Monday, October 24, 2016

Happy Halloween


October is horror movie month, with an assortment of marathons running on several cable channels at any given time. I realize the kids these days stream everything (get off my lawn!), and while I also stream most of what I watch now, there's still nothing quite like stumbling upon a random horror movie on cable during the lead up to Halloween. I spend an inordinate amount of time every October wondering when cable will start broadcasting the Halloween movies over and over again. I can't wait to plunk down on the couch and bliss out to the elliptical line readings of Donald Pleasence as Dr. Loomis. As should be obvious based on my eternal and gushing love for Elvira, I also love Halloween and all things horror. I love it so much that I write about cult classics—including a good number of horror films—at The After Movie Diner. What follows is an informal list, one that is not meant to be definitive; instead it's simply a very small sampling of some of my favorite horror films. These are a few of the movies I most look forward to viewing this time of year.

Don't rest now, Laurie.
Let's get the most obvious choice out of the way first, the one I mentioned above: John Carpenter's Halloween (1978) is mandatory October viewing for everyone, horror and non-horror fans alike. While it may not have been the first slasher film, it remains the one by which all others have been compared since. Every year we tune in to watch the Shape terrify Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) and those annoying kids she's babysitting, see promiscuous teenagers with gloriously natural 1970s hair styles get stabbed repeatedly, and most entertainingly revel in Donald Pleasance's unabashed scenery chewing. Very few characters in horror are as memorable, or quotable, as Pleasance's Dr. Loomis. And Curtis, full of youthful innocence and with golden curls cascading down to her shoulders, sets the tone for all future "Final Girls" with her performance here: she may be terrified when Michael Myers breaks into the house, but she fights back fiercely. No Halloween movie marathon is complete without at least one viewing of Halloween. After that, chances are you'll want to watch the sequels too. Although they're not masterpieces like Carpenter's original, they're highly watchable Halloween fare.

Blowing off steam behind the scenes of Re-Animator.
Re-Animator (1985) might not be easy to find on television during this or any time of year, but it's certainly available for streaming and on Blu Ray, of course. Stuart Gordon's comedy-horror film is deservedly regarded as one of the finest films of its kind. Its subversive and perverse humor, unforgettable moments of real terror, and exceptional practical effects have aged extremely well. The movie will always work for horror fans because it's a smart and perceptive take on the genre—it's simultaneously riffing on long-standing horror tropes (dating back to H. P. Lovecraft) while also contributing its own lasting impact on horror. The cast is phenomenal, with particular credit going to Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton, both of whom contribute career defining performances. Combs is impossible to take your eyes off of here in one of the finest mad scientist acting jobs you'll ever. Like Combs, Crampton went on to become a horror and b-movie legend thanks in no small part to her iconic role in Re-Animator. She's the perfect amount of sweet and innocent as young Megan, the character we the audience most ache to see survive the film's insanity. I won't spoil the ending, I'll just say it's a doozy.

Shelley Duvall deserved an Academy Award for her performance in The Shining. There, I said it.
The Shining (1980) is a film whose shadow looms large, having haunted me since first viewing it as a teenager. I was immediately hooked; years later I finally read Stephen King's book and loved it equally, if for different reasons. I even own an "Overlook Hotel" t-shirt, for goodness sake. Few films continue to haunt me after all these years in quite the same way. It seems unfathomably deep, as if you could spend your entire life unpacking the various layers of hidden meanings and still never reach the bottom. On the surface it doesn't seem particularly complex: a husband, a wife, and their son are the only residents of a big creepy (and haunted) hotel for the winter season—but are they actually alone? Beyond that simple premise lies an extraordinarily sprawling narrative, one that mirrors the vastness of the Overlook Hotel itself. The Torrances are clearly not a happy family but how deep do the wounds go? Who is the woman in the bathtub? Whose blood cascades like a tidal wave out of the elevator doors? We know Danny and Hallorann can shine, but can Jack also? And what about Wendy? The questions continue to mount as we watch Stanley Kubrick's eerily cerebral rumination on King's story of familial dysfunction set against the backdrop of impending doom. Check out my article from earlier this year on the book and the movie. That'll give you a longer and more detailed summation of why I love both so much.

Abel Ferrara''s moody and intense meditation on the vampire film.
Abel Ferrara's The Addiction (1995) might seem like an outlier on this list but that's only due to its relatively low profile since it's mid-1990s release. It shares more in common with these other classics than you might think: like Halloween it's a low-budget, independent film; like The Shining and The Thing it's full of both looming dread and intense psychological horror. The film presents vampirism as a metaphor for the rigors of academia. It's a moody, black and white drama with a tremendous performance by Lili Taylor as a philosophy student turned vampire, and featuring Christopher Walken as a vampire attempting to control his addiction to blood. A film with the line, "Self revelation is annihilation of self" is going to appeal to a certain set of horror fans, the kind who are prepared to think critically and deeply about what's happening on screen.

John Carpenter certainly deserves two spots on this list.
An argument can be made that The Thing (1982) might be the best film of John Carpenter's long and storied directing career, and that's saying something from the man who gave us Assault on Precinct 13Escape from New YorkBig Trouble in Little China, and the film I discussed earlier that basically influenced modern horror more than any other, Halloween. Carpenter is a master at building tension and then releasing it in quick, scary bursts, then building it right back up again. The Thing is riveting; you feel as if you're stranded right alongside Kurt Russell and the other men inside the research station in the barren cold of the Antarctic. Carpenter spins the story so that its possible each man is the alien creature terrorizing the station. The film keeps you off balance throughout, and is without question one of the finest films of both the horror and science fiction genres.

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