Few would argue that 2020 has been a year-long horror show, and between social distancing and the existential terror many of us feel in the current climate, there has been a certain hesitation about whether it makes sense to observe normal October traditions. Taking the kids trick-or-treating seems horribly ill-advised, and even the idea of watching scary movies can feel redundant when just being alive is scary enough right now. What is one to do, especially for those of us who look forward to the spookiest time of year more voraciously than any other holidays?
The answer, of course, is to double down on the scary movie part. Many of us have already been using our time in quarantine to catch up on classics we’d never gotten around to or to construct arbitrary binge-a-thons to pass the time. Now that the real world is just as scary as ever, it’s never felt like a better time to distract ourselves with horrors both invented and fantastical, to better put in perspective the real-life terrors we currently face, so that despite everything, we can still say “at least we’re not being chased by the flesh-eating dead” or “at least I’m not the victim of an ancient gypsy curse”.
That’s how Kelly (my girlfriend) and I have been dealing with it, anyway.
So, we decided to take the #31DaysofHalloween challenge that’s been going around and commit to watching at least one spooky or spooky-adjacent film every day this month. Below are mini-reviews for all 31 films that we watched in October. We did our best to engage in a wide variety of sub-genres, as well as a solid range of older and newer films. We were scared at times, we laughed at times, and at times we were terribly embarrassed for the people on our screen. And while some of our picks may not have kept our minds off the state of the world as much as we would have liked, this was a largely successful experiment, and I hope it inspires you to curate your own list next year (or whenever, since it’s always a good time for horror).
Without further ado:
- Fright Night (1985)
Dir. Tom Holland
This was an excellent start to the month, putting us in exactly the right mood for further spooky adventures. It had also long been a blind spot in my own viewing history, as I had previously only gotten around to the 2011 remake, which managed to take a brilliant cast and flush them down the toilet of mediocrity. This campy original, though, was everything we had hoped for. Between the grotesquely over-the-top vampire makeup and Chris Sarandon’s delightful collection of ‘80s sweaters, we were never anything less than entertained.
Spookiest Scene: Any time Evil Ed was given dialogue. That kid has issues.
- The Witches (1990)
Dir. Nicolas Roeg
Perhaps it was in anticipation of the Robert Zemeckis-directed remake that would also be released this month (which I later learned from our editor is terrible and not worth seeing), or perhaps it was that I’d been a huge fan of the book as a child, yet never got around to this one because I’d thought it was “too scary”. Either way, Kelly decided it was time to introduce me. This is part of that exceedingly rare breed of films that are specifically made to frighten children. You don’t see them as often anymore, but it’s always a treat to catch one in the wild. Turns out this one isn’t as scary for adults, but still a very enjoyable watch thanks to Jim Henson’s top-notch practical effects and Angelica Huston’s deliciously vampy performance.
Spookiest Scene: The Grand High Witch being transformed into the most disgusting rat you’ve ever seen.
- Army of Darkness (1992)
Dir. Sam Raimi
You don’t have to tell me just how far removed this film is from The Evil Dead’s horror roots. The trajectory of Sam Raimi’s classic trilogy from scary to slapstick is well-documented, and this final entry is more of an action-comedy than anything resembling traditional horror. That said, there are monsters and zombies (sorry, deadites), and the film’s climax sees the heroes facing off against a horde of skeletons, so I’ll say it counts. Plus, it’s the only film of the trilogy that Kelly hadn’t seen yet. While it doesn’t quite rise to the levels of sheer madcap hilarity that Evil Dead II does, it still rides high on its own brand of bonkers energy, with Bruce Campbell dropping wonderfully cheesy one-liners left and right. Much amusement was had by all.
Spookiest Scene: The creation of Evil Ash, who starts as a miniature version born from a shard of mirror, and who ultimately grows a whole second body out of Ash’s body. Every bit as wacky as it is disturbing.
- Event Horizon (1997)
Dir. Paul W.S. Anderson
If you’ve never seen this gruesome space chiller before, I’m sure you’re thinking, “Paul W.S. Anderson? The guy who made the Resident Evil movies? No thank you!” And I totally get that, but hear me out. Years before he became completely consumed with video game adaptations starring his wife, the lesser Paul Anderson made this one great movie that’s essentially The Shining meets Alien. Starring Sam Neill (post-Jurassic Park) and Laurence Fishburne (pre-The Matrix), the film gets a lot of mileage of out its simple Lovecraft-in-space premise, featuring some bluntly visceral psychological terror that’s no less creepy for its lack of nuance. Some hilariously dated CGI debris and corny dialogue keep it from meeting its full potential, but it’ll still make your skin crawl in all the right ways.
Spookiest Scene: Sam Neill rips his own eyeballs out at one point. So that’s pretty good.
- The Babadook (2014)
Dir. Jennifer Kent
One of the main drawbacks to the recent surge of “prestige-horror” (a moniker I find rather condescending) is that whenever you get a genuinely great new release like Get Out or Hereditary or It Comes at Night, the sheer volume of critical praise results in the film being so overhyped for general audiences that if it’s anything less than the scariest film they’ve ever seen, it can’t help but feel like a disappointment. One of the earlier victims of this phenomenon was the Australian haunted house flick known as The Babadook, and while I can see its minimalist approach turning off some viewers, I strongly feel that more should give it a chance, because this is one of the most emotionally devastating films of its kind I’ve ever seen. Anchored by an absolutely stunning performance from Essie Davis, the film takes its titular creature both as a literal and metaphorical entity, in that it can represent whatever baggage and trauma you choose to bring to it. This openness to interpretation, as well as the sheer technical prowess on display, make this one an all-timer for me. Kelly had nightmares for several nights after watching.
Spookiest Scene: There are a few moments when the mother snaps, and it seems like she might legitimately seek to harm her son. Sends chills down my spine every time.
- Child’s Play (1988)
Dir. Tom Holland
One thing Kelly and I have in common when it comes to our respective horror history, is that we were both traumatized at an early age by watching one of the Child’s Play films. While I had since recovered from said trauma by forcing myself to relive Chucky’s initial installment, she had yet to face them. And what kind of boyfriend would I be if I didn’t force her to watch a scary movie that scarred her as a child in the name of adding an entry to our arbitrary month-long horror marathon? Fortunately for our marathon (and indeed, our relationship), the first film in the series actually holds up very well, managing to be creepy without devolving into unrelenting terror (which was probably for the best right after The Babadook). The various techniques used to bring Chucky to life are still impressive today, and the series had yet to devolve into self-parody, thus making its relative slow burn surprisingly engaging. Plus, an accidental second serving of Tom Holland/Chris Sarandon never hurts.
Spookiest Scene: When Chucky gets burnt to a crisp and is still coming after everyone, looking all gooey and melted. Super creepy.
- Dawn of the Dead (1978)
Dir. George A. Romero
Having caught up on Romero’s seminal classic Night of the Living Dead back in September, it seemed only appropriate to move on to its superlative sequel in October. For all the zombie media that has been produced over the ensuing decades, it’s kind of amazing that one of its earliest entries is still one of the strongest. Admittedly, the drama of watching plague survivors round up all their necessary provisions and isolate themselves from the rest of the world takes on new meaning in 2020 (the first of several entries on the list with this unintended consequence), but there’s also a timeless quality to this tale of a tiny group holing up in a shopping mall in the hopes of waiting out the endless storm. Some of the zombie makeup looks a little goofy by today’s standards, but Tom Savini’s legendary gore effects more than make up for it, and the naturalistic performances throughout give this entry into the loosely-structured Dead franchise a real emotional heft that some of its later entries failed to provide.
Spookiest Scene: The raid of the tenement building near the beginning of the film features some truly grisly gore, including a pretty spectacular head explosion.
- The Lost Boys (1987)
Dir. Joel Schumacher
After finally getting around to it a few years ago on a plane flight, of all places (man, remember those?), this film has quickly become a favorite in our household. So much so, that for my birthday on October 8th, Kelly arranged through the Cameo app for none other than Tim Cappello (the sweaty sax man himself!) to record a heartfelt greeting wishing me well. After receiving this, our film selection for the day was pretty obvious. The Lost Boys is everything I love about ‘80s cinema. Everything is over the top. The performances, the music, the vampire effects, the hair. It’s all dialed up to 11 at all times, and it proves infectious. Serving as a perfect time capsule of the era, while celebrating its many excesses with both a critical and loving eye. If you’ve never seen it, I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Spookiest Scene: The film isn’t really scary in the traditional sense, but the revelation that Kiefer Sutherland sleeps upside-down by gripping the ceiling with his creepy bat feet is just the right amount of disgusting.
- The Addams Family (1991)
Dir. Barry Sonnenfeld
In order to squeeze in a horror movie every day, sometimes we have to watch our entries in the morning or early afternoon. And sometimes, when you’re just waking up, you don’t feel like watching anything too intense. Sometimes you prefer something that gives you the general flavor and aesthetic of horror rather than the actual sensation of fear (I presume this sensibility is what has kept American Horror Story on the air for all these years). And when it comes to a healthy dose of horror flavoring, it’s hard to do better than the ghoulishly whimsical Addams Family. Though this film is ostensibly made for kids, there’s more than enough macabre humor to keep adults engaged throughout, including some intensely erotic vibes from Gomez and Morticia. The cast is game across the board (Angelica Huston is the undervalued queen of Halloween at this point), the costumes and production design are exquisite, and the whole affair is paced with such zany energy you can’t help but snap your fingers in time with Thing.
Spookiest Scene: Not exactly spooky, but Wednesday and Pugsley’s increasingly bloody school play is worthy of Tarantino.
- The Thing (1982)
Dir. John Carpenter
This entry was somewhat pre-selected, as our local indie theater (Jacksonville’s Sun-Ray Cinema) has been hosting a number of drive-in movies to commemorate the holiday. We didn’t get to see as many as we’d have liked, but The Thing is a stone-cold classic that played beautifully on the big screen, plus Kelly had yet to see it. It’s every bit the atmospheric exercise in paranoia and tension that I remember. Arguably the high point of John Carpenter’s career, featuring perhaps the greatest and most inventive practical effects ever put to film, this is an absolute banger of a horror classic that will leave you feeling unsettled in all the right ways.
Spookiest Scene: So many to choose from! I’m going to go with the Thing’s initial appearance in the dog cage, because dogs are precious, and nobody likes to see their faces split apart revealing all manner of guts and tentacles.
- The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
Dir. Robert Wiene
After spending the first ten days mostly within our comfort zones of the ‘80s and ‘90s, we decided to go in the complete opposite direction, and look into what Roger Ebert described as the “first true horror film”. I’ve always had an admiration for the style and techniques of the early German expressionist films (Nosferatu is another great example), but actually watching films from this era can be a little bit of a crap shoot. Often, even if one can appreciate the films’ historical significance, the act of watching them is still rather laborious. Not so with this film, however. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari feels revolutionary even now, a full century after it was made. The stunning art design and abstract sets are invigorating in their own right, while the narrative innovations within the silent film format are highly impressive (this is one of the first films to involve major plot twists, let alone several back to back). One can easily see how heavily the imagery inspired more modern filmmakers, especially one Tim Burton (who perhaps owes his entire visual style to this film, among others from the expressionist era).
Spookiest Scene: The first appearance of the somnambulist, Cesare, is truly eerie. He stares into the camera, and you feel like he’s staring into your soul.
- Carrie (1976)
Dir. Brian De Palma
Despite being a big Stephen King fan and having read the book this is based on all the way back in high school, I’ve somehow never gotten around to this adaptation. More’s the pity, because it’s really pretty fun. Possibly a victim of being overhyped, but there’s still plenty of entertainment to be had. De Palma’s distinctive style permeates the entire story, with brilliant uses of montage and split screen/split diopter shots to portray multiple perspectives. There are a number of changes from the novel, mostly in terms of structure, plus a final jump scare that feels antithetical to the more character-driven pathos that came before. Despite this, it’s still every bit the iconic genre entry I’d been led to believe, grounded by excellent work from Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie (plus a little baby John Travolta, who finds a way to make scummy behavior look adorable).
Spookiest Scene: The chaos that ensues from the pig’s blood prom prank is rightfully legendary, and the sequence is all the more chilling for the patience utilized in building up to it.
- Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994)
Dir. Kenneth Branagh
Alright, let me explain myself here. In an ideal world, this slot would have gone to James Whale’s original Frankenstein, which I had also not seen. But alas, that one wasn’t streaming anywhere (unless I felt like shelling out for Peacock’s premium subscription, which I did not), and this version was. Even though I’d only every heard that Branagh’s version was a misfire, I admit that I was still curious after all this time, and Kelly and I decided that even if this version wasn’t great, at least it’d be good for a laugh. Well… what do you want me to say? It’s an absolute train wreck. Branagh’s direction and performance are both at maximum voltage for the entire overlong runtime, which proves exhausting rather than invigorating. Robert De Niro is hopelessly miscast as the monster, and despite the fact that there is no modern actress better suited to play the creature’s bride than Helena Bonham Carter, the film utterly wastes her casting with some revolting makeup work that’s monstrous in all the wrong ways. The film lulls you into a false sense of security for the first stretch, and then the second the monster is born it immediately devolves into nonsense and never recovers. I can’t exactly recommend it, because it’s not a good movie in the traditional sense, but if you want to see the spectacle of cinematic disaster, it sure is something to see.
Spookiest Scene: The previously sympathetic monster describing how he mercilessly snapped a young boy’s neck is pretty jarring, though perhaps not in the way intended.
- Ginger Snaps (2000)
Dir. John Fawcett
After the debacle that was Branagh’s Frankenstein, we needed to make a hard pivot to something legitimately creepy. Within the first few minutes of this Canadian cult favorite, we knew we were in good hands. The tale of two morbidly obsessive sisters (inhabited memorably by Emily Perkins and Katherine Isabelle) whose relationship begins to splinter when one of them gets hit with the double whammy of getting her first period and gradually turning into a werewolf. It’s a potentially icky blend of teen horror tropes and coming-of-age story that mostly works, thanks to the actresses’ believable chemistry and some effective low-budget practical effects. The budget starts to become more noticeable in the final act when it’s time to reveal the wolf in full, but even then, it’s a heartbreaking finale that manages to make a fantastical premise seem almost relatable.
Spookiest Scene: The final showdown between the sisters is nicely suspenseful, at least when they’re keeping the wolf puppet’s screen time to a minimum.
- Dracula (1931)
Dir. Tod Browning
How on Earth did this happen? I went in, having never seen this iconic vampire film before, fully expecting it to be one of my favorites of the month. You’ve got Bela Lugosi’s oft-imitated turn as the titular Count. You’ve got some beautiful black and white imagery. This is supposed to be the classic against which all other Dracula films are compared. And yet… I confess that I found this film almost painfully boring. It’s not just a matter of it being old: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was released over a decade earlier, and I found that one to be mesmerizing. The biggest issue I had was perhaps the lack of any notable score or sound design to help establish atmosphere. As such, the film feels weirdly quiet and lacking in suspense. Characters either sit around spouting exposition at one another, or awkwardly walk towards each other in a way that’s probably supposed to seem menacing. Between the unintentionally hilarious bat puppet that’s used far too often, and the complete lack of any meaningful conclusion, I’m afraid this one was a bit of a dud for me. Nobody is more disappointed than I.
Spookiest Scene: The one bright spot in the film was the performance of Dwight Frye as Renfield, who was legitimately captivating and terrifying whenever he was on screen.
- The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016)
Dir. Andrè Øvredal
After being so thoroughly dismayed with the supposed classic, Dracula, I need something modern and something actually scary, stat. I’d often heard great things about Norwegian director Andrè Øvredal’s English-language debut, but had not got around to it before now. Turns out it was just what the doctor ordered, as this ended up scaring Kelly more than anything else we watched all month. A sleek, minimal creep-fest that primarily involves one location and two characters (technically three, but the third one doesn’t move a whole lot), the film does a great job of lulling you into a the safe rhythm of its believable father-son dynamics, before turning up the intensity and getting in your head with what’s real and what’s being projected into the character’s heads. Not a lot to it beyond its simple setup, but a great example of a well-crafted and well-executed horror story.
Spookiest Scene: Any time one of the bells attached to the corpses starts jingling, you know you’re in for a scary time.
- Birdemic: Shock and Terror (2010)
Dir. James Nguyen
After Kelly got legitimately upset by how much The Autopsy of Jane Doe spooked her, I knew we needed to pace things out with something significantly less extreme. Sometimes you just feel like making fun of a bad movie, and while Birdemic is completely lacking in anything truly scary beyond its painful sound design, it was at least conceived as a horror movie, so we’re going to say it counts. If you’re not familiar with this so-bad-it’s-good gem, it’s right up there with classic failures like Troll 2 and The Room in terms of laughs per scene. The intentions are perfectly clear: here is a filmmaker who had every intention of creating the next horror masterpiece. The Birds by way of An Inconvenient Truth. The film is overflowing with accidental charm as everything from flat line delivery, awkward camera movements, and infamously clunky special effects helps to enhance the viewing experience. It barely qualifies as a movie, but boy did they try their darnedest.
Spookiest Scene: The waitress at the very beginning (whose role is completely superfluous) is terrifying in a way that I’m sure was unintentional.
Regular Movie Rating: 0/5
Entertainment Value Rating: 4/5
- Drag Me to Hell (2009)
Dir. Sam Raimi
Does anyone else find it crazy that Sam Raimi hasn’t directed a feature film since 2013’s Oz the Great and Powerful? It looks like he’s finally coming back with the Marvel sequel Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, but even then, who knows when this influential horror director will properly return to the genre he built his career on. Until such time, we can at least relish the last film of this kind that he made. Coming off the back of his Spider-Man trilogy and playing very much like a spiritual sequel to the Evil Dead films, it’s a doozy. Raimi is the master of blending scares and laughs to the point where they’re almost indistinguishable. Some might argue that the greater reliance on CGI fails to capture the same magic as his early work, but considering what an absolutely disgusting blast the rest of the film is, it seems like a small price to pay.
Spookiest Scene: The extended séance has twists and turns aplenty, and feels the most reminiscent of the mayhem that Raimi exhibited in the first two Evil Dead films.
- The Happening (2008)
Dir. M. Night Shyamalan
Our attempt to make the so-bad-it’s-good magic strike twice resulted in diminishing returns. Like Birdemic, this barely qualifies as a horror movie, so inert and un-cinematic is the threat that beleaguers our protagonists. Much has been written about Shyamalan’s fall from grace, and his occasional resurgence of quality before returning to his status quo. At this point, The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable feel more like exceptions, given the sheer number of turkeys on his resume. What brings me back to The Happening, unlike, say, The Village or Lady in the Water, is the sheer ridiculousness on display. Shyamalan has attempted to play it off as an intentional B-movie, which doesn’t quite track given how seriously the film takes itself. But that sincerity ends up giving it a number of great laughs, from Mark Wahlberg’s earnest conversation with a plastic tree, to the entirety of Betty Buckley’s unhinged performance (“why you eyeing my lemon drink?”). It’s not good in any meaningful sense, and even as a so-bad-it’s-good movie it’s often terminally boring, but the sheer audacity of playing a movie like this straight makes it somewhat watchable.
Spookiest Scene: Watching the characters decide that they need to isolate into smaller groups in order to stay ahead of a virus they don’t fully understand certainly takes on new meaning in 2020.
- Memories of Murder (2003)
Dir. Bong Joon Ho
This might be the flimsiest definition of “spooky-adjacent” on the list, but go along with me. It was somewhat pre-selected, as Neon re-released the film in the US before releasing it digitally, and considering it’s the only major Bong Joon Ho film neither of us had seen, there was no way we were going to miss it. If you need more of a genre tether, think of it as being about the horror of realizing you may never know the truth and that guilty people can potentially slip through the cracks of an imperfect justice system. Good enough. In any case, the film is outstanding. Impeccably acted (Song Kang-ho is an international treasure), beautifully shot, masterfully staged, and written in such a way that you’ll be hanging on the edge of your seat the whole way through. Comparisons have been made to David Fincher’s Zodiac, which is certainly apt (even though that film was released a full 4 years later), but this also feels like its own beast. If you’ve only just been introduced to Bong through his many well-deserved Oscar wins for Parasite, this is one of many essential works in his stellar filmography.
Spookiest Scene: A young woman walks through a field, unsure if she’s being followed. As she looks around, we see a head poking up from the grass behind her, then lowering before she can notice. Instant chills.
- Frankenweenie (2012)
Dir. Tim Burton
Welp, looks like we’re 0 for 2 with our Frankenstein-themed picks. In our attempts to break up the more intense genre entries with films that are more about the essence of spookiness, we landed upon this stop-motion piece. Normally I’m a sucker for this kind of animation, and while the black-and-white aesthetic is certainly nice to look at, the film as a whole never really clicks. The faces of the puppet characters are weirdly lifeless and inexpressive, the plot never develops much beyond its initial premise, the supporting characters range from ghastly mutant children to borderline-offensive Asian stereotypes, and overall it just feels like the spark is gone from Tim Burton’s storytelling. A pity, too, as after a string of CGI-laden monstrosities, this should have been a back-to-basics home run for the once brilliant auteur. But alas, aside from a few clever sight gags there’s precious little to recommend here.
Spookiest Scene: There’s a creepy little girl who goes around handing her classmates cat turds that are vaguely shaped like the first letters of their name, which is disturbing on a number of levels.
- Hellraiser (1987)
Dir. Clive Barker
Alright, enough of this kiddy crap. Enough with the attempts to minimize how much terror we inflict upon ourselves this month. It’s time for some good old-fashioned sleazy gore to perk up this marathon. Fortunately, Clive Barker is here to deliver. I can’t speak to the quality of this film’s many sequels (having only seen the second installment, which was already a massive dip in quality), but Pinhead’s original foray into pain and pleasure remains a depraved delight. The series’ most iconic character is merely a supporting player here, as the story focuses more on an especially demented pair of adulterers and the lengths they’ll go to bring one of them back from the dead (or another dimension? It’s not super clear). The practical effects are memorable and chilling, especially on what’s clearly a small budget for the time. This was Kelly’s first exposure, and I’m proud to say that she came away from it legitimately afraid, which I confess is my goal for most of our screenings together.
Spookiest Scene: When Frank’s body uses a few drops of blood to grow itself out of the floorboards. Still one of the most effective body horror scenes of all time.
- The Last Man on Earth (1964)
Dir. Sidney Salkow
You know how, sometimes, you just get a craving to watch a certain actor perform? Doesn’t matter which film, you just want an excuse to see them trot out their particular style. That’s how we felt today with Vincent Price. After our first two choices (Masque of the Red Death and Theatre of Blood) proved unavailable through streaming, we settled for the original adaptation of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend. Largely considered to be the most faithful, and perhaps least silly, of the films based on this book, it’s a relatively straightforward post-apocalyptic tale which Price imbues with his trademark classiness. The rest of the supporting cast doesn’t quite keep up with him, but since the vast majority of the film is him monologuing to himself it’s hardly a deal-breaker. The whole thing feels like an extended episode of The Twilight Zone, in the best way. Although the constant shots of empty cities, coupled with Price’s character quarantining while attempting to find a cure for a disease that’s ravaged mankind, as well as him getting way too excited about finding other humans, all give the story a timely edge that we certainly didn’t go looking for.
Spookiest Scene: Price’s multiple visits to “the pit”, a site where innumerable corpses have been deposited, is haunting in a way that feels all too relevant.
- Hocus Pocus (1993)
Dir. Kenny Ortega
Full disclosure: this is one of my girlfriend’s favorite movies. She had been pushing for us to watch it nearly every day since we started this binge, and I had been reluctant, mainly because my only vague memories of seeing it as a kid revolved around a bunch of dopey kids getting exposition from an awful-looking CGI cat. However, the 24th was her birthday, so I knew that if we were ever going to watch it, it would be then. And while the dopier elements I remembered were indeed present, they were hardly noteworthy, as the film itself was honestly a lot of fun! The main selling point is the trio of witches played by Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Kathy Najimy, and boy, let me tell you, all three of them are absolutely going for it. There is no scenery left unchewed, and their hammy chemistry is more than enough to power the whole movie. What’s happening with that sequel, Disney?
Spookiest Scene: There was one jump scare that actually got me, when Sarah Jessica Parker pretends to be the little sister and pops out of her bed. I legitimately didn’t see it coming. Well played, Hocus Pocus.
- Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006)
Dir. Scott Glosserman
Satisfied that she had finally been able to watch her desired film about campy Disney witches, Kelly gave my full rein to select the next few films in our list, a privilege I would go on to horribly abuse. But first, I eased her in with a genuinely enjoyable hybrid of found footage and classic slasher tropes. Behind the Mask is a film that’s almost criminally underrated. I’m still amazed that it didn’t make a star out of lead actor Nathan Baesel, who’s absolutely mesmerizing as a would-be serial killer allowing a documentary crew to film him as he prepares his latest bloodbath. Equal parts cheeky satire and loving homage, and full to bursting with easter eggs and respectful nods to the kinds of franchises that this film obviously aspired to, it’s a real shame that it never gained more than a cult following. Still, it’s an excellent little hidden gem in its own right, and is more than worthy of discovery if you’re looking for something that’s funny and spooky at the same time.
Spookiest Scene: When the titular Leslie Vernon, who has been playful and charming up to a point, suddenly drops his cool veneer and turns menacing on a dime, it’s enough to give me goosebumps.
- Audition (1999)
Dir. Takashi Miike
Now that Kelly had been buttered up with a few fun spooky films that weren’t too intimidating when it comes to scares, I figured it was time to cash in that goodwill and force her to watch one of my all-time favorites. This movie is a lot, and it’s definitely not for everyone. Until around the halfway point, if you didn’t know any better, you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s a quirky romantic drama, with some light commentary on Japanese society at the time. But then the screws start to turn, and the film reveals itself piece by piece, all building to one hell of a finale that would go on to inspire an entire generation of what David Edelstein referred to as “torture porn”. None have done it quite as artfully as Takashi Miike does here, in what is shockingly one of his most accessible films. Kelly has put on a brave face, and she’ll never say as much out loud, but I suspect she quietly resents me for making her watch this one, even if she thought it was really well made. And that’s totally fair.
Spookiest Scene: The aforementioned torture scene is one of the most unsettling in all of horror cinema. Deeper, deeper…
- The Little Shop of Horrors (1960)
Dir. Roger Corman
Bet you were expecting me to talk about the musical version with Rick Moranis, eh? Surprise, I’ve never seen it (although it’s coming to our local drive-in, so I should finally get around to it). But I have seen the 1960 original, famously shot by Roger Corman in just two and a half days (give or take pickups). It certainly looks and feels like a film that was shot over a weekend, with minimal sets and dialogue that feels heavily improvised. But it’s also a testament to Corman’s shrewdly cost-efficient shooting style that it still feels like a competent movie. No song and dance in this version: it’s a bare-bones rendition of the story, albeit with a snappy, jazzy rhythm to the dialogue that keeps things light and breezy. Also noteworthy for having one of Jack Nicholson’s earliest roles. Despite having roughly five minutes of screen time, he manages to leave a distinctly unhinged impression.
Spookiest Scene: When the killer plant’s buds open to reveal the faces of its victims. Creepy and creative on the cheap. It’s the Corman creedo.
- Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
Dir. Philip Kaufman
This one has been on my list of films to see for years, and somehow always missed the cut until now. I’m delighted to report that it may very well have been the most enjoyable new film I saw all month. Consistently unsettling, with a decent helping of paranoia thriller and body horror, it’s an all-around winner with warnings about the dangers of conformity that feel timeless (not to mention it’s yet another film about characters needing to stay isolated to avoid a contagion they know little about. I swear I’m not doing this on purpose). The all-star cast of quirky character actors certainly doesn’t hurt (Donald Sutherland! Leonard Nimoy! Jeff Goldblum! The blonde girl from Alien!), and the film is directed in a way that feels both experimental and precise, with a memorable synth-y score to tie it all in a nice bow. Highly recommended.
Spookiest Scene: The half-formed pod people are absolutely disgusting, and I love them.
- Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)
Dir. Tim Burton
Our original plan was to rewatch The Lighthouse on this day, but we decided the quarantine parallels would be a little too on-the-nose this time around. So, we settled for a more lighthearted story about a barber who murders people so they can be turned into meat pies. I’m not sure if this is considered a hot take or not, but I’ll maintain that this is the last great film that either Tim Burton or Johnny Depp have produced, together or separately. It’s easy to forget now what a big swing it was for this particular creative team to adapt this beloved musical (which had been in the works for decades), especially since they were almost but not quite at the point of caricaturing themselves. Yet Burton’s distinctive style fits the material like a glove, with Depp and especially Helena Bonham Carter doing some of their finest work. The gothic décor and shocking amounts of bloodshed help make this feel like a classic monster movie of the Universal era, and it remains one of the last great movie musicals in recent memory.
Spookiest Scene: Sacha Baron Cohen’s character gets his just desserts in a scene that’s still surprising for its sheer brutality.
- Se7en (1995)
Dir. David Fincher
After Kelly muscled through Audition with something like a begrudging respect, I wasn’t sure I would be able to sneak another gory film about torture into our lineup. Fortunately, she is a big fan of murder mysteries, which I was able to leverage in order to get her to watch this absolute classic. It still holds up as one of the great films by one of the great American directors, and if you somehow haven’t seen it you absolutely should. Even the more gruesome elements are mostly depicted tastefully and with a certain restraint. The biggest stumbling block to revisiting for some is going to be the presence of Kevin Spacey, and I will confess that no matter how objectively strong his performance is, I still feel uncomfortable whenever he’s on screen, for reasons that have nothing to do with his character. It’s more manageable in a film like this, where he’s only in it for a short time, compared to something like American Beauty (which I will probably never watch again), but it is something to be mindful of.
Spookiest Scene: Even though they never show the aftermath, the instrument used for the Lust victim still makes me feel queasy just thinking about it.
- ParaNorman (2012)
Dir. Christ Butler and Sam Fell
There were a number of contenders for what to watch on the actual holiday itself. We didn’t want to go with one of the more obvious staples like Halloween, Trick ‘r Treat, or The Nightmare Before Christmas, but decided to go with a more under-appreciated gem. Laika has quickly defined itself as one of the leading names in stop-motion animation, and while titles like Coraline and Kubo and the Two Strings have received a well-deserved lion’s share of attention and accolades, I still like to give focus to one of their quieter, more introspective films. With themes both personal and universal, it feels like a true celebration of spooky culture, with love for the nerds and outsiders that live and breathe horror. The animation is gorgeous and the story goes in a number of unexpected directions. If you’ve never gotten around to it, and are feeling something with more of that horror flavor than legitimate terror, then this is absolutely worth your time.
Spookiest Scene: The phantasmagorical imagery conjured by the witch near the end is guaranteed to stay with you, as is the sense of heartbreak when you learn the truth of her backstory.
Look at you! You made it all the way to the end! Thank you so much for reading, and I sincerely hope you enjoy this Halloween as much as you’re able to, under the circumstances. Stay safe, and stay spooky!