Halloween is quite simply my favorite holiday of the year (and don’t get me started on whether or not it’s a “real” holiday. It’s real to me, dammit.) One of the reasons for my fondness of Halloween is my love of horror movies. The horror genre has suffered a poor reputation due to the amount of schlock and outright bad filmmaking that has been entered into its hallowed halls over the years, but the fact is that 90% of everything is crap, and the 10% of horror movies that are great movies would stand up to any other genre out there. There’s nothing like a great horror movie to allow a bit of guiltless voyeurism and morbid fascination with the damned, and I relish every moment of it. Here are some of the horror movies I’ve watched this October and recommend for the 2009 Halloween season:
Zombieland (2009): The newest movie on this list is also the most fun. More of a comedy than a horror movie, there are few scares to be had here because you’ll be laughing too hard to remember to be scared. All the same, there is plenty of gore, and this is not one for the kiddies. This is a tall tale of survivors in the zombie wasteland, told from the perspective of a young geek whose nerdy impulses probably serve him well under these particular conditions. He partners up with Woody Harrelson, a cowboy in search of increasingly rare Twinkies (which indeed do have a shelflife), and they run across two girls who turn out to be more than anyone bargained for. The movie is a riot, and includes valuable lessons about what not to do during the zombie apocalypse, such as don’t turn on the amusement park rides, and don’t play “I’m a fake zombie” games. Well worth seeing in theaters.
Dawn of the Dead (1978): Seeing Zombieland with friends led to a discussion about how zombies are actually quite funny, and how many movies have exploited this fact over the last 30 years. Case in point: George Romero’s classic blueprint for zombie movies, Dawn of the Dead, where survivors hole up in a shopping mall, only to find that life isn’t so different during the zombie apocalypse after all – for either themselves or the zombies. This is a gory and frightening movie that takes itself more seriously than Zombieland does, but is sprinkled liberally with classic bits of zombie humor. Hari Krishna!
Repulsion (1965): I had not seen this movie before this year, but have heard for years that it belongs among director Roman Polanski’s great films. It’s kind of an odd little movie, but ultimately I have to agree with the critical consensus – it is a great film, and seems especially shocking for 1965, when movies still didn’t show death on-screen. I’m guessing this was one of the first. This is the simple story of a sexually-repressed woman (played by a young and exceptionally beautiful Catherine Deneuve) who is slowly going mad, and when her roommate leaves on vacation, her psychopathic fancies are finally let free to roam. There is not a lot in the way of explanation of why this is happening to her, but then again, what is there to explain? Who understands why a person goes mad? As a character study, the film is riveting and the subtext is deep. I found it chilling and disturbing, and I imagine this was quite shocking material in 1965. It still holds a lot of power today.
Drag Me To Hell (2009): It’s cliché to call Sam Raimi’s return to horror “a rollercoaster ride”, but that’s exactly what it is. Typical of Raimi, Drag Me To Hell doesn’t take itself too seriously, and it includes several over-the-top campy moments and sly nods to his Evil Dead series of films. At the same time, it contains winning, committed performances (which I think is key to making any camp film work), especially from star Alison Lohman, who appears in nearly every scene and literally carries the film on her petite shoulders. There is a deeper subtext here, if you care to find it, but if you don’t, you won’t miss a thing. Loved the ending, which doesn’t cheat – nice to see in a modern Hollywood picture.
The Exorcist (1973): I watch this one pretty much every year; it’s far and away my favorite horror movie of all time. A rare “perfect film”, this one never loses its power or nerve. It’s a completely serious and fearless horror movie that never resorts to camp, and makes what should be a ludicrous premise seem all too real and terrifying. The brilliance of The Exorcist is in how expertly it capitalizes on fears that most of us share – of the dark, of death, of losing control. I love that it functions so well as a real film, not just a “horror flick”. The movie is so well constructed, so brilliantly scripted, and so well-acted that I get chills every time I watch it. Over 30 years later, the shock value is still extremely high. Although “gore porn” has become very popular, even today’s films generally don’t go this far in their depiction of tortured human souls, and virtually none of them are as genuinely frightening. A bona-fide classic, and a major influence on nearly every horror film since. Best in show.
Rosemary’s Baby (1968): Another rare “perfect film”, this is cream-of-the-crop Roman Polanski, and also a feature I watch every year, Halloween or not. Modern horror fans tend to be disappointed, but that’s just because they have the wrong expectations. This is not a fright-fest; it’s a very literate film that plays out more like a great novel than a movie, and it’s not intended to be “scary” as much as it’s intended to be nerve-wracking. The first time you watch the movie, it’s a riveting study in the nature of paranoia and psychological manipulation. The second time you watch it, and every time thereafter, you realize that it’s really a black comedy on the nature of paranoia and psychological manipulation. The writing, directing and acting are all peerless. Special kudos go to Mia Farrow’s portrayal of the fragile yet earnest Rosemary, who finds reserves of strength she probably didn’t know she had, and Ruth Gordon’s sweet old meddling lady, a persona she traded on throughout the 1970s but really perfected in this picture. “He has his father’s eyes!” Chilling. And funny.
Poltergeist (1982): We tried to get our 12-year-old daughter Mia to watch this movie with us this year, as she’s starting to become interested in more mature features than, say, Twilight, and we thought this would be a good introduction to mature horror films. It’s scary without being too serious or exploitative, what I think of as “funhouse scary”, and the entertainment factor is very high. But she would have none of it, so we ended up watching it ourselves. Maybe next year. This is a wild ghost tale that hasn’t dated completely well (I find the “I can smell her!” scene to be fairly cringe-worthy), but is still a fun watch with some pretty nifty special effects and a good story behind them. And I still think it would make a good intro for a tween kid into the horror genre. Fear of clowns begins here.
Ginger Snaps (2000): Rounding out this list is an independent werewolf movie that’s a lot better than it deserved to be. It has since devolved into a weak series of increasingly bad movies and direct-to-video releases, but the original has merit and is well worth a viewing. Two malcontent and exceptionally morbid girls find out what life and death is really all about when one of them is infected by a beast ravaging the small mammals of their neighborhood, and the result is a story that’s entertainingly scary and ultimately rather sad and profound. Avoid the sequels at all costs, but pick this one up off Netflix if you can, and bring a strong stomach to the proceedings, as the gore factor is very high.