October 28, 2010
Halloween picks for fellow Halloweenies
As I've previously mentioned on this blog, I will happily watch absolutely any genre except super-scary horror. For both scholarly and entertainment reasons I wish I could bear it, but despite a perfect tolerance of violence and suspense my overactive imagination goes into hyperdrive when viewing anything aggressively terrifying. A film like The Shining, The Exorcist or even more recent fare like the Saw films would leave me unable to sleep or function for several weeks. I have refused, however, to let this handicap impede me from enjoying a marathon of spookiness every Halloween, and I thought I'd share some of my favorite discoveries. I feel that movie weenies do not receive adequate support in this arena - any Google search for non-scary Halloween flicks just leads you down a path of family-friendly animated specials. So here's suggestions for my cinephile brethren who enjoy the mysterious and macabre, but don't derive pleasure out of being utterly petrified. (But don't think for a second that these films can't also be enjoyed by non-weenies!)
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) - Oh hello, possible singlehanded launch of German Expressionism and inspiration for Tim Burton's entire career. If you like shadowy, lopsided sets with unusual angles and very unnatural-looking people (and who doesn't?), this one's for you. Full of twists and turns and years ahead of its time, you'd be doing yourself a disservice by skipping out on what some consider the film true horror film. And don't avoid it just because it's a silent film - it's short, sprightly and could give any number of talkies a run for their money.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) - The story has been filmed countless times, but I can only vouch for this version, which is regarded as (one of) the best. Fredric March is in fine form, winning a deserved Oscar for his dual performance. Miriam Hopkins is also a standout for her work as the prostitute Ivy, and their scenes together are incredibly risqué (gotta love that pre-Code era!). And let's not forget the transformation scenes - instead of taking the easy way out and cutting around it with timid camerawork, director Rouben Mamoulian employed a spinning 360-degree shot where the transformation happens progressively before our very eyes (and kept the mechanics of his technique a secret for decades).
The Old Dark House (1932) - As the title suggests, it's your classic oh-noes-our-car-broke-down-in-the-rain-let's-take-shelter-in-this-foreboding-mansion flick, but with a great sense of humor and irreverence. The all-star cast includes Charles Laughton, Boris Karloff, Melvyn Douglas and Raymond Massey (among others) as the kooky/creepy residents of the house and its unfortunate but impeccably witty visitors.
The Invisible Man (1933) - Hard to believe, but Claude Rains' breakout role is one in which he's only momentarily visible. This being The Invisible Man, however, Rains is still very much the main character, and he takes viewers on a snappy and suspenseful ride. The special effects are still astoundingly good today, and I can't even fathom how they were able to create intricate interactions with all kinds of props and people.
Bride of Frankenstein (1935) - To be honest, I was pretty underwhelmed by the original Frankenstein (1931). It's certainly an important chapter in cinematic history, with some good moments and of course Boris Karloff's iconic performance, but it hasn't aged very well as entertainment. On the other hand we have the sequel, which somehow manages to be funny, sad, spooky, campy, and genuine all at once. Some people griped about Karloff's monster learning to speak (only up to about a caveman level), but I think it adds depth to each of the character's many facets - dryly humorous, lonely, destructive, monster, man. (And if you're wondering whether you can skip ahead to Bride without seeing the original, you'll be fine if you have even a totally basic understanding of the Frankenstein story.)
Cat People (1942) - Meow! I thoroughly enjoyed this feline flick, which is considered emblematic of producer Val Lewton's approach - high gloss on a low budget, implying things instead of showing them, and coating the whole affair in dark, dripping shadows. If the presence of 40s psychology, ancient Serbian curses, giant wildcats and bewitching actress Simone Simon doesn't sell you, then believe me when I say that director Jacques Torneur's manipulation of the suspenseful scenes honestly rivals prime Hitchcock.
Gaslight (1944) - No ghoulies or beasties here, but it's a shadowy Victorian thriller that chronicles a descent into madness. Ingrid Bergman nabbed an Oscar for her great leading performance, including a marvelous final scene, and she's ably supported by Charles Boyer, Angela Lansbury, and Dame May Whitty - not to mention a spooky house that seems to be turning on her. Director George Cukor proved himself to be just as skilled with Gothic chillers as with the urbane comedies he's known for.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) - Invasion flicks from the 50s that may or may not have symbolized fears of Communism are a dime a dozen, but this is arguably the definitive one. What sets it apart, I think, is that while many of its peers succumbed to hysteria and (perhaps unintentional) camp, IotBS keeps a pretty detached and serious approach despite its modest means. There are no giant ooky creatures, just plant pods that eventually turn into people identical to ones you know. There's no blood and guts, just a barely perceptible transformation into a high-functioning zombie. Very tense, taut, and effective. "You're next!"
Horror of Dracula (1958) - Eager to delve into the world of Hammer Horror, I started with one of their most famous titles and was not disappointed. With all due respect to the original Lugosi Dracula from 1931, that film - like the original Frankenstein - reads more as a historical artifact than entertainment (at least to me). Hammer's version has two major things going for it: sumptuous Technicolor and a lack of American prudishness. Thus we get to witness bold erotic undertones and gloriously bright red blood spurting out of the staked chests of numerous victims. The plot's pretty twisty too - the focus keeps shifting between characters, and I'm not sure that there's ever a definite protagonist. Plus, the ending kicks ass.
Cape Fear (1962) - Not exactly a horror movie, but Max Cady (Robert Mitchum) is one of the most deliciously sinister villains ever, and the ominous lighting turns otherwise friendly suburbs and lakeside cabins into claustrophobic nightmares. But the scariest part is the well-exploited truth that police can't really protect you from a dangerous person swearing revenge until they actually strike, leaving the audience feeling as helpless as the terrorized Bowden family.
The Raven (1963) - Roger Corman directs the holy horror trio of Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre and Vincent Price - plus an insanely young Jack Nicholson! And it's kind of a spoof comedy! All the fixings are here - dark castles, black magic, nefarious schemes - but with hammy performances and a hearty wink to the audience. You could probably even watch it with kids, if they're okay with the somewhat relaxed pace.
Plus a couple of recent picks:
Shaun of the Dead (2004) - Horror and comedy may seem like strange bedfellows, but it was a natural and common pairing in the 30s. Shaun rocks it like it never went out of style, combining the British comedy trifecta of Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and director Edgar Wright for what was called a "romzomcom." It does get rather scary and even heartwrenching at times, but it's balanced well by the fantastically smart comedy and I'm sure most weenies can stomach it. Did I mention it's hilarious?
Zombieland (2009) - Another romzomcom (who would have thought that that phrase could have multiple applications?), but with a lighter tone than Shaun despite its more dire circumstances. The talented cast has great chemistry, and of course there's That Cameo which despite being spoiled all over the internet is still amazing.
And to augment your viewing, might I suggest a liberal sprinkling of Looney Tunes? I've been getting back into them lately due to my boyfriend owning all the giant box sets, and I promise that they're as funny as ever. Plus, it can be fun to pair shorts with features. This link offers some viewing ideas to get you started, but make sure you include one of the two cartoons starring the supremely underrated character of Gossamer. Because he's a giant red monster that wears only sneakers.
This is truly only the tip of the iceberg and includes just the movies I can vouch for personally. However, my Halloween list for future years keeps growing, and if you too are hungry for more I've included some links for exploring other fantastic but weenie-friendly fare.
Classic Universal horror
Val Lewton's RKO films
Films directed by Roger Corman
Happy Halloween, everyone! I've got a full slate of flicks lined up for the weekend, but I'm afraid that those will appear in next year's installment. In the meantime, what are your favorite Halloweenie flicks?