With All Hallows’ Eve almost upon us yet again, there is always the dilemma of what to watch in order to help celebrate and enjoy the evening (and the days leading up to it) in its best, and purest, collective pop culture sense (the true history behind Samhain is, of course, a much more deadly serious and disturbing tale that transformed into folk legend over the centuries).
While I rarely need any excuse to indulge in my lifelong love of horror cinema, fright films do take on a special air when watched over Halloween, helping us to remember and appreciate what it is that we love so much about the genre and its myriad of styles.
If you’re looking for any suggestions, here’s a peek at some of the highlights I have picked out for my own Halloween viewing this coming week. All of them are year-round treats that taste particularly delicious at this time of year.
CARNIVAL OF SOULS (1962). Director: Herk Harvey
A beautifully baroque and hauntingly surreal nightmare, Carnival of Souls is a remarkable achievement in experimental low-budget genre cinema, with elements in both its sight and sound design that you can easily imagine having an influential effect on a young David Lynch. Co-writer and director Herk Harvey came from a background in educational and industrial shorts, and that experience pays off in the unique atmosphere with which he imbues Carnival of Souls, the story of a detached young church organist (the perfectly-cast Candace Hilligoss) who survives seemingly unscathed after her car plunges off a bridge into a river, only to find herself strangely drawn to a deserted and decaying old amusement park pavilion out on the shores of the Great Salt Lake in Utah, while also being pursued by pasty-faced ghouls that only she can see (Harvey also plays the lead ghoul). The black & white photography gives Carnival of Souls not just a wonderful old-cinema feel but a hypnotic starkness, with the scenes filmed at night at the once-grand Saltair pavilion being particularly evocative and foreboding, especially when combined with composer Gene Moore’s highly atmospheric organ score.
GODZILLA VS. HEDORA (1971). Director: Yoshimitsu Banno
An appearance by the Big G always livens up a Halloween viewing party. With nearly forty films in the series to date, there is never any shortage to choose from. A personal favourite and perennial crowd-pleaser for me is the magnificently pop-arty Godzilla Vs. Hedorah, released in the US in 1972 as Godzilla Vs. the Smog Monster. As its later title indicates, in Hedorah our gnarly green giant comes up against a monster spawned by our pollution of the world, giving Godzilla Vs. Hedorah a strong environmentalist message (which made it the perfect film to go out on a double-bill across America with another environmental horror film from 1972, Frogs). Hedorah, a microscopic alien organism that feeds on our pollution, growing into a gigantic silver glob with menacing red eyes, is an inspired creation and one of Godzilla’s most memorable foes. Able to travel by land, sea and air, Hedorah’s deadly emissions of poisonous clouds kill thousands, forcing humanity to face the inevitable end with a final celebration atop Mt. Fuji. Godzilla, of course, still has something to say about the outcome, helping to save the people of the world before giving us a final glare that tells us we better be careful about all the rubbish we dump onto the Earth.
JAWS (1975). Director: Steven Spielberg
Every Halloween movie marathon needs to include at least one bona fide blockbuster. I usually alternate between The Exorcist (1973), The Omen (1976), Alien (1979) and Jaws. This year I am going with the latter. For better or worse, Steven Spielberg (then a 28-year-old up-and-coming wunderkind) established the template for the big summer tentpole blockbuster, something that would expand in dominance over the following years and decades. Perhaps the biggest compliment you can pay Jaws is that despite Bruce the mechanical shark being less than believable to the eyes (both in retrospect and even at the time of release), it does nothing to detract from the unnerving tension which the film builds from virtually its opening frame. The classic, instantly iconic score from John Williams certainly helped in establishing the film’s atmosphere, but the film as a whole is so confident and seamless, as much a classic story of adventure and the sea as it is an effective terror tale. And Spielberg draws top-notch performances from his cast, in particular Roy Scheider and Robert Shaw. To help get into the spirit, Collegeville even issued a Jaws Halloween costume in 1975, consisting of a cheap plastic shark mask and an even cheaper tunic featuring the movie’s poster design, so kids could go door-knocking as Bruce and put the bite on any neighbours who refused to hand over a treat.
CREEPSHOW (1981). Director: George A. Romero
In 1981, there were perhaps no bigger names in horror than author Stephen King, make-up effects genius Tom Savini, and filmmaker George A. Romero. Heavily promoted as a meeting of the heavyweights, Creepshow was inspired by the trio’s enduring childhood love for the notoriously graphic EC horror comic books of the early-fifties (titles like Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror). Featuring five short stories, all with the traditional EC-like shock ending, Creepshow also recalls the classic UK anthology horror films produced by the Amicus studios in the seventies, like The House That Dripped Blood (1971), Asylum (1972) and From Beyond the Grave (1974). Creepshow marked King’s first foray into screenwriting (two of the stories were adapted from his existing short tales), with the author also playing the lead character in “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill”, delivering a fun performance as a hillbilly hick who slowly turns into a living plant after coming into contact with “meteor shit”. Leslie Nielsen, Ted Danson, Ed Harris, Hal Holbrook, Adrienne Barbeau and E.G. Marshall also get in on the act and look to be having a great time, and Romero (with the help of Savini and cinematographer Michael Gornick) gives Creepshow an effectively lurid palette that pays perfect homage to its four-colour roots (as does the opening and closing wraparound sequences, and the freeze-frame panels that begin and end each story).
HALLOWEEN III: SEASON OF THE WITCH (1982). Director: Tommy Lee Wallace
Of course you are going to want to fit in an official Halloween movie as part of your marathon, but with a franchise that spans over 40 years and eleven films (and counting), which entry are you going to select? Going with John Carpenter’s original genre-defining classic from 1978 is always a good choice, but for me my Halloween Halloween viewing of choice has always been Tommy Lee Wallace’s renegade entry in the series, Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982). After the relative failure of Halloween II (1981), producers decided to try a different approach with future entries, planning a unique and unrelated Halloween movie to be released each year like an anthology series. Sadly, the format failed to click with viewers at the time, and the ghostly and seemingly indestructible Michael Myers was quickly resurrected for subsequent entries. Based on an early screen treatment by noted British sci-fi writer Nigel Kneale, Halloween III: Season of the Witch, weaves a macabre tale of novelty toy manufacturer Conal Cochran (Dan O’Herlihy) and his dastardly plan to return Halloween to its ghoulish roots, which he aims to do by using modern technology and ancient mysticism (in the form of a stolen chunk of Stonehenge) to install an electronic badge on each of his popular range of Halloween masks. When kids wearing the masks are exposed to an electronic signal released during a promotional television spot, the magic of Stonehenge is unleashed and creates a messy tableau of horrors for both those inside the masks and anyone who happens to be in their immediate vicinity. With a bleak (though ambiguous) ending, a very entertaining performance from Tom Atkins as a boozy, womanising doctor caught up in the horrific conspiracy, and a look inside the infamous Don Post mask factory (doubling as Cochron’s toy plant), Halloween III: Season of the Witch never fails to raise a few October 31st shackles.
RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD (1984). Director: Dan O’Bannon
It may be a genre that has been played out in films (and on television) over the past ten-plus years, but zombies still seem to be a popular form of movie monster for many cinemagoers. Of course, you can go with George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), the ground-breaking black & white masterpiece that not only established the template for the genre but helped usher in the age of modern horror cinema, but for Halloween I usually choose Return of the Living Dead, a comical pseudo-sequel based on a 1977 novel by John Russo (writer of the original Night of the Living Dead screenplay) and written and directed by Dan O’Bannon (who dreamed up the concept and co-wrote the story for the original Alien). Genuinely funny, populated with great dialogue and driven along by a classic punk soundtrack featuring tracks by The Cramps, 45 Grave, The Damned and others, Return of the Living Dead is an all-too-rare horror comedy hybrid that actually works. A rousing, stone-cold party classic featuring one of the most memorable screen zombies in the mucky Tarman (who spouts the immortal “Brains!” line upon first encountering living people – in this case, the film’s central cast of teen punks and new wavers).
TERRORVISION (1985). Director: Ted Nicolaou
Written and directed by Ted Nicolaou for Charles Band’s Empire Pictures, TerrorVision has always been one of my favourite low-budget genre films from the 1980s, a garishly lurid comic book come to life which satirises virtually everything that was prominent in the disposable American pop culture canvas of that decade: satellite television, the aerobics fitness craze, valley girls, MTV, swinging suburbia, new wave, hair metal, military survivalists and ostentatious interior decorating. Filmed in Italy during the height of a sweltering summer at the old Dino De Laurentiis studios, TerrorVision also boasts memorable production design by Giovanni Natalucci, a tacky mixture of low-rent Playboy Mansion and art deco from Hell, which compounds the alternate reality of the film and creates the perfect playhouse for the film’s exaggerated characters to run amok. The ludicrous monster, banished from its home planet and now materialising through suburban television sets to cause mischief and mayhem, was built by eighties effects maestro John Carl Buechler and is also an inspired creation, funny and repulsive and with its own sense of personality and character. The film additionally benefits from a very cool new wave-tinged soundtrack (from Richard Band) and catchy theme song by the Fibonaccis.
THE MONSTER SQUAD (1987). Director: Fred Dekker
A film that brought back a dream cast of classic Universal movie monsters (Dracula, The Mummy, The Wolfman, The Frankenstein Monster and The Creature from the Black Lagoon), The Monster Squad is not a great piece of cinematic art but it is does deliver a lot of pure fun and enjoyably wholesome entertainment, and in a much more effective and endearing way than Goonies (1985), the Richard Donner film which The Monster Squad is so often paired with and compared to. The nice thing about The Monster Squad thirty years on is that it remains appealing to many audiences, in particular ‘80s kids with a nostalgia twinge and memories of teenage VHS parties, and the older “Monster Kids” of the 1960s and ‘70s, reliving their childhood obsessions with Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, Shock Theatre television and Aurora monster model kits. But it’s also a monster movie that can be safely watched and enjoyed by younger kids today, making it a perfect Halloween family viewing choice. And it’s always wonderful to see all those beautiful Stan Winston physical effects and make-ups in action. I only wish they could have kept the classic Creature from the Black Lagoon design; what we end up with is fine but more akin to what we later saw in The Shape of Water (2017).
ED WOOD (1994). Director: Tim Burton
For my mind, the last truly great film which Tim Burton delivered, and unfortunately his first box-office disaster since the young director hit superstar status with Batman in 1989. It seems almost weirdly poetic that a film about the supposed “worst director of all time” would prove a commercial bomb, but it’s a damn shame that Ed Wood did not connect with more viewers, as it is a wonderful love letter to a now long-gone era of low-budget genre filmmaking. Based on the classic 1991 bio Nightmare of Ecstasy by Rudolph Grey, Ed Wood naturally takes some liberties with the facts and timeline of the real story, but the sheer charm of the end result is undeniable, making it a wonderfully sentimental piece of Halloween viewing. Johnny Depp is terrific as the angora-loving director of Glen or Glenda (1953) and Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959), but it was rightfully Martin Landau, playing an aged and ailing (not to mention opiate-addicted) Bela Lugosi, who stole the movie and won a much deserved Oscar for Best Supporting Actor (the brilliant Rick Baker also won the Best Make-Up Oscar for his work on transforming Landau into Lugosi). Great support is given by wrestler George “The Animal” Steele as Tor Johnson and Lisa Marie as pioneering horror host Maila Nurmi (aka Vampira), along with Sarah Jessica Parker and Patricia Arquette as the two most important women in his life. The sumptuous black & white photography is simply gorgeous to look at, and even more seductive on hi-def Blu-ray. The decision to shoot in B&W is the glue that holds so many of the film’s elements together, and it’s easy to see why Burton insisted on filming in this format (the film was initially turned down by Columbia over Burton’s refusal to film in colour, before Disney and Touchstone took over the project).
Wishing you a spook-tacular Halloween!