Commentary by James Berardinelli
October 23, 1996

It's easy to have fun on Halloween, even if you are too old to go Trick or Treating. Halloween parties have always been an acceptable alternative for adults, but the growing popularity of the VCR during the last decade and a half has led to a new Halloween tradition: sitting in front of the TV and watching scary movies without the onus of a commercial break every fifteen minutes. After all, there's no better way to kill tension than to cut away at the wrong time.

When it comes to picking movies for Halloween night, there are so many choices out there that it's tough to go wrong, especially if you have an appreciation for cheesy, silly, or downright bad motion pictures. Somehow, for this kind of activity, quality rarely becomes a primary factor in making a decision. As long as a film offers a few scares, who cares if it makes sense, is well- acted, or has good dialogue? Of course, Halloween movie-watching often isn't a solo event. It's best to gather together a group of like-minded friends, turn off the lights, and start the show. Refreshments, especially those of the alcoholic variety, cannot fail to be an asset.

There are the classics, of course. Who can forget Bela Lugosi drawling, "The Children of the Night. What beautiful music they make?" Or Boris Karloff lumbering around with bolts sticking out of his neck. Or Lon Chaney Jr. growing hair on the palms of his hands. The old monster movies of the '30s and '40s -- everything from King Kong to Dracula to The Wolfman -- still offer their share of scares and thrills, even if you've seen them so many times you can mouth the dialogue along with the characters. Dracula is my personal favorite -- its keen sense of style and atmosphere was unrivaled by any of its various contemporaries, sequels, or rip-offs. And no one, not even Karloff in full Frankenstein monster regalia, can beat Lugosi, the most imitated vampire in the history of motion pictures. If you're into silent films, Lon Chaney's The Phantom of the Opera and Max Schreck's Nosferatu make for a great non-vocal double feature.

Of course, some people don't like black-and-white movies. So, helpfully, Hollywood has remade almost all of these classics in color. Of course, the "updated" versions don't match the originals, but that's often the price of progress. Dracula has been done so many times that you'd need a book to keep track of the different versions. Seemingly everyone, from Christopher Lee to Louis Jordan to Frank Langella to Gary Oldman to Leslie Nielsen (!), has played the Count. Actors like Laurence Olivier, Anthony Hopkins, and Peter Cushing have been Van Helsing. If you're not picky about which Dracula you get, chances are that your local video store will have something. And, while Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula is okay, your best bet is probably the Louis Jordan adaptation (if you can find it). Not only is it the most faithful to the source material, but it's a creepy way to spend two and a half hours.

Frankenstein has been re-made just about as many times, with actors like Christopher Lee (again), Randy Quaid, David (Darth Vader) Prowse, and Robert DeNiro taking the monster's role. Most of the recent adaptations have strayed away from the horror realm into melodrama, although there are still a few scares and shocks to be found. Kenneth Branagh's lavish version is an exercise in high camp, and, as such, is perfect for a Halloween celebration.

There are plenty of recent werewolf movies, few of which are particularly noteworthy. Jack Nicholson's Wolf (directed by Mike Nichols) clawed its way to the top of the weekly box office tallies back in June 1994, and is worth a look. In 1989, Joe Dante (Gremlins) did a semi-spoof, semi-serious film called The Howling. Other than that, the Wolfman field is rather barren, unless you're willing to subject yourself to things like Teen Wolf or An American Werewolf in London (soon to have a sequel called An American Werewolf in Paris).

If vampires, werewolves, and misshapen monsters aren't your cup of blood, there are plenty of other choices, from Edgar Allen Poe adaptations to the ever-popular slasher genre. The latter, after dominating theaters during the '80s, appears to have died an ignominious death in the '90s. The end was inevitable, though -- there are only so many ways you can tweak a formula that involves kids having sex then getting butchered.

The granddaddy of them all is John Carpenter's Halloween, which bowed in 1978 as an ultra low-budget indie that proved to have amazing legs. The film ran and ran and ran, and never sputtered. It became one of the very few modern American horror classics, offering more chills and thrills per minute than anything since Hitchcock in his heyday. Carpenter made this one perfectly -- a touch of nudity, a touch of gore, and a nonstop string of shocks and scares. For a whole generation of horror fans, the Halloween theme has become synonymous with the holiday.

Halloween spawned five sequels. None are worthy of the title. The second movie is repetitive and tedious (although can be entertaining when paired with the first), and worth watching solely for Donald Plesance's over-the-top performance. The third, which has nothing in common with its predecessors or successors, is a pointless waste of time. The fourth has its high points, including a seemingly-daring ending, but is still on a significantly lower than the original. The fifth is a plotless gore-fest, and the sixth is virtually unwatchable -- on any occasion except during a home Halloween movie party.

The success of Halloween led to the Friday the Thirteenth series, which was a worthless exercise in bare breasts and fountaining blood from beginning to end. A Nightmare on Elm Street evidenced some creativity, especially in the first film, but quickly became a cash cow. And, though Michael, Jason, and Freddy were the big three, there were others. Remember Chucky from the Child's Play series? Or how about Pinhead from Clive Barker's Hellraiser?

Still, all of this is old hat. What if you want to see something a little different, a little offbeat? There, I have a few suggestions. Not all of these are good movies in the traditional sense (in fact, at least one is truly awful), but, on a night like Halloween, it doesn't really matter. So, for those who choose to eschew the classics, remakes, and slashers, here's a list of thirteen possibilities for a gleefully grotesque movie massacre marathon.

Army of Darkness: In fact, any of Sam Raimi's Evil Dead series makes a good choice, but, of the three films, Army of Darkness is the easiest to get, and the most delightfully campy. I mean, where else can you find a Three Stooges skit with skeletons as Larry, Curly, and Moe? Not only is this film very funny, but it's a lot of fun. There are some delightful winks at older films (including, most obviously, The Day the Earth Stood Still), and Bruce Campbell gives us the kind of atypical hero it's easy to root for, even if his favorite word is "Groovy!"

Cemetery Man: Take Suspiria and cross it with Army of Darkness, and Cemetery Man is a good approximation of what you might come up with. Bizarre in the extreme, wildly funny, and excessively gory, this film is a must-see for anyone who appreciates intentionally-campy, inventive horror films. Cemetery Man is an entertaining experience on any night of the year, but, for Halloween, it's an inspired choice. And, despite being an Italian production, the movie is in English.

Cronos: This Mexican vampire story was a film festival hit back in 1994. Cronos freely changes and builds upon traditional legends. In this movie, vampires don't have fangs, they aren't affected by crucifixes or holy water, and their actions aren't shrouded with latent eroticism. The undead here are a different breed, although no less terrifying, although they're still vulnerable to a stake through the heart. Those with a taste for the unusual will enjoy Cronos, although, be warned -- it's in Spanish with subtitles.

Fright Night: An occasionally-scary, modern-day undead tale with Chris Sarandon redefining the vampire as a sexy creature of the night who dates models and frequents dance clubs. Roddy McDowell is a riot as the washed up late night monster movie host who is forced to come face-to-face with the real thing. The movie has a tendency to get silly, but it's the kind of film that will provoke you to walk a little more quickly if you go outside soon after watching it.

From Dusk Till Dawn: Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez's contribution to the vampire genre, and, as one might expect, it's violent, gory, and irreverent. This story is about a bunch of Americans who get trapped in a south- of-the-border saloon where most of the employees are card-carrying bloodsuckers. Instead of resorting to the usual stakes and vials of holy water, however, the good guys (played by George Clooney and Harvey Keitel) pull out the heavy artillery. From Dusk Till Dawn is campy and very silly, but will make a perfect double-feature with Cemetery Man or Army of Darkness.

Haunted: A somewhat slow-moving, but occasionally very scary British ghost story featuring Aidan Quinn, Kate Beckensale, and Sir John Gielgud. Light on gore but heavy on chills, Haunted is an excellent choice for anyone in search of a good, old-fashioned scare. While the film isn't beyond using a few cheap tricks to achieve its ultimate aim, this is a mostly- straightforward story that relies more on acting and plot than special effects.

The Mangler: This is a really bad movie. I mean, really bad. It's in my all-time bottom 10, but, seen in the right company on the right night, I can see how The Mangler might offer ninety minutes worth of Plan Nine from Outer Space-type entertainment. This one's not for passive viewing, however. It demands audience participation. After all, where else can you find homicidal refrigerators and man-eating laundry presses? A movie this bad needs to be seen to be believed, and there's a certain perverse satisfaction in experiencing something this masochistic.

Mary Reilly: Slow and atmospheric, Mary Reilly is more of a drama than a horror movie, despite being a re-telling of Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Nevertheless, for those who are looking for something low-key, eerie, and atmospheric, Mary Reilly is an excellent choice. In addition, it features strong performances by both Julia Roberts and John Malkovich. Of all the films on the list, this is the best by conventional motion picture standards.

Mute Witness: One of the scariest, most underrated low-budget horror/thrillers of the last few years, Mute Witness is a surprisingly slick and well-acted piece for something put together without much of a budget. The story focuses on a mute witness who accidentally stumbles upon the making of a snuff film. The scenes as she's chased by the killers are real nail-biters. Mute Witness also contains a fair amount of sly humor, some intentional campiness, and a cameo by a famous British actor.

Nadja: A horror film for art film lovers. Nadja has a playful, atmospheric quality that successfully obfuscates the frustratingly weak, rambling plot. The film is loosely based on Dracula, with the main vampire being the venerable vampire's daughter. There are a couple of clever conceits, Peter Fonda is fun as Van Helsing, and Elina Lowensohn is deliciously sensual as the undead seductress, but Nadja is only for lovers of offbeat cinema. And it is in black-and-white.

Suspiria: Dario Argento's 1977 horror classic. This one has more gore, more shocks, and more truly terrifying moments than any other movie on this list. There's only one problem for the average movie-goer: it's in Italian. Still, it's a great choice for Halloween night. If your video store has a copy, grab it. Just don't tell anyone it's subtitled. After ten minutes, they'll be so wrapped up that they won't care any more. Art and cult film buffs know about Suspiria. It's about time a larger portion of the public was exposed to it.

Vampire's Kiss: A strange, erratically-written tale starring Nicolas Cage as a man who may (or may not) be turning into a vampire. Even though the plot has its original moments, Cage is the real reason to see this film, which offers a decidedly unusual perspective of the mythicism that surrounds the undead.

Wolfen: Not the greatest werewolf movie around, but one of the most rarely seen. This movie is available on video, although, for some reason, it's exceptionally difficult to find. The story is fairly standard -- New York city cop investigates animal murders and finds out evil spirits may be involved -- but there's a great cast. Albert Finney has the lead, and he's ably assisted by Diane Venora, Edward James Olmos, Gregory Hines, and Tom Noonan. Although it does tend to drag at points, Wolfen boasts a few really creepy sequences.

Regardless of which, if any, of these films you choose to watch in commemoration of the Halloween season, remember that this is one of a few times during the year when bad movies can actually be good.

Next: "Boldly Going...Nowhere? -- Star Trek's Last Motion Picture Gasp"

© 1996 James Berardinelli

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