10. Phantasm (1979)
I love films with a dreamlike (or perhaps itís nightmare-like) quality Ė films with a fluid logic which challenges itself as much as it does the viewer, but that works well enough that, as with a nightmare, you simply accept whatís happening because it is happening. Having just seen the fifth and final installment in Don Coscarelliís Phantasm franchise, Ravager, I was moved to revisit the original classic. For me, Phantasm is the waking nightmare at its finest.
Themes of death and loss are, through the lens of a young protagonist, made manifest and explored as a surreal mystery packed with alien horrors. The fight against the Tall Man celebrates the bond between friends and brothers as much as it blurs the line between fantasy and reality. That said, I wouldnít necessarily consider Phantasm an emotionally heavy viewing experience. Its frightful offerings appeal to the kid in me as much as the adult. That balance is struck most effectively by the original film, making it perfect Halloween viewing in my household Ė sparking childhood nostalgia, mature introspection, and just enough of that uncertain nightmare logic to give both Daves a good old fashioned chill. (Dave Dunwoody)
Pre-code horror is gnarly in its own unique way. While these films obviously arenít as graphic or explicit as films from later decades, itís jarring when films from this era dare to tread anywhere near lurid material. Classic horror often carries a reputation for being quaint and proper, but it must be noted that filmmakers have been consistently looking to fuck us up since, well, foreveróhence the advent of the Hays Code itself. Among the films that may have influenced the codesí stricter enforcement in 1934 is Supernatural, an unrepentantly sleazy (for its time, mind you) display of revenge and murder. Opening quotes from Confucius, the Bible, and even the prophet Mohammed on the topic of undead spirits yields to a newsreel documenting the impending execution of Ruth Rogen (a remorseless, venomous Vivienne Osborne), a murderess convicted for the slaying of several former lovers. In a refusal to shy away from the nature of her crimes, the film has Rogen delight in the sadism of these murders, allowing her to detail her great pleasure at having strangled these men to death.
It gets better, as Rogenís revenge plot breathlessly weaves its way through a phony spiritualist (Alan Dinehart), an heiress (Carole Lombard) reeling from the death of her brother, and a scientist convinced he needs to contain the executed vixenís spirit before it can escape to possess others with its madness. While this type of material is essentially a grab-bag of horror preoccupations from this era, the demented, almost enthralled tone of Supernatural is noteworthy. This is a movie thatís plotting a ghastly combination of possession and murder, and itís having a damn good time while doing so. Look no further than Lombardís sly double performance as proof: once her body is inhabited by the deranged spirit of Ruth Rogen, her face contorts into the sharp, angular gesticulations of an insane person having a deliriously evil out-of-body experience. Victor Halperinís follow-up to White Zombie has understandably rested in the shadow of that landmark picture, but it wasnít for lack of trying by any meansóSupernatural is a wicked effort in its own right. (Brett Gallman)
With the exception of one obvious franchise, I donít typically watch many slashers for October. A genre that typically thrives on sunny, splattery summer vibes doesnít play quite as well once the calendar breezes by the equinox. However, if thereís one movie thatís definitely exempt from this, itís the one that boasts Fall Break as an alternate title. That itís full of radical, ghastly gore also helps, of course, but, more than that, The Mutilator flips the slasher aesthetic on its head. Gone is the sun-splashed, summer camp ambiance, here replaced by a sleepy, moonlit seaside atmosphere thatís haunting as hell, all things considered.
While the film will always be far more infamous for its wild opening scene, infectious theme song, and outrageous splatter, I canonize it on this list for its genuinely terrific atmosphere. Unfolding with a recognizably autumn chill at its back, The Mutilator captures the seasonís bummer vibes: what was once a bustling seaside town has closed up shop until next year, leaving behind empty houses and desolate beaches. Most effective slashers require that foreboding sense of isolation, and this one is thick with it, making it a perfect candidate for ďwhen the leaves of summer turn red and goldÖĒ (Brett Gallman)
Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee became a legendary horror duo largely because of their frequent collaborations at Hammer Films. Typically, one of those team-ups would be a go-to for an annual October bingeónothing quite says Halloween quite like those garish, gothic-tinged efforts. However, Horror Express is arguably their best outing that didnít fall under either the Hammer or Amicus banners. It also happens to be one of the few productions outside of the duoís native England, as this saw the two (along with Telly Savalas!) boarding a train straight into Eurohorror territory for Eugenio Martinís riff on John W. Campbellís ďWho Goes There?Ē
Set aboard the claustrophobic Trans-Siberian Express, it features the two horror icons teaming together (a rarity, given the typically antagonistic dynamic in most films) to fend off a mysterious evil spreading through the train like a plague. Stemming from the recently-discovered frozen remains of a (now revived) primitive creature, the epidemic leaves victims with hollowed-out minds and empty, white eyes, creating an undead horde that will be unleashed during the climax. But until that gruesome outburst, Horror Express thrives on a chilling, spooky atmosphere, one thatís heightened by the desolate, wintry surroundings and John Cacavasís evocative, haunting score. Guiding the proceedings throughout is that vague, dream-like tenor that defines Eurohorror, its dim, dreariness perfectly capturing that feeling of a waking nightmare. Temperatures are currently (and inexplicably) approaching the 80s as I post this list, but one jaunt on the Horror Express is enough to send a much-needed chill up my spine. (Brett Gallman)
An honest-to-god phenomena the likes of which is rarely seen, The Blair Witch Project took America by storm in the summer of 1999, largely on the back of a marketing campaign that blurred the line between fiction and reality. This was an event that resulted in a larger-than-life hysteria surrounding the movie: you didnít just go see Blair Witch as much as you experienced it. Instrumental in this was Curse of the Blair Witch, a ďdocumentaryĒ that aired on the Sci-Fi Channel weeks before the filmís theatrical release. Where The Blair Witch Project is actually light on the sordid details of its mythology, Curse fills out the backstory by detailing the centuriesí worth of legends surrounding its title character. To this day, it remains one of the most intriguing efforts in world-building ever realized: a multi-textual, cross-media exercise in storytelling that added an unprecedented dimension to its final product.
But even without The Blair Witch Project, Curse remains a fun curiosity, as itís essentially 45 minutes of lurid campfire material, with its stories spanning generations. Its stone-faced commitment to its faux-documentary aesthetic makes it more than a simple bonus featureóin many ways, it is the essential story of the Blair Witch since the actual films treat the mythology as an atmospheric backdrop. From its 18th and 19th century newspaper accounts to the disturbing, grainy footage documenting the infamous Rustin Parr murders, Curse of the Blair Witch is a treat for anyone looking to delight in urban legends near Halloween. (Brett Gallman)
By 1979, The Exorcist rip-off craze had been in full force for the better part of a decade, leading one to assume that maybe the whole thing would have been tapering off, ready to expire with a desperate whimper. Even a cursory glance at The Manitou makes it abundantly clear that his was not exactly the case. If weíre being reductive (and culturally insensitive, as the 70s were wont to be), this one will forever be known as the Native American riff on Friedkin's classic. Itís got a hell of a pedigree for such a log-line too, as it boasts William Girdler directing the likes of Tony Curtis, Susan Strasberg, and Burgess Meredith through an increasingly unhinged plot. Curtis and Strasberg are ex-lovers whose paths cross when the latter begins to develop a mysterious tumorÖ
Öthat winds up being the physical manifestation of a long-dead shaman looking to reincarnate himself in the 20th century.
I just thought that part of the logline deserved its own space to itself to let it truly sink in. Rest assured that The Manitou more than lives up to its trash potential. Every October marathon deserves at least one completely outrageous, unhinged joint to completely melt your candy-addled brain, and The Manitou fits the bill to a T. By the end, thereís only one question: is this merely a great Exorcist rip-off, or is it the absolute greatest? When crafting your response, please consider that itís the only one that features a topless Susan Strasberg shooting lasers from her eyes during its climax. (Brett Gallman)
It is my honest hope that We Are Still Here be remembered as the ultimate severing of the eye to Lucio Fulci and an era of horror that Maestro not only achieved utmost success, but demands absolute fucking respect. On this very list in 2011 our #4 Halloween pick was the immortal House by the Cemetery, a film that not only cemented everything I loved and continue to adore about horror amidst an artist's catalog of horror cinema not within grasp to myself, who never got to even read about the man. Apropos, Fulci left us a couple years before I ever learned his name. If every year, people dress in costumes to ward off evil spirits on October 31, Lucio Fulci would be the one the spirit they want to fend off. In his prime, no man has ever laid a more solid foundation in horror history and it took until 2015 until writer/director Ted Geoghegan and a cast that includes Barbara Crampton to capture his spirit.
A more admirable feat will never again be accomplished. Even though I haven't directly mentioned much about We Are Still Here so far, my word that itís the utmost spiritual successor to Fulciís work says it all. If you've ever turned on the TV late at night and listened to Fabio Frizzi accentuate scene and scene again (hah!) of a vision of madness, that is the epitome of Halloween and horror personified, and Geoghegan recaptures that magic in this love letter. From my most inexperienced days as a horror geek at 18, I always wished somehow I could see a true sequel to Fulci from beyond the grave. Without question, this is that film I longed for. J&B on me, fellas! (Brett H.)
Clocking in at 183 minutes, Kwaidan is practically a marathon unto itself. Anthologies are rarely so epic and sprawling in nature, as the quartet of tales here unfolds patiently and with the still silence whispered folklore. Adaptations of classic Japanese ghost stories, the four segments are an enthralling mixture of the ghastly and the gorgeous. Director Masaki Kobayashi luxuriates in each increasingly bizarre and lurid tale, allowing the audience to drink in every rich texture, be it hushed panic of most of its protagonists or the otherworldly aesthetics.
Every frame of the film feels haunted in some way, almost as if it were transmitted from a spectral dimension. Despite its lengthy runtime, it still somehow seems as fleeting and flitting as the spirits floating through its painterly landscapes. Where most anthologies aim to thrill the reptilian part of our brain that craves stomach-churning gore and delightful, revenge-landed twists, Kwaidan is perched on a melancholy fault line, one that straddles the living and the dead, the real and the unreal. (Brett Gallman)
Val Lewtonís career was defined by shadows and fog, as his productions often thrived on mood and ambiance. This is also true of the largely under-heralded The Seventh Victim, where a sinister, labyrinthine plot adds another dimension to his signature shadow-play. An incredibly bleak film for this era, it centers on Mary (Kim Hunter), a young school student in search of her missing sister Jaqueline. (Jean Brooks). After leaving the safe, accommodating confines of her Catholic boarding school, she finds herself on the terrifying, ruthless streets of New York City (the same streets that would once provide a grimy stage for all sorts of sleazy classics prefigured here, however faintly).
Surrounded by reticent strangers and leering subway onlookers, sheís plunged into an enormously lurid plot involving actual Satanists and their scheme to coax the missing sister into suicide. Finding a film from this time period that tackles such shocking material is quite rare; finding one that dares to do so this unflinchingly is even rarer. Quite possibly Lewtonís most unsung masterpiece, The Seventh Victim is a mean but bewitching piece of work, one that leads the audience into the dark, menacing shadows that protrude in plain sight. Every faceóno matter how helpful or invitingóis suspect in a conspiracy that reinforces both the banality of evil and the sweet release death provides for outsiders like Jacqueline. (Brett Gallman)
For years, I have never been able to quite pinpoint just why I love the very specific feel of Herschel Gordon Lewisís work. While the recently deceased Godfather of Gore obviously built his reputation on the blood-spattered backs of outlandish, ahead-of-their-time splatter movies, Iím not quite sure he was ever given enough credit for crafting a signature, genuinely indelible aesthetic. Something about the combination of charming hucksterism and the low-budget, handcrafted, letís-just-make-a-movie-because-we-can mantra has always appealed to me. Recently, it clicked: these films are pretty much the cinematic equivalent of a backwoods carnival, right down to the cheap gags and the hayseed atmosphere. I love the grungy photography, and the droning, almost anachronistic scores that came to define this drive-in masterís fare.
Never was this more acutely realized than it was in Two Thousand Maniacs, HGLís delightfully wrong-headed tale that finds a group of vacationing Northerners taking a wrong turn into a Confederate town celebrating an annual festival. What follows is an actual carnival of sorts, complete with deadly riffs on classic attractions, such as a barrel roll and a dunk tank. Itís shameless, bare-faced exploitation that simply asks the audience to revel in the horrific fates of innocent people. That itís delivered via the most precious little ghost story this side of a rural haunted attraction makes it even more charming. You could easily imagine an amateur troupe putting together something like this for locals seeking cheap thrills, but HGL did it on camera, in front of an entire world thatís probably still yet to quite catch up to his peculiar tastes. (Brett Gallman)
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