What do people do on Hallowe’en? Some go trick-or-treating. Some just go tricking, i.e. throw eggs at houses. Some go to parties that are completely identical to the ones they go to every weekend, the exception being people wearing costumes and drinks being orange. Some, however, get together in a darkened room and spend the night watching horror(ish) movies. The programme includes everything from Hallowe’en party classics (The Exorcist, The Shining) to popular shockers (The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity) and unknown genre gems (Haute Tension). But today, I will ignore all of these films and list five movies I know won’t be played at any sane person’s Hallowe’en cinema night – for shame.
I don’t like musicals. There, I said it. I think spontaneously breaking out in song impairs a movie’s realism and brings the story to a complete halt. There are exceptions, though; for instance, I love Stanley Donen’s classic Singin’ in the Rain because it’s funny, the songs are catchy and its concept is not to be taken seriously. The same goes for films like Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, the original The Producers (the remake sucks), The Nightmare Before Christmas – how could one not love a song like this? -, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and, last but not least, Tim Burton’s Animated Feature Oscar winner Corpse Bride from 2005. Set in Victorian England, it tells the story of young Victor Van Dort whose nouveau-riche parents plan to marry him to the lovely noblewoman Victoria, whose bankrupt parents plan to gain financially from their daughter’s marriage. But Victor soon finds himself accidentally married to the “Corpse Bride”, a young woman who died waiting for a suitable husband.
Though this movie might not scare you, it certainly delivers splendid thematic entertainment. In its own way, it’s a perfect representation of everything Hallowe’en stands for: Victorian England is a terribly grey, boring place, whereas the afterlife is populated by colourful and bizarre creatures whose festivity knows no bounds. It’s sharply written, the songs are fun (watch out for Danny Elfman as Mr. Bonejangles!), the set and character designs are abundantly inventive – the latter ones are, especially in the world of the living, fascinatingly ill-proportioned -, the stop-motion animation is state-of-the-art, and its voice cast is without compare. Not only do Johnny Depp (Victor) and Helena Bonham Carter (The Corpse Bride) deliver standout lead performances, the array of indelible side characters and guest actors is equally impressive; the most memorable being the late great Michael Gough as a crazy skeleton scientist and Christopher Lee as a brilliantly haughty, unlikeable pastor.
We all like Mel Brooks, don’t we? You’ve all seen at least one of his movies, haven’t you? You laughed at Dark Helmet’s puppet collection in Spaceballs; the first act of History of the World, Part I made you giggle (and the rest disappointed you); you enjoyed watching Brooks as a wandering rabbi doing circumcisions in Robin Hood: Men in Tights; and you even had yourself a little chuckle at Leslie Nielsen’s Dracula in the critical and financial disaster called Dracula: Dead and Loving It. One of Brooks’ more acclaimed films is Young Frankenstein, his parodistic take on a classic horror franchise. The main character of this movie isn’t Mary Shelley’s mad Dr. Frankenstein but his perfectly level-headed grandson Frederick (Gene Wilder), who is a respected lecturer at an American medical school. But things soon get awkward when he inherits an Transylvanian castle where he is immediately intrigued by his grandfather’s ambitious work.
Young Frankenstein may have been inducted into the Library of Congress National Film Registry because it’s a “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” movie but that doesn’t mean it’s not a classic Mel Brooks romp. Many jokes work, some don’t; the story is of no overbearing importance; and there are characters like a womanising monster; a woman, played by Cloris Leachman, whose name makes horses whinny; and a hunchback called Igor (the great Marty Feldman), who likes to hang around decomposing bodies. Very much like Corpse Bride, this is not a movie that will strike fear in your heart. But it’ll make for an entertaining 100 minutes at every Hallowe’en movie night.
When it comes to horror movies, you can’t beat the 1950s and the early 1960s. They brought us gems like Bride of the Monster, Zombies of the Stratosphere, The Brain That Wouldn’t Die and – a personal favourite – Teenagers from Outer Space. One name that is commonly associated with these “masterpieces” is Edward D. Wood Jr., better known to the world as Ed Wood. I will not try to outline his motivations or explain his biography – you can check out Tim Burton’s brilliant biopic Ed Wood, starring Johnny Depp in the title role, for that. What I will talk about is his most infamous creation; the trash science-fiction-shocker called Plan 9 from Outer Space, which has been called “the worst film of all time”. What is it about, you ask? Gravediggers come across a zombie (Bela Lugosi – the original movie Dracula himself), which somehow causes aliens to approach the Earth.
Why would anyone want to watch this movie? It’s stupid, nonsensical and poorly made. And there’s your reason. Plan 9 from Outer Space is such a spectacular failure, so hilariously inept that you can’t help but love it. There are bloopers that weren’t properly edited out, you can hear people moving and talking off-screen, Bela Lugosi’s character walks around covering his face because he died shortly after production began, and, of course, none of it makes any sense whatsoever. There’s not much point in developing this any further. This is another movie you won’t be scared of, although this one actually tries to be scary. The passion behind Plan 9 from Outer Space is palpable – Ed Wood considered it to be his Citizen Kane -, so it’s only fair to check it out and get a good, long laugh out of it.
In recent years, the more respectable horror films – most notably The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity – have championed the strategy of deriving horror from things you don’t see. This technique was probably perfected by 1963’s The Haunting, directed by Robert Wise (West Side Story, The Sand Pebbles, Star Trek: The Motion Picture), which, sadly, seems to be largely forgotten. You might have seen the 1999 remake starring Liam Neeson and Owen Wilson but that doesn’t do the original justice in the slightest. The film centers around a group of people who stay in a supposedly haunted house, as test subjects of the anthropologist/ghost fanatic Dr. Markway. The focus is on the psychologically troubled Eleanor, whose fascination with the sinister mansion threatens her sanity.
The last three films haven’t been scary at all. The Haunting is. It creates a legitimately chilling atmosphere with its superb set decoration, its clever script, and the well-placed moments of terror. What stands out in Wise’s film is the uncertainty whether the spooky sounds and physical manifestations the characters experience are real, or whether they just spawn from their confused psyche, which makes this less of a horror movie and more of a psychological thriller. The film also restrains from being overly showy; everything is very subtly hinted at – be it Eleanor’s slow dissent into madness, or be it the sexual orientation of her feisty roommate. The latter adds an interesting erotic component to what is probably the movie’s scariest scene – the key question there being: “Whose hand was I holding?!” If you like a film that doesn’t try to attack you with jump scares but rather creeps up on you with its psychological layers, Robert Wise’s The Haunting is definitely for you.
If there ever was a film that adds a touch of class to your Hallowe’en movie night, it’s definitely Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau’s classic vampire story from 1922. Intended as a direct adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Murnau was denied the rights to do so, so he simply changed the names of the characters, thus turning Jonathan Harker into Thomas Hutter, Abraham Van Helsing into Professor Bulwer, and Dracula himself into Count Orlok. The reason you should watch this film is its sheer historical significance. Every horror film that came after Nosferatu in some way harks back to it. Like Robert Wiene’s Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (1920), which is also considered to be one of the silent era’s great horror stories, or D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), Murnau’s film is a truly seminal piece of cinema.
Is it scary? Not really, at least not in a conventional way. However, there is an irresistible and compelling creepiness to it, mostly thanks to Max Schreck’s iconic portrayal of Count Orlok. This is a vampire you want to be as far away from as possible. There is no romance hidden beneath his beastly appearance, no arcane goodness. Even today, Schreck’s performance is not only regarded as one of the great acting efforts in silent cinema, but one of the most consummate and influential performances of all time. It comes as no surprise that E. Elias Merhige’s fictional account of Nosferatu‘s shooting, 2000’s Shadow of the Vampire (highly recommended), turned Schreck into an actual vampire, who is out for the film’s female star (Greta Schröder). So if you feel like breaking Hallowe’en movie tradition this year, why not get a copy of Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens and enjoy one of the earliest – and possibly even one of the greatest – horror films ever made.