10. Dead Silence (2007)
Nothing feels like Halloween quite like a good ghost story, and James Wan’s creepy little chiller has grown on me over the years. When it was first released, I think I was just too caught up in chasing the dragon of Saw to properly appreciate that Wan and co-writer Leigh Whannell were intent on letting that dragon fly far away. Save for the presence of Charlie Clouser and a twist ending, Dead Silence couldn’t be further removed from the grungy, gory aesthetic of its predecessor. Instead, it billows with the stuff of macabre, gothic horror: creepy dolls, a dilapidated grand guignol theater, and a local legend that refuses to stay the stuff of campfire lore. Perhaps we should have known that Wan would spend the next decade-plus of his career doing this sort of thing because it’s all on display here, from the intricately orchestrated jolts to the fiendish ghouls that haunt the screen. The whole thing just feels like a candy-colored Halloween night story told beneath bed covers illuminated by flashlights, right down to the breathless, wacky twist that feels like it was inspired by a sugar rush.
What’s Halloween without a little bit of witchcraft? Not nearly as fun, especially if you don’t carve out some room for some wildly bewitching fare when your marathon is in need of some delirium. The title of this seminal Shaw Brothers film says it all: it’s here to cast a spell over your evening by transporting you to the lunatic plane of Hong Kong horror, where evil magicians can wreak havoc—for the right price, of course. Black Magic doesn’t seem like the stuff of horror, at least not at first. Rather, it’s more like a black comedy of errors that unfolds when a conniving woman (Tanny Tien) will stop at nothing to gain the affection of a man (Ti Lung) who will have nothing to do with her. Enter Shan Chien-mi (Ku Feng), a warlock who lives in a secluded forest and conjures up a potent spell for the desperate woman. Little does either of them know, however, that this will touch off a series of escalating madness that will climax with a rival sorcerer (Ku Wen-chung) challenging him to a duel precariously perched upon a construction site. Black Magic is all vibes, as the kids say: sporting ethereal, foggy sets, gruesome rituals, weird charms, and a climatic laser-light spectacular, it’s a raucous, candy-colored brain-melter.
Sporting two staples of any respectable Halloween marathon (gothic horror and Christopher Lee), this West German creepshow is a delightfully macabre riff on a familiar theme. Sure, plenty of unsuspecting travelers have sought refuge in a castle lorded over by Lee before, but this bunch—an ill-fated theatrical troupe—must contend with a ghastly gauntlet of horrors before they ever arrive. There’s Dart (Luciano Pigozzi), an aggrieved member of the company who gets kicked out following a bar room brawl, who has vowed revenge; there’s an eerie desolation in the area, complete with dead birds impossibly perched in the trees; there’s an old witch nearby whose cryptic warnings may belie her own sinister motives. By the time the troupe meets Lee’s Drago, he feels like a hospitable oasis in a desert of horrors. Okay, maybe he’s a little too preoccupied with embalming, and maybe he’s a little too enamored with actress Laura (Gaia Germani), but Lee’s shifty performance keeps the familiar premise tilted just enough off its axis until its titular house of horrors gives up its ghosts. Soaked in gothic ambiance and boasting a ghoulish menagerie of corpses, this Castle of the Living Dead is full of tricks and treats.
Ever since John Carpenter immortalized The Thing From Another World as a Halloween night staple, I’ve often tried to reserve a spot for 50s sci-fi. Something about the era captures the spirit of the kind of Monster Movies that fare especially well in October, when tales of space that tap into the terror of the vast, cosmic void just hit differently. Don’t ask me to show my math, and if I’m being honest, I just know a “Halloween” movie when I see one most of the time, but First Man into Space just feels like the type of movie whose natural habitat is a block of late-night programming for some hazy, over-the-air network with a spotty signal. Given our modern conveniences, those barely exist anymore, but this 1959 chiller still works all the same, blending visceral horror with existential terror as its titular hero (Bill Edwards) descends into utter, bloodthirsty madness. His murderous countryside rampage is creature feature catnip, full of mangled bodies and fog-shrouded landscapes, and it largely unfolds with that 50s genre je-ne-sais-quois that whispers in your ear, insisting its horrors are fanciful and harmless. What a stunner it is, then, when First Man into Space takes a detour into abject body horror that prefigures the flesh-melting, soul-rotting existential dread of David Cronenberg. By the end of the film, our formerly heroic first man is an inhuman husk of haywire viscera, a ghastly sight that reminds us that we’re all just a tangled mass of atoms that can be rewired by a cold, unfeeling universe at a moment’s notice.
Since it won’t be safe to attend actual haunts again this year, let’s start off with the next best thing: Scary Movie, a southern-fried 16mm oddity that finds John Hawkes bumbling through the type of homespun haunt that peppers every rural landscape come fall. You know the type: the ones haunted by folks who walked straight in from their day shift at the local plant, trading in their hard hat for a latex mask. Ketchup gore soaks the walls as the good old boys and girls plug away, doing their best to scare the wits out of the eager patrons. This bunch might be too good at it because they’ve convinced hapless dweeb Warren (Hawkes, channeling Buster Keaton of all people) that this haunt is actually deadly. Convinced that he must expose the killing spree, he slinks into every crevice and corner of the place, allowing viewers to hitch a ride through one of the quaintest, backwoods Texas haunted attractions you’ll ever see. The movie strings them along by making them question Warren’s sanity and wondering what’s actually going on, but it really doesn’t matter. What’s more important is that Scary Movie captures the sensation of hanging out at a hillbilly haunt, from standing in line in blustery weather to being tickled by the low-rent frights and other flourishes, like a sign above the entrance that says “abandon hope all y’all who enter here.” Eat your heart out with Karo syrup, Dante.
We’re staying off the beaten path for this year’s anthology selection, which takes us just east from Scary Movie's Texas tourist trap to Arkansas for a triptych of terror (partially) narrated by Rod Serling, whose unmistakable baritone lends an extra layer of austere spookiness. Fair warning: this one prioritizes mood and atmosphere over plot, as the three segments amount to threadbare campfire tales: a woman curses the three boys who inadvertently killed her son in a prank, a farmer finds a mysterious hole that emits a hellish fog, and a spectral hitchhiker tries in vain to return home. Encounter is a distinctively creaky, rickety omnibus that barely feels like it’s been stitched together by an enterprising huckster who needed to fill up 90 minutes at the drive-in. It warbles on, its repetitive rhythms becoming something like an invocation or an enchantment before it lingers on with a 15-minute coda that strains to connect its trio with pseudoscientific hokum, musing upon the nature of death, fear, and the supernatural. This one is best reserved for the midnight hour, when your weary brain is more likely to relent to its hypnotic charms.
Your mandatory dosage of unhinged Eurohorror schlock this year comes courtesy of Primal Rage, one of those productions that has me convinced there was actual magic to be found when the Italians went down to Florida to raise absolute hell in the late-80s. I don’t know if this one reaches the unhinged heights of Cruel Jaws or Nightmare Beach, but it has a similar devil-may-care, party-time energy that starts the minute you hear its infectious theme song and see whatever the hell is going on with Bo Svenson’s hair. Speaking of infectious, this one’s about an experimental “rage virus” that engulfs a college campus after an investigative journalist frees an infected baboon. His flesh melts and his mind deteriorates, sending him on a brutal killing spree that finds him spreading the virus even further. Among the infected: a trio of meat-headed punks who were prone to raping girls before their brains were addled by a virus. Like Svenson’s confounding hair, Primal Rage is business in the front—it does take some time to get going—and a party in the back, as the delirious campus party climax redefines the meaning of “Halloween bash.” Effects legend Carlo Rambaldi and his son (Vittorio, who directs) stage some impressive mayhem here, deploying retractable gym stairs and axes to dispatch the infected, all while the killer theme song is reprised at the dance. Who needs to attend an actual Halloween party when you have this?
Keep the late-80s party going with Waxwork, one of the all time great monster bashes ever put on screen. The familiar plot—which sounds like it could have easily yielded the era’s typical mayhem—finds a group of unsuspecting college kids entering a local wax museum, blissfully unaware that owner David Lincoln (David Warner) is plotting their demise. Not content to wield axes or machetes to carry out his carnage, Lincoln wields black magic to bring his displays and their various creatures alive to ensnare his victims, making them a permanent part of the waxwork. Arguably Anthony Hickox’s finest hour, Waxwork is a wonderful grab bag of a movie, one that delivers up iconic ghouls: werewolves, vampires, and even the Phantom of the Opera. It’s a candy-colored treat that couches vintage thrills in contemporary splatter movie theatrics. In short, it delivers everything you need from a Halloween horror-thon hit as it bridges the gap between the gothic past and the raucous, gore-soaked present.
As the witching hour approaches, let Rob Zombie take your marathon’s reins with The Lords of Salem, a nightmarish drone tone poem that’s paradoxically repulsive and entrancing. As Heidi LaRoc descends into the depths of a personal hell, the film is tough to watch, and not in the squeamish sort of way we associate with Zombie’s typical gore-soaked, grimy-covered brand of horror. Rather, it’s legitimately heartbreaking to watch this woman fall prey to bewitching forces that have returned from the grave to exact vengeance for ancestor’s sins, forcing her to lapse back into a drug addiction that may claim her before the witches can. And yet, The Lords of Salem is utterly transfixing despite this because Zombie fashions this downward spiral with a surrealist verve that’s unlike just about anything else he’s done to date. His climax here goes grandiose and impressionist, with a tapestry of bizarre imagery that feels beamed straight out of a nightmare your weary brain might be longing to have during the waning hours of your marathon, when the sugar rush has worn off and the “Monster Mash” has wound down. All that’s left is the insidious comedown of another All Hallow’s Eve, a specific, somber sort of dreariness that’s harnessed in this film’s bleak, despairing loneliness.
As the dead of Halloween night rolls into a cold, November morning, the time has truly come to tell the tale. John Irvin’s moody chiller distills Peter Straub’s sprawling, cross-generation tome to its elemental frights, capturing a group of men caught in the icy grip of a haunting they unwittingly unleashed decades earlier. Featuring an illustrious roster of Hollywood’s royalty (Fred Astaire, Melvyn Douglas, Douglas Fairbanks Jr, John Houseman), Ghost Story is exactly the kind of story the Chowder Society might pass around the fireplace: moody, weird, and just downright unnerving in the way it unfolds with a deliberate, fatalistic dread. What it most captures, however, is the cold, dreary desolation of Straub’s novel: a town and its most respected citizens frozen by an otherworldly menace conjured from the mists of the past as a bleak winter sets in. It’s a shiver that runs down your spine for 110 minutes, and there’s no better time for it than now, when another season of Halloween revelry dwindles down for another year, the specter of winter looming just in the distance.
Previous Halloween lists: 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017,2018, 2019, 2020
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