Halloween is nearly upon us and all the little ghouls and goblins – and the big ones too – are making plans for costume parties and Trick-or-Treating. It’s a festive time of year to be sure. The trees are bedecked in the blazing colors of autumn or bare as a skeleton’s bones, scraping the turbulent sky with their gnarly fingers. It’s a time of year that fires the imagination and captures the essence of our nightmares and fears, all in a single chilling night.
If you’re going out and about, you’ll undoubtedly behold horrors galore wandering the streets. And if you’re staying in with the intent to munch popcorn and candy corn and experience the thrill of a good horror story, well this is for you.
Back in the dark times before color crept into the movies, horror films were moody and bleak, creepy and dark, with a scare behind every tombstone and tree, evil forces rampaging upon the moors and the blood sucking denizens of crumbling castles on high cliffs peering out from candlelit windows looking for unsuspecting prey.
Perhaps the greatest horror film ever made is from the classic era of horror, Frankenstein. It has more truly startling moments than any other horror film I’ve ever seen, and – while it doesn’t measure up to the ridiculous modern standards for visual effects – it features some truly iconic images. There is an appeal to films that triumph in their storytelling, and Frankenstein is one of them. Portraying the titular monster as both murderous and tender was a masterstroke. Was the monster mad or just misunderstood? Perhaps a little of both, and that made poor Frankenstein just like you and me.
One of the tried and true tropes of horror is the bump-in-the-night thriller. As such, therefore, the second movie on my list is the ever terrifying Ridley Scott masterpiece, Alien. The innovations in this movie are off the proverbial charts: a giant spaceship serves as the “haunted castle,” the monster is as black as the shadows in which it dwells, has acid for blood, and teeth made of glass, and the heroine was a woman. All of these set the standards for horror for the coming decades, so much so that Scott revisited the original themes that he created in the much ballyhooed (and derided) Prometheus. What is one of my most favorite things about Alien? Scott only once showed the monster in its entirety, and it was a blink-or-you-miss it scene. There is nothing more terrifying that what our imaginations invent, and Alien forced us to invent a lot.
There was a brief time in the early 1980s when Disney Studios seemed to be having a rather major identity crisis, resulting in a slew of unusual releases including The Black Hole, The Black Cauldron, The Watcher in the Woods, and the incredible gothic horror beauty, Something Wicked This Way Comes. Based upon the novel by Ray Bradbury, whose writing style was possibly the most visually evocative of any author I’ve ever read, Something Wicked tells the story of two young boys, an aging father, and the evil master of the Pandemonium Carnival – Mr. Dark – who appears out of nowhere one cold October night. This movie had a lot to live up to given the source from which it was drawn, and it was truly an achievement, from the creepy backwards-turning carousel to the disturbing scenes where Mr. Dark offers gifts and then savagely withdraws them, bit by piece. So much horror resides in regret and Something Wicked portrays that like no other film.
Lastly, I would like to bring up the nightmarishly brilliant story of a missing little girl, a remote island community, and the freakishly weird people who live there: The Wicker Man. Made in 1973, the film has become an irresistible cult classic. A policeman arrives on the lonely island of Summerisle to investigate the disappearance and possible murder of a young girl. To his devout eyes, the rituals and practices of the people on the island are blasphemous and strange and their unwillingness to aid in the investigation slowly seems to incriminate everyone. So where is the horror? The dénouement is singularly terrifying, at once compelling and horrific. We are all manipulated and manipulators, I think, and victims of our own choices, sometimes with unspeakable consequences. Add Christopher Lee to the mix as the mysteriously charming Lord Summerisle and this film is a fine example of whimsy, camp, and suspenseful horror.
Happy Halloween everyone! May your tricks be as gleefully received as your treats!