail-biter proves you can indeed have too much brains. This picture deserves cult status.
Séance On A Wet Afternoon (1964)- We encounter no zombies or ghosts in this chilling British entry, only a medium (Stanley) named Myra, who is quietly going insane. More frightening still is that her submissive husband Billy (Richard Attenborough) won't acknowledge it, and in fact goes along with his wife's twisted scheme to gain notoriety: kidnap the child of wealthy parents, then have Myra come on the scene to locate the child and save the day, using her extra-sensory powers. This proves a recipe for disaster. Bryan Forbes's disturbing "Seance" works its dread gradually, like a car accident foreseen and then witnessed in slow motion. The deliberate pacing only accentuates the film's eeriness, as the plot and characterizations move in parallel lines: as events get more out of hand, Myra's behavior becomes more unhinged, and Billy's more frantic. Stanley is a knockout in Oscar-nominated performance. Here's a psychological shocker guaranteed to make your skin crawl.
Witchfinder General (1968)- Charged with hunting down witches in 17th-century England, royalist "witchfinder" Matthew Hopkins (Vincent Price) travels from village to village with his brutish assistant Stearne (Robert Russell), forcing confessions and torturing women who refuse to comply. But Hopkins's wicked dealings with Sarah (Hilary Dwyer), comely niece of accused priest Father Lowes (Rupert Davies), will eventually bring the evil, unconscionable Puritan into conflict with a soldier in Cromwell's army. Forget the campy persona Price cultivated throughout most of his ghoulish career: In Michael Reeves's genuinely scary "Witchfinder," the maven of horror schlock tweaks his role with a demonic concentration that belies his fun but often hokey turns in lesser films. Just 25 at the time, the young director handles an old theme-satanism and the persecution of women-with aplomb, especially as he stages his hellish drama against the backdrop of the English Civil War. Dwyer and Ian Ogilvy, as Sarah's aggrieved soldier-lover, provide excellent support, too. Sadly, Reeves died a year after the film was made, robbing us of a distinctive young voice in horror.
Images (1972)- Robert Altman's subtle chiller concerns Cathryn (Susannah York), a woman whose last vestiges of reality are giving way to schizophrenia. Her disintegration occurs mainly at the Irish country home which she and her husband Hugh (Rene Auberjonois) share. Other mysterious, predatory men pop in and out of the film as well, but since the viewer is trapped inside Cathryn's diseased mind, it's hard to tell just who or what is real. This weird, nightmarish film gradually dials up a pervading sense of disorientation so that we feel we are experiencing an ever-increasing madness right alongside the central character. Altman's choice of the rustic Irish setting is ideal, as top cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond uses its dank, remote quality to accentuate Cathryn's building isolation and paranoia. The movie's bleak, opaque quality will not be to all tastes, but fans of literate horror should pounce. York is outstanding in the lead.
Black Christmas (1974)- As their Pi Kappa Sigma peers begin to leave for the Christmas break, sorority sisters Jessica (Olivia Hussey) and bawdy Barbie (Margot Kidder) stay behind for a Yuletide party. The cheerful mood is marred, however, by a series of frighteningly obscene phone calls. The girls get nervous enough when their friend Claire fails to meet her dad for the ride home, and then a teenage girl is found murdered in a local park, prompting a concerned visit by police lieutenant Kenneth Fuller (John Saxon). Is a psychopath loose, or could this be more personal? Three years before the release of John Carpenter's "Halloween" brought the term "slasher film" into our movie lexicon, Bob Clark (the director of "Porky's"!) helmed this Canadian-made psycho thriller starring Hussey, Kidder, and ubiquitous '70s character actor John Saxon, playing a detective who suspects Jessica's jilted boyfriend (Keir Dullea) is a killer. With its menacing atmosphere and see-less-scare-more dictum, "Christmas" avoids all the clichés that were to follow in gorier films to come. When the shrill ring of a telephone makes your nerves jump, you know Clark's dread-and-distress horror film has gotten under your skin.
The Devil's Backbone (2001)- Guillermo Del Toro's film is part ghost story, part thriller. At the tail-end of the Spanish Civil War in 1939, a boy named Carlos (Fernando Tielve) enters a decrepit boarding school which houses orphans of the Republican forces' leadership and military. A former student named Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega) is now a member of the staff, but his behavior is suspicious. It turns out Jacinto wants to steal some valuable gold hidden on the grounds. To make conditions even more ominous, there's a ghost of a young boy haunting the school who has a secret to share with Carlos. "Backbone" is shudder-inducing treat that shows artful restraint in the telling. Director Del Toro evokes the hard price of war in the school's run-down state and the frayed nerves of the adults who run the place, played by veterans Federico Luppi and Marisa Paredes. The ghost of Santi (Junio Valverde) is presented at intervals to jolt us back to a state of fear, but we also know Santi holds a key to the story's bigger mystery. Finally, a huge unexploded bomb is embedded in the center of the school's courtyard, an ingenious visual device that presages explosions yet to come, explosions you won't want to miss.
A Tale Of Two Sisters (2003)- Sisters Su-Mi (Su-jeong Lim) and Su-Yeon (Geun-yeong Mun) return to their father and stepmother's house after time away recovering from the trauma of their natural mother's death. Several ominous factors quickly present themselves: one or both of the girls may have been in a mental hospital; also, there's no love lost between the girls and their stepmother; and finally, their father's house may be haunted, perhaps cursed by the bizarre event that caused the death of the girls' mother. The plot only thickens from there, and the line between reality and illusion, sanity and insanity, blurs almost beyond recognition. South Korean writer/director Kim Jee-Woon's distinctive horror tale is an unnerving puzzler. As layer after layer of the dense, twisty story gets uncovered, we gather another small increment of insight into what's behind all the mental dysfunction. Visually arresting and extremely well played by the four principals, "Two Sisters" will raise those hairs on the back of your neck, but still, you won't want to take your eyes off the screen. Hold on tight to someone you trust!
Please let me know of any other strong "under the radar" horror films I've missed. Also, to access more spooky titles ideal for Halloween, visit www.bestmoviesbyfarr.com.