It’s less than two weeks until Halloween, the holiday that empowers children, usually the victims of the rest of the big, scary world, to become the scary ones themselves for one night. All of us were children once. Now that we’ve survived, it’s fun to look back on the kinds of things that once filled us with fear. Here are ten seldom seen spooky movies to get you in the right mood. They are rarely shown on TV. Look for them online, at your Public Library, or through rental outlets. Eight of the ten are adaptations from published novels or stories and the others were written for the screen. I guess that indicates my critical bias. The last two are from a genre called “body horror”, simulating extreme gore and fleshy gickiness, so I wouldn’t recommend them for viewing by children under 13, but you adults can handle it. They are only movies…muah-ha-HA-HAAaaaa!
Danish genius Carl Theodor Dreyer directed this rare gem on a shoestring budget, filming it in simultaneously in different languages. What’s most remarkable about it is the naturalistic style of acting, decades ahead of the kind of extravagant declamatory stuff available in American horror films of the time. There is a convincing sense of utter dread pervading this tale of a vacationer encountering an ancient evil. You can see the whole thing online, but Criterion also has a restored version, with extras.
This first, best adaptation of H.G. Wells’ Island of Dr. Moreau stars the inimitable Charles Laughton as the evil vivisectionist, but also features Bela Lugosi as one of the creatures. The use of shadows and weird make-up is superbly creepy, and the horrible cries and moans emanating off-screen from “the House of Pain” will ignite your imagination. “What is THE LAW?”
You think this isn’t a monster movie? Try a simple thought-experiment. Watch this while pretending you know nothing about what will happen in the ten years AFTER it came out. This brilliantly constructed propaganda film of the Nazi rallies at Nuremburg in 1934 will make you want to stand up, salute, and join in their quest to create a new nation. What’s scarier than that?
Karl Freund, one of the inventors of German Expressionism, left Europe for Hollywood because of the monster from the last movie. He directed a few films here, then settled in as a cinematographer again. This was a remake of a silent horror about a mad doctor grafting a murderer’s hands onto a musician who’s lost his. In a career dotted with portrayals of insane killers, this is one of Peter Lorre’s craziest. Over-acted, but fascinating to watch. Pauline Kael wrote that Orson Welles “borrowed” the look of the film for Citizen Kane. She’s wrong, but it gives you an indication of how striking the visuals are.
This is one of the earliest and best omnibus horror films, several short stories linked together by travelers sharing tales on a dark and stormy night. The script is literate, the cast competent and restrained, and the stories range from surreal to black humor. Four directors contributed to this production from Ealing Studios.
The titular ladies are brides in the same sense that nuns are “brides of Christ”. The husband is only around in spirit. The lead vampire is, young, handsome Baron Meinster (It’s a Meinster movie!), the sets and costumes are lush, the women are buxom and beautiful, and the blood’s in Technicolor. From Hammer Studios.
Though this one is not as hard to find, I included it out of affection. When I was 12 they showed it at my Middle School, charging us ½ dollar each to defray the rental cost. It bore little relationship to the Poe story of the same name, which we read in class for comparison, but it was a perfect way to introduce a discussion of the problems inherent in adapting literature to film. Though today’s teachers show DVDs in class, it’s not nearly the same level of energy as what burst from 300 screaming tweens in a darkened auditorium.
This man’s work is in a class by itself. Brazilian writer/director/actor José Mojica Marins created an unforgettable part for himself as the amoral mortician Zé do Caixão (“Joe of the Grave” aka Coffin Joe). He’s been playing the part in a series of films and TV shows for nearly 50 years! Joe is obsessed with siring a son from “the perfect woman”, one as fearless and intellectually superior as he estimates himself to be. Everyone he considers “weak” is fair game to be cheated, tortured and even killed. Joe laughs as they scream, though he will also stop mid-crime for a Socratic discussion right to the camera. It’s all very Catholic, and incredible to experience.
Canadian writer-director David Cronenberg has been manufacturing nightmare films for years including Scanners, The Fly and Dead Ringers. This was his disturbing take on the idea that television could be made to literally wreck your mind. Long Live the New Flesh!
It’s less known than Re-Animator, their first adaptation of an H. P. Lovecraft story, but this tale of a twisted scientist using an amplified tuning fork machine to make his house a gateway to other, darker dimensions is more memorable. This comes from Empire Studios, a short-lived independent taking advantage of the talented craftspeople in and around Rome.
Pleasant dreams, children.