Spooky Fun Films for Your Halloween Viewing

Everyone always wants to watch horror films around this time of year, and I’m not here to argue the point. Halloween is a time when horror nerds finally get a chance to share our accumulated treasure troves of terror with the normals, all of us united in that rare delight that comes with being scared.

But a lot of what I see from folks putting together viewing lists for October are films that don’t really strike the right tone. Movies about serial killers, torture, about cold and uncaring death, these certainly have value in their own right, but they’re not fun the way that Halloween should be.

Halloween should be a celebration, not a lament, is my point.

So I’ve put together a list of films that I think better represent the mood that folks should try to strike with this particular holiday. I picked one film per decade going back to the ‘50s, for reasons that are arbitrary. And so, without further ado:

House on Haunted Hill (1959)

Absolutely no celebration of the Halloween season is complete without at least one Vincent Price picture. Price was a genuinely terrific actor, but he truly found his calling as a boogeyman across dozens of horror films across the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s. His theatrical, bordering-on-camp renditions of madness fit perfectly with the style of the time, and canny directors like Roger Corman and Michael Reeves kept finding new variants for him to play.

But while any number of Vincent Price films make great seasonal treats, the end-all, be-all is House on Haunted Hill. It’s not the scariest Vincent Price film, nor is it remotely his best performance. But House on Haunted Hill is, down to its marrow, about the pursuit of a great scare, and it takes fiendish delight in piling on spooks and ghouls and all manner of ghastly mayhem.

Directed by William Castle, House on Haunted Hill features Price as a mysterious millionaire with a murky past (natch) who invites a small group of strangers to spend the night at a legendarily haunted house, with the understanding that whoever lasts the night will receive a hefty payout.

(Sidenote: Price is the headliner, but the bulk of the film’s macabre set-up falls to Elisha Cook Jr., as the sole survivor of a previous incursion into the house. Cook’s one of those guys who in movies always seems one-second removed from either getting murdered or snapping off and murdering everybody, and it works great here.)

Castle was famous/infamous for loading up his films with wild gimmicks and stunts to draw attention (dude loved 3D, for one thing). With House on Haunted Hill, Castle rigged certain theaters up with plastic skeletons to float over the crowd during a particular climatic moment. That same love of show is infused into the text of House on Haunted Hill, as the film itself is a love letter to well-crafted tricks intended to scare the shit out of people.

It may be goofy as hell at times, but House on Haunted Hill knows exactly what it wants to give the audience and it does so with a wink and a mean little smirk.

Black Sabbath (1963)

The greatest horror anthology ever committed to film, Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath features three wild tales of terror and suspense, each one distinct from the others and each one unfolding with a master’s eye for terror and suspense.

The weakest of the three, “The Phone” was heavily re-cut and re-arranged by the American distributor, which changed the nature of the mysterious phone calls which so traumatize the main character, and they also screwed with the resolution. It’s irritating, but “The Phone” is still an effective, bite-sized bit of suspense.

But the other two stories, “The Drop of Water” and “The Wurdalak,” are all timers, and have proven to be hugely influential. “The Wurdalak” plays like a morbid fairy tale, as a young noble stumbles across a family living in terror of the wurdalak, a kind of vampire, that has been plaguing them for some time. The patriarch of the family has gone out to find and slay the creature, leaving instructions that they are to kill him if he shows up past an appointed time. Well, he shows up past the appointed time, but they let him in any way. When he comes in, he’s grumpy, he’s bathed in ominous purple light, and he’s played by Boris Karloff. So, yeah, everyone is pretty much fucked on this one, but the way Bava stages the steady infection of the family is wonderfully creepy and utterly merciless. There’s a vampire boy that arrives at the door, begging for his mother to let him in, that will haunt you for weeks to come.

And that’s not even the best story! No, for that we have to go to “The Drop of Water,” which is such a clear forerunner to Drag Me to Hell that it’s a wonder no one sued. A nurse is summoned to the home of a wealthy woman who has recently died, and entreated to pronounce the woman dead and prepare the body for burial. The old woman, we are told, had of late become very interested in seances. Had, in fact, a great deal of success with them. Had, in fact, died right in the midst of a séance. So when the nurse is left alone with the body and decides that it would do no harm to steal a piece of jewelry off the deceased’s finger, she really has no one to blame but herself for the world of horror that comes crashing down on her. “The Drop of Water” is simplicity itself, playing out largely in one room with the only the buzzing of a fly and the dripping of water to torment the character and the audience, but Bava wields these elements like a cudgel until you are feeling as anxious and freaked out in your home as the nurse feels in hers.

While there is a long history of horror anthologies, some much better than others, some with only one worthwhile story in the whole bunch, Black Sabbath is the cream of the crop, and it also serves as a tremendous showcase for the skills of Bava, showing him cycling through various story forms and techniques with his unique style and macabre sense of play.

Captain Kronos-Vampire Hunter (1974)

There are more vampire films than anyone could conceivably count, but a swashbuckling adventure vampire film? That’s a rarer breed, and yet that is exactly the concoction whipped up by Hammer Studios and director Brian Clemens.

The title kind of says it all. Captain Kronos (Horst Janson) is a dashing rogue who travels the land with his hunchbacked assistant (John Cater) battling all manner of living dead and bedding all the beautiful maidens that local villages have to offer. This particular tale involves a vampire that drains the youth from its victims, rather than the blood, a new breed of sucker which means that Kronos and his team have to try and figure out how exactly to kill it. Their solution, as one ghoulishly hilarious sequence depicts, is trial and error.

Captain Kronos was intended to launch a whole series of films, and you can see Clemens laying the ground for that. A veteran of series like The Avengers (the TV series about sexy spies, not the film series about sexy dudes named Chris), Clemens clearly knew how to establish and sell this brand of pulp. Financial difficulties surrounding the studio meant that Kronos represented an ending, rather than the bold beginning of something entirely new.

But it’s still an absolute riot of a standalone film (not to mention being, apparently, as close as anyone has ever gotten to a Castlevania movie). Like the best Hammer or AIP films, Captain Kronos is fully aware of how silly it is, but it still plays with a resolutely straight face. It’s winking, not sneering, and that makes all the difference. It may be a more rarefied taste than some of Hammer’s other, more straight-forward projects, but if you don’t understand why a dude battling the living dead in an Errol Flynn-esque climatic duel is fucking awesome, than you and I are simply on different wavelengths altogether.

The Fog (1980)

The obvious John Carpenter film to choose for this sorta list is, you know, Halloween. And, indeed, Halloween is a masterpiece of minimalist terror, and stands to this day as one of the greatest horror films ever made.

But the heart wants what it wants, and while The Fog is nowhere near as good a film as Halloween overall, I just have so much fun with this lurid little slice of EC Comics-style nastiness. For starters, The Fog features some of the most atmospheric work in Carpenter’s entire career (which, holy shit, is saying something) as well as one of his best, most underrated scores.

The Fog is about a crew of murderous, leprous ghosts who return to the world of the living to take revenge on the community of Antonio Bay, as the town was founded through a murderous plot, long buried and forgotten. Townspeople caught in the crossfire (or cross-fog, as the case may be) include Tom Atkins, Janet Leigh, Hal Holbrook, Jamie Lee Curtis as a hitchhiker with bad luck and Adrienne Barbeau as a radio DJ posted in a lighthouse overlooking the town.

Famously, Carpenter was dissatisfied with his original cut of the film and went back to add more material, comprising roughly a third of the finished film. While you can spot the glaring inconsistencies and non-sequiturs that now litter the film, these do not actually work against the film. If you’ve ever spent time reading ghost stories and folklore, inconsistencies and non-sequiturs are par for the course. The supernatural doesn’t make sense because it’s not supposed to make sense. That’s what makes it supernatural. This, coupled with Carpenter’s mastery of mood and tension, gives The Fog a truly nightmarish quality.

While it is less polished than Carpenter’s full-fledged masterpieces (Halloween, The Thing), The Fog is still an American master operating at the peak of his powers, and it remains a wonderfully chilling little number.

Ravenous (1999)

I’m still not entirely sure why Antonio Bird’s hysterical/horrifying fable isn’t talked about more in horror circles, because it’s the real deal. Equal parts grotesque and hilarious, Ravenous is the rare horror-comedy where the laughs don’t negate the scares and the scares don’t stifle the laughs. Ravenous manages the neat trick of being both wickedly mean and gleefully rude, resulting in a horror film that’s really not like anything else out there.

Guy Pearce plays a cowardly soldier during the Mexican-American War, a soldier who nonetheless is praised as a hero for being the sole survivor of a massacre. The nature of how he survived is a good deal less heroic (and a good deal more disgusting) than he or is his commanding officers are willing to acknowledge, and so he is shuttered off to a fort in the Sierra Nevadas.

Things are cold and quiet in the mountain perch, and then Robert Carlyle shows up, which, you know, that’s rarely going to end well for anyone. Carlyle, you see, was a member of a wagon party that was led astray by a malicious colonel, with the party reduced to eating human flesh in order to stay alive. To say anything more about the plot of such a little-known film would be a grave disservice, so I’ll say only that Ravenous does wonders tapdancing between the horror of man’s mundane inhumanity to man, and the more fantastical horror of monsters and myth. The story touches upon the wendigo, a uniquely American creature found in Native American legend, and this gives Ravenous a wider creative field than if Bird was just riffing on werewolves or vampires for the umpteenth time.

Pearce (who was post-L.A. Confidential but pre-Memento) and Carlyle make wonderful poles around which the film revolves. Pearce plays things as internal as possible, almost never speaking and restraining his expression even beyond that. This gives Carlyle the freedom to eat up every piece of scenery that isn’t nailed down as his wild-eyed survivor, which only heightens the sense that the film is constantly on the verge of rocketing off the rails, with only Bird’s confident hand keeping things on an even keel.

Ravenous is, like the other films in this piece, above all else fun. Even as it’s indulging in some truly spectacular splatter, it’s doing so with a hearty (natch) wink and a sense of invention and style. Again, I’ve no idea why this one slid through the cracks the way it did, but it’s well worth discovering.

Sleepy Hollow (2000)

Sleepy Hollow occupies a weird sort of No Man’s Land in Tim Burton’s filmography. It’s not one of the early classics that we’ve all agreed to love and revere unto the end of time (Ed Wood, Edward Scissorhands, movies that don’t have ‘Ed’ in the title) but it also comes right before the period when Burton mortgaged all of his goodwill to become a brand rather than a filmmaker, his aesthetic existing as wallpaper on top of pre-existing corporate IP (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Alice in Wonderland, that fucking Apes movie, ugh).

And, to be fair, Sleepy Hollow features all the hallmarks of the Bad Burton we would come to know and begrudgingly sit through in the years to come. Once again Burton is mostly just applying his pre-existing fetishes and techniques to an already-familiar story (including but not limited to: everything is colored black and white with only sporadic bursts of primary color; cobwebs and fogs everywhere; everything is twisted and bent and art-designed out the ying-yang; daddy issues; Danny Elfman; Johnny Depp operating with zero guardrails; etc.).

But while Burton would burn this style out, quickly, there’s no denying that it just works for Sleepy Hollow. It helps that Burton has a rock-solid screenplay to work off this time (something that would be in crazy short supply in this latter half of his career), with Andrew Kevin Walker (of Se7en fame) turning Washington Irving’s short story into a propulsive procedural, as Constable Ichabod Crane (Depp) attempts to discern who in Sleepy Hollow is summoning the Headless Horseman from his grave to come chop off heads of unlucky townsfolk.

Oh yes, there will be decapitations. So, so, so many decapitations.

Burton’s style works perfectly within this framework, a world that is recognizably historical but ‘off’ ever so slightly, in a manner that makes the supernatural feel part and parcel with the rolling fields and farmland. The blood, and there is a whole heckuva lot of it, is practically Day-Glo, spurting off the screen with an almost 3D immediacy. Burton also wholly embraces the iconography of the Headless Horseman (assisted in no small part by Christopher Walken [who plays the pre-deceased Hessian in flashbacks] and Ray “Darth Maul” Park, who handles the acrobatics of the Horseman once he’s headless). Burton’s films can often feel like precious little art exhibits where you feel nervous even so much as breathing, but in contrast, Sleepy Hollow is wild and raucous and comes with an abundant sense of play. Like the also underrated Mars Attacks!, Sleepy Hollow feels like it emerged wholly from the excitable imagination of a kid who is simply punch-drunk on monsters and movies, and that palpable feeling of joy makes Sleepy Hollow feel more alive than so many other Burton efforts.

And, you guys, there are just so, so, so, so many decapitations.

Housebound (2014)

Like Ravenous, I’m unclear as to why this hysterically funny/legitimately creepy spookablast has gone so unnoticed and unloved by the genre crew. An endlessly entertaining horror-comedy from New Zealand, Housebound plays like a lost Joe Dante masterpiece in the way it both embraces but lovingly tweaks its own genre.

Morgana O’Reilly stars as Kylie, an angry young woman who opens the film being arrested for a petty crime and sentenced to house arrest in her childhood home with her mother, Miriam (Rima Te Wiata, so instantly lovable in Hunt for the Wilderpeople). There are three major downsides to this arrangement for Kylie.

  1. Miriam is the kind of person who never ever ever ever ever stops talking.
  2. A lot of what Miriam talks about is a ghost that’s inside her house.

And, 3. She may not be wrong.

It’s not too long before Kylie begins her own investigation into what, if anything, is happening inside the walls of her home, and writer/director Gerard Johnstone is extremely clever with the way his script zigs and zags, and the way his filmmaking uses its intimate setting to build suspense, laughter, and bloodletting.

And, oh yes, there will be blood. Like other Karo-syrup soaked Kiwi pictures like Dead Alive or What We Do in the Shadows, Housebound is more than happy to douse its audience and characters in gallons of gore, but it never loses that distinctive, peppy charm that has come to characterize New Zealand and its people and cinema.

It would be easy for Housebound, for any of these movies, really, to be a slog of misery and nastiness given the subject matter at hand. Instead, like so much of Halloween-related hijinks, Housebound makes a point of whistling past the graveyard with a jaunty step, and perhaps a middle finger upraised at the Reaper.

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