Andy Bockelman: New and vintage — the best in Halloween in creature features
Different horror movies can still produce the same results of terror
October 28, 2010
Just as "Sleepless in Seattle" gets demand viewing on Valentine's Day and the old family cassette of "It's a Wonderful Life" gets a little more worn out each Christmas Eve, so does the movie-viewing world spark to life come the end of October.
With hundreds of choices in what to view during Halloween, it's hard to pick out what can give you the best fright, especially if you're picky about what makes your skin crawl.
For the best results, you need to know what subgenre scares you the most and what kind of style is sure to unnerve you, be it a classic approach or the newer, raw tactic that filmmakers have been developing in recent years.
Below are some suggestions for both:
• Classic: "The Shining"
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Writer Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) accepts a job as the winter caretaker of the Overlook Hotel, moving his wife and son (Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd) across the country while he works on his craft. The weeks of isolation combined with the building's horrific history soon drives the patriarch into a murderous rage.
Director Stanley Kubrick butchers Stephen King's novel and sets a poor pace as the insanity escalates but nonetheless creates one of the most terrifying movies of all time.
Between elevators overflowing with blood, the rotting corpse in Room 237 and Nicholson's pursuit of his son through the hotel's hedge maze, it's impossible to pick the top horrific moment.
However, the chanting of "Redrum" still scares me out of my mind.
• Newbie: "Paranormal Activity"
A young couple (Katie Featherston, Micah Sloat) set up a camera in the bedroom of their new suburban home to determine whether or not evil spirits are haunting them. But, the more they provoke the other-wordly realm, the more the unseen forces progress from slamming doors shut in the middle of the night to less tolerable tactics.
Debuting director Oren Peli creates an eerie atmosphere in this shoestring budget shocker that generated so much online buzz it led to a worldwide theatrical release. Shot entirely with a handheld camcorder, there's a sense of intimacy between the viewers and the couple in question, making us feel like we're in the same room at all times.
Granted, nobody is gullible enough to believe the pre-show explanation that the footage is completely real, but that doesn't mean it doesn't feel that way.
• Classic: "Alien"
The crew of The Nostromo, a futuristic, interplanetary mining spaceship, finds their mission in jeopardy after they pick up a stowaway — an alien life form that threatens to kill everyone on board.
The setup is pretty simple for the film that made Sigourney Weaver a star as hard-fighting heroine Ellen Ripley, but when compared to science fiction movies that preceded it, it's a shockingly cohesive blend of bloody carnage and female empowerment.
Besides, the unforgettable scene of John Hurt's torso exploding with the vicious little creature — possibly the worst case of indigestion ever captured on celluloid — there's an unbearable tension as the rest of the shipmates try to fend off the beast.
The remainder of the movies in the "Alien" franchise may have gone with more of an action slant without director Ridley Scott's influence, but remember: In space, no one can hear you scream.
• Newbie: "Signs"
Pennsylvania farmer and former clergyman Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) must defend his home as Earth is beset by an invasion of not-so-little green men.
Writer/director M. Night Shyamalan strikes a chord in creating a wonderfully fearful story out of a standard premise. The aliens aren't that impressive, but they need not be when most of the terror comes from always seeing them out of the corner of your eye or hearing them offscreen.
Gibson's character's crisis of faith lends weight to a scenario where believing in a higher power is a sensible reaction when you suddenly start seeing crop circles.
As one of Shyamalan's last good movies, it's almost scarier to see the difference between this and his universally despised adaptation of "Avatar: The Last Airbender." Of course, the summer blockbuster only had the subtitle because apparently, there was already another movie called "Avatar."
• Classic: "Jaws"
The New England tourist town of Amity Island has a problem this Fourth of July holiday. The beaches are unsafe, with a great white shark threatening all who dare to enter the water, leaving the local police chief (Roy Scheider), a shark hunter (Robert Shaw) and an ichthyologist (Richard Dreyfuss) to prevent any more blood from being spilled.
Who needs to think up a good movie monster when nature's perfect killing machine already swims among us?
The creature feature that brought Steven Spielberg to prominence may lose something on an audience used to seeing people ripped apart in every other film they watch, but the sensibilities still ring true. Melded with John Williams' suspenseful musical score, the camera angles from the shark's point of view broke new ground for what was possible in filmmaking sensibilities while still being tremendously entertaining.
And, to think, most of Spielberg's strategies only came about because the mechanical shark kept malfunctioning!
• Newbie: "The Host"
An American mass dumping of chemicals into the Han River spells disaster for the people of South Korea. Over time, all the pollution accumulates into a living, breathing entity with a taste for human flesh, terrorizing people unlucky enough to cross it.
Based on a real-life incident in Seoul, this re-imagining of "Godzilla"-type films hits home with the hideous beast targeting one family in particular. However, the real monsters being criticized are the Korean government and to a certain extent, American influences. The film's scathing commentary reveals the all too true problem that we have a tendency not to clean up our messes.
• Classic: "Halloween"
After 15 years of being locked up, mental patient Michael Myers (Nick Castle) escapes and returns to the neighborhood where he killed his sister (Sandy Johnson) as a child on Halloween night. And, it takes him no time to zero in on new prey: teenager Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis).
Though by no means the first slasher film to hit theaters, John Carpenter's opus set the bar for the soulless killer character type, with Michael undoubtedly one of the most unsettling stalkers ever created, if for no other than reason than the fact that he never utters a sound.
Rob Zombie can make as many new versions of this as he wants, but he'll never come close to creating the same level of creepy ambience.
• Newbie: "Saw"
A doctor (Cary Elwes) and a photographer (Leigh Whannell) find themselves mysteriously chained up in a bathroom with no explanation other than a cryptic message that they are meant to either escape through self-mutilation or by killing one another. And the consequences for non-compliance will be severe.
Before the saga of the Jigsaw Killer (Tobin Bell) became a bloated and torturous series of obligatory sequels, the film that originated the frenzy actually got people thinking. Rather than making a character who merely killed people, writers Whannell and James Wan envisioned someone so devious that he put people in situations in which they must hurt themselves.
Not all the logic holds up, especially as the franchise gets more expository entries, but when you've got people salivating year after year at the catchphrase "I want to play a game," you must be doing something right.
• Classic: "The Exorcist"
All-American 12-year-old girl Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair) begins to exhibit serious psychological and physical problems, worrying her mother, Chris (Ellen Burstyn), to no end. As the behavior gets more and more bizarre, it becomes apparent that something unholy is at work within the young girl, giving Chris no option but to turn to a pair of priests (Max von Sydow, Jason Miller) to save her daughter's soul.
There is almost no equal in the horror world for this striking and terrifying piece of cinema, which is no less unsettling now than it was in 1973. With a revolving head, slimy green vomit and a guttural voice of pure malevolence, few villains can hold a candle to the demon Pazuzu, especially when he's in the body of a prepubescent girl.
It's little wonder that this was the dawn of youngsters becoming the monsters in so many horror flicks.
• Newbie: "The Evil Dead"
A group of college students hole up in a remote cabin for the weekend, discovering "The Book of the Dead." Accidentally triggering an incantation, the rest of the getaway turns into a battle to stay alive as the forces of evil converge on them and turn them against one another.
Only one year away from its 30th anniversary, the movie itself can hardly be called new, but the style in which it was made is exactly what has ushered in so many of the independent horror auteurs of today, who shoot movies on the cheap and never run out of gruesome ideas.
Still, director writer/director Sam Raimi's debut feature has yet to be topped in terms of unbridled graphic horror, with no body part left unmutilated.
A word of advice: Ladies, stay out of the forest.