Weekly Top 5: Halloween Horror Flicks
Generally speaking, it would be fair to say that I am not a person prone to celebration. My house is never decorated for any one particular season or holiday - if at all, really. While my parents always have a Christmas tree in their home in December, I never have since living on my own and do not particularly intend to, either. When people ask me when my birthday is, my standard response is “why?”. My favorite holiday of the year is New Year’s Eve, and my favorite NYE ever was spent on the couch watching The West Wing with my then-feelingsperson while she was folding her laundry. There is one holiday, however, that always gets me in the spirit – and that is the month-long holiday that is Halloween.
Don’t get me wrong – I could not care less about the costumes (though I have some pretty great pun-related costume ideas if anyone out there needs something last minute), the parties, or the candy. Halloween to me is about one thing and one thing only: spooky, scary movies. For me, Halloween begins on October 1st and ends October 31st and is celebrated in the pitch black, the glow of a TV or theater screen the only illumination to be found. I love horror films – an affection to which I am indebted to my mother. You see, she loves horror films. My father, not so much. Not wanting to abandon her love of a good scare, and seeing a potential viewing buddy in her first-born, she decided to mold me in her image. Some of my earliest memories of watching a movie at all stem from my mom’s program of indoctrination – I remember being terrified by Night of the Living Dead at the ripe age of six or seven, followed shortly after by The Birds. I had a solid education in the classical canon of horror films growing up, with an enthusiasm for genre films matched by only a few of my friends.
I came to learn the limitations of my familiarity with horror cinema in college. Living in Memphis, I had the amazing experience of working at Black Lodge Video, then and now one of the largest still-operating* independent video stores in the United States. Nearly two thirds of one entire room in the store was dedicated to horror and sci-fi films - a vast majority of which I’d either never heard of or had but was incapable of finding in my hometown of Franklin, Tennessee, where I grew up. I watched anything and everything I could in the four years I worked at the store, both within my academic interests (I went to school for Soviet film history), as well as other genres such as our horror collection. It was rare to hear the month referred to as “October” unless you were citing a specific date. For the small cabal of clerks and inner-circle friends who made Black Lodge Video what it was, October was simply Halloween. We had a tradition in the store that during Halloween the only things we played during business hours had to be horror films or horror TV series (Twilight Zone, Tales from the Crypt/Darkside, whatever). This later shaped in to a personal tradition of watching at least one horror film a day – this year will be my tenth consecutive October of 31 horror movies.
During my time living in Memphis, I’d return home to Nashville to catch the midnight movies at the Belcourt Theatre and fell in with that crowd. After returning home post-graduation, I got a job at the Belcourt and eventually wound up a front-of-house manager. The people I worked with then included some of the most hardcore cinephiles I have ever had the privilege of knowing, and most of us shared a similar love for serious art films and a good old-fashioned trashy shlock alike. We fervently and enthusiastically shared with each other films we’d all stumbled upon in our own ways and times, be it via beat-to-hell VHS tapes, region-unlocked DVDs, or even sometimes through programming in the theater itself. I like to think that we all enriched each other’s Halloweens. A lifetime of masked killers, ghosts, home invasions, nightmares, puzzle boxes, synth-tastic scores, and dead teenagers has made me look forward to this month every year.
When asked to write a top five list for Broad Varieties, this was the first and only topic I had in mind. The following films are meant to encourage you to dig a little deeper – undervalued sequels, forgotten gems, things you may have never even heard of before this article. Don’t worry, though! This isn’t an exercise in how cool and deep my horror knowledge is – everything on this list can be found easily and immediately. I’ll even list where you can find it. This list is not meant to be a best-of list, nor is it ranked, and I know all too well from reading plenty of lists like this that some omission is going to piss off somebody somewhere. To you, I apologize in advance. You’re probably right - that film belongs on this list. Nevertheless, I sincerely hope these flicks make your Halloween just a little bit spookier from your couch.
1) Messiah of Evil (1973, William Huyck and Gloria Katz, USA)
I first saw this film sitting in the Belcourt Theatre during the second annual 12 Hours of Terror. I had never seen it, though I had passed by the VHS t in the video store tons of times. To this day, it remains one of my favorite films I ever saw for the first time at the Belcourt. It immediately became a staple in my Halloween diet. Without spoiling too much, it is the story of a young woman named Arletty (Marianna Hill) who travels to the town of Point Dune, CA, in search of her artist father from whom she has not heard in a while. What she finds in this sleepy little artist community is a desolate, almost nightmarish beach town that may or may not be hiding something much deeper and more terrifying. What really sells Messiah of Evil for me is the atmosphere it creates – everything feels vaguely menacing, and eventually there’s a good reason for that. The film is slow and likes to linger on things a lot – it has a sort of art-horror vibe that reminds me on Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm – and like many of its contemporaries is rife with sociopolitical commentary. While the actual narrative isn’t the strongest facet of the film, the tone and aesthetic still suck me back inevery single time I watch it.
How To Find It: Home Video via Code Red or DiabolikDVD, streaming via Amazon Prime.
2.) Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1988, Tony Randel, UK/USA)
The Hellraiser franchise is probably the best horror franchise that just completely and totally self-destructed. Every major horror series has its serious clunkers – Freddy’s Dead, basically every Halloween movie after 4, same with Friday the 13th for that matter – but none of them reached the bottom of the straight-to-video barrel quite like Hellraiser did; it’s not a coincidence that all three of the big slasher tentpoles have had modern remakes or reboots that had major theatrical runs, but Hellraiser has not. All the goodwill it built with its initial entries has been trashed.
It’s a damn shame, too, because with Hellraiser, Clive Barker gave us one of the most original visions of horror to achieve mainstream success since the popularization of the slasher. It had atypical villains in Pinhead (steadfastly portrayed by Doug Bradley for eight of the franchise’s ten entries) and his Cenobite crew – they were not the pithy jokesters of Freddy Krueger or Chucky, nor were they the silent stab-happy Michael or Jason. Instead in them we got some kind of articulate, amoral S&M explorers, “angels to some, demons to others” as Pinhead himself explains in the original Hellraiser. Unfortunately this did not gel with the typical slasher formula, and as the franchise aged, Pinhead and crew became more expressly evil and demonic characters. But at least up to Hellbound, what we got was some genuine gold.
Being the first sequel to a popular horror hit, it could be expected and forgiven of Hellbound to be a carbon copy of the original, and at first it seems like it is going that route. Beginning almost immediately after the events of the original Hellraiser, we find Kirsty Cotton (Ashley Lawrence) hospitalized and traumatized from her escape from her family’s home in the original film. Her dad, uncle, and aunt Julia are all in Hell, and nobody believes her. Then, the curious and depraved Doctor Channard spills blood over the bed where Julia died, and she returns in full Hellraiser fashion – a skeleton clothed in anatomically convincing muscular structure and a whole lot of blood. Just like Frank in the original, Julia needs to kill people to regain her skin, and Dt. Channard is all too happy to oblige. Just when you think the film really is going to be a lazy remake of its predecessor, Hellbound goes absolutely bonkers and cements itself as one of the greatest horror sequels of all time. We are treated to visiting Hell, or Labyrinth as it is known in Hellbound. More Escher than Bosch, this spartan, desaturated maze is one of the most visually stimulating and interesting environments ever dreamed up for a horror film. The icing on this leather-bound, hook-happy cake is the introduction of Leviathan, whom all the Cenobites serve. Hellbound is unafraid of taking the Hellraiser franchise in to a horror-fantasy route, and is enjoyable every step of the way for it. If you’d glanced at it before and moved right along, it’s long overdue for you to give it a revisit.
How To Find It: Easily found on home video, streaming via Hulu or Shudder alongside its predecessor! Have yourself a little double feature. If you really feel pressed to go deeper in to the franchise, I strongly suggest you stop after Bloodlines.
3.) Tourist Trap (David Schmoeller, 1979, USA)
A low-budget classic, five teenagers are hunted down one by one by...mannequins. Yup. While on a road trip, five friends stop at an old abandoned tourist ‘resort’ that is also a mannequin museum. Their car breaks down, because duh, and they are taken in by the kindly old caretaker of the abandoned museum while they figure out their next moves. Their next moves, of course, mean breaking the caretaker’s one rule and exploring the house on the grounds. This is a pretty standard slasher structurally speaking, but it has a tremendous amount of charm. The music is affecting and a little unnerving (Pino Donaggio also did some great scores for films like Don’t Look Now, Blow Out, and Dressed to Kill), and while the mannequin movements are pretty hokey, the film is earnest enough that you can’t help but have fun watching it.
Tourist Trap is one of those films that got swept under the rug when it first came out but really came in to its own with repeat screenings on cable. It enjoys a much better reputation in retrospect, with favorable comparisons to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (there’s a strong Leatherface vibe from the main killer, it’s immediately apparent), and has even earneding the affections of Stephen King. It was impossible to find outside of VHS for a very long time, and consequently it is high time this one gets is long overdue for some love and exposure via streaming.
How To Find It: It has a home video release, but get the DVD version – for some reason the blu-ray cut is missing five minutes of the film. It is also available for streaming in its original 90m cut on Shudder.
4.) Tucker and Dale vs. Evil (2010, Eli Craig, USA)
When it comes to horror comedies, Shaun of the Dead rightly sits high up top in most people’s minds. But this This film has always been near and dear to my heart, though. Starring Alan Tudyk and Tyler Labine as the eponymous heroes, this is a slick, funny as hell send-up of killer-in-the-woods-style slasher films. Tucker and Dale are two well- meaning best friends headed up in to the mountains to fix up a ‘summer home’ (read: crumbling nightmarish cabin) that Tucker has bought. On the way up to their vacation, Tucker and Dale run in to some douche-y college kids who immediately write them off as terrifying, weird hillbillies. When one of these college kids is skinny dipping, she hits her head and nearly drowns. Dale saves her, but Allison (30 Rock’s Katrina Bowden)’s friends promptly freak out, convinced that their friend has been kidnapped by murderous hillbillies.
What follows is a loving pastiche of the worst tropes of slashers, coupled with some genuinely hilarious and creative kills. As the bumbling college kids make several ill-advised attempts to save their friend from Tucker and Dale, they wind up getting themselves killed in some fantastically gory fashions. The trailer unfortunately spoils some of the best of these, so if possible I would avoid watching it. Meanwhile, poor Tucker and Dale – who, mind you, just wanted to go fishing, drink beer, and patch up a cabin – have no idea why all these college kids are killing themselves left and right around them while they’re desperately trying to let them know that they have Allison and that she is safe. The third act is a little sloppy – then again more are than aren’t in horror films – but this is a great, undervalued horror comedy. It understands the conventions of the films it’s lovingly mocking backwards and forwards, including the sequel stinger for a film which has sadly yet to materialize. It’s a wonderful palette cleanser from all the heavier stuff available to watch during Halloween.
How To Find It: Home video for sure. It is also streaming on Shudder, Hulu, and Netflix, and available for rent on Amazon and Google.
5.) The Exorcist III (William Peter Blatty, 1990)
Two sequels?! I know, I know. Just hear me out. The Exorcist is one of those films that is so beloved as a classic that most people would see a cover for The Exorcist III and blow right past it, offended by its very existence. Anyone who suffered through The Exorcist II: The Heretic would be doubly forgiven for this assumption. Here’s the thing, though – this film is not only good, it’s really good. Written and directed by William Peter Blatty – screenwriter and author of the original Exorcist – this film wisely decides to ignore Heretic and begin right where the original ends, with Father Karras being tossed to his death down that now-infamous set of stairs in Georgetown. The film then cuts to fifteen years later, and detective Kinderman (now played by the always-great George C. Scott) is commemorating the death of his friend Fr. Karras with another priest, Father Dyer. Kinderman soon finds himself embroiled in a series of homicide investigations which begin to follow a little too closely the MO of a long-since executed serial killer known as the ‘Gemini Killer.’
Yes, there is an exorcism in it, and yes, it is shoe-horned in due to studio interference and is far and away the weakest part of the film. It’s not a perfect movie, but it’s a pretty damn good one. It’s certainly wittier than the other Exorcist, and it has some moments that are instantly iconic in their own right; anyone who has seen the film knows that it has what is easily one of the best jump scares of any horror film ever. The movie is also anchored by a great performance by Brad Dourif (One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Myst III: Exile) as the Gemini Killer, who is terrifying in that Hannibal Lecter-y way (and a year before Silence of the Lambs, even!), considering that the character spends his entire performance incarcerated. Overlooked and underappreciated in its time, The Exorcist III has become a cherished horror film from the ‘90s, and is easily considered “the only other good one” in the entire Exorcist film franchise.
How To Find It: It’s definitely on home video. The blu-ray even includes the “director’s cut,” which is basically a VHS-sourced workprint. It’s unfinished, but interesting in its own right. Streaming, it’s on Shudder and can be rented on Amazon, Google, Vudu, YouTube, etc.
* Black Lodge is in the middle of rebuilding and moving in to a new shop, but remains an active presence in the Memphis film community with drive-in screenings and other events.