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By the pricking of my thumbs….
Monday October 31st 2005, 1:54 pm
Filed under: art,film,reviews
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“By the pricking of my thumbs….
Something wicked this way comes.”
– William Shakespeare from Macbeth

As a species we have been ritualizing the telling of frightening stories since before the existing historical record began. Our fascination with the dark elements of the natural world and our collective invention of the supernatural comes from deep within our DNA.

It is not surprising that shortly after cinema became known as an exciting new storytelling medium, scary stories emerged. Some of the most popular silent films were of this type. Throughout the last century, ‘horror’ films have become one of the most consistently successful genres of the global film business.

In this post I will offer just a few films that came up for me when thinking about seeking out a good Halloween viewing experience.


The Phantom of the Opera United States

[IMDB Link]
[Netflix Link]
This is an absolutely beautiful film from the silent era. It stars Lon Chaney who’s graceful and nuanced performance is almost beyond description. You come to feel sorry for the Phantom while you are simultaneously terrified at the sight of him. Apparently both of Mr. Chaney’s parents were deaf-mute, so he had become a master of pantomime and gesture-based communication at an early age. He was actually a fairly handsome guy, but for some reason he became entirely focused on portraying characters that required him to radically alter his appearance. A popular Hollywood joke at the time was: “Don’t step on it; it might be Lon Chaney!” I can’t help but wonder if the complex humanization he brought to the outcast character of the Phantom was connected to his experience of having disabled parents, and watching how society reacted to them as ‘different’. The cinematic technology used to create this film was state-of-the-art for the time period, and the new DVD transfer includes original Technicolor photography in the ‘Bal Masque’ sequence. This is an amazing film featuring an icon of screen acting and one of the strongest modern mythologies in cinema….what more can I say.

The Creature from the Black Lagoon United States

[IMDB Link]
[Netflix Link]
Of all of the ‘man in a rubber suit’ monster movies made in the 50’s and 60’s this is the one that has endured as a true classic. The monster himself is a masterpiece….it’s easy to see why film historians gush about his lasting influence. On screen he sometimes even bears a striking resemblance to the modern ‘Predator’ creatures. The underwater sequences were beautiful, and must have been thrilling for the audiences of the time since this was still brand new technology. It would be 2 more years before Jacques Cousteau would release his award winning ‘Le Monde du silence’ that really introduced moviegoing audiences to the exciting visuals associated with the underwater world. I was particularly struck by a sequence where the token female of the cast goes for a little swim in the lagoon….there are several shots that look EXACTLY like scenes we will see ~20 years later in ‘Jaws’. This film is not particularly frightening by modern standards, but as a representation of the finest elements of the golden age of American monster movies, this is a great viewing experience.

The Haunting United States

[IMDB Link]
[Netflix Link]
The modern horror genre has a number of major sub-categories: The ‘slasher’ (ie ‘Fri the 13th’, ‘Nightmare on Elm St.’), films that focus on the spiritual (ie ‘Omen’ ‘Exorcist’), sci-fi horror (ie ‘Alien’ ‘The Thing’), and some others. But perhaps the most authentic and literary form of scary-story cinema is the GHOST TALE. ‘The Haunting’ is a classic of this type. It was directed by Robert Wise who is better known for the less terrifying ‘West Side Story’ and ‘Star Trek: The Motion Picture’. The film shows how economic use of lighting and sound effects can create some pretty frightening moments without gratuitous use of blood and violence. The character portrayals are pretty dated, but the film’s overall charm dissipates that. As a ‘G’ rated film this would be a good choice for watching with younger viewers who want to be a little scared without having to see someone’s head realistically severed from their body.

The Shining United Kingdom

[IMDB Link]
[Netflix Link]
This is one of my all-time favorite scary movies. The imagery evokes a vibrant supernatural undercurrent, but on its surface the film is really about the human mind and the darkness of its misunderstood depths. Director Stanley Kubrick is one of the less prolific masters of cinema (he only made 16 films over an almost 50 year career), and although all of his films in some way celebrate dark themes involving the complexities of human nature (ahem….and the darkness that dwells within confused supercomputers as well), this is the only one that can really be called a horror film. As with many of his other films Mr Kubrick selects existing classical music for parts of the soundtrack, and the use of Rimsky-Korsokov’s ‘Russian Easter Overture’ near the beginning of the film always gives me goosebumps, and perfectly sets the tone for the 2.5 hour tour de force that is ‘The Shining’.

An American Warewolf in London United States United Kingdom

[IMDB Link]
[Netflix Link]
I love this film because it very effectively modernizes the classic lycanthropic monster made famous in the 50’s by Lon Chaney Jr.. The makeup effects were groundbreaking by 1981 standards, but might seem a bit ‘theme park’ to those of us who have grown used to the ultra-reality of modern CGI. Unlike the original werewolf films this one does contain some gratuitous gore, but also manages to render a suspenseful environment through the use of high-contrast nighttime scenes and classic horror film editing techniques. This is a very entertaining film that holds up well after 25 years.

Videodrome Canada United States

[IMDB Link]
[Netflix Link]
David Cronenberg’s vision of the real world converging with an electronic existence is obviously a reaction to the greatest emergent technology of the time it was made: the proliferation of relatively inexpensive and highly accessible tools to create and distribute video. By today’s digital standard this vision might seem a bit quaint….keep in mind that the year after this was released saw the publishing of William Gibson’s ‘Neuromancer’ which ushered in the cyberpunk genre and forever changed the paradigm for describing human/machine integrations. Nevertheless, ‘Videodrome’ provides some stunning and blatantly symbolic moments that vividly reference the tenuous relationship between humans and the technology they create.

Nightmare on Elm Street United States

[IMDB Link]
[Netflix Link]
Many filmnerds consider this to be THE quintessential horror film; not because it is the best or most entertaining or most frightening….but because on a sub-textual level it tries to explain why it is that we are so attracted to horror films….which on their surface are depictions of situations that in the real world would be excruciating and trauma-inducing to witness. The idea of tying horror films to our human experience of nightmares is only the first level of this film’s message. It is the compelling nature of the facing of these fears….the idea that they cannot be avoided (eventually we all must sleep) and therefore must be confronted head-on to avoid letting oneself be destroyed by the fear. It is through a direct facing of the unthinkable that we are comforted….assured that the darkness is conquerable, and that we can survive even the most frightening expectations of our own minds. Plus, Johnny Depp is absolutely beautiful as a 21 year old neophyte. This was actually his first named appearance in a feature film.

Ju-on Japan

[IMDB Link]
[Netflix Link]
Man, those Japanese folks make some pretty frightening films. I think this is the scariest one I’ve seen from them. It is the Japanese original of an American film called ‘The Grudge’ which I have not seen. On its surface this is an episodic ghost story, but what grounds the picture and makes it so darn frightening is the imagery combined with the creative use of sound to create spine chilling sequences that defy description. Frankly it’s kind of difficult for me to put my finger on what makes them so hair raising. My memories of this film feel like a remembrance of a frightening dream, not a piece of fictional art. This may not be for the feint of heart, but if you like films that really chill you to the bone, this is a good choice.

Wrong Turn United States Germany

[IMDB Link]
[Netflix Link]
This is a modern American horror film that is a great representation of the state of the genre. The ‘victim’ actors are all very good looking men and women and the ‘monsters’ are not sourced from the supernatural world….they are twisted human figures, the result of depravity and the ugliest elements of the human condition. If this film could be summed up by the Hollywood pitch that was probably given to get it funded, it would be ‘Deliverance’ meets the ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre’. Nevertheless, if you have an affection for this genre (as I do) and like to see the newest ways that effects crews have invented to depict the spectacular demise of a beautiful Hollywood actor or actress….this is a good pick.


Happy Halloween!

6 Comments so far
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Oh good! My favorite! Now all I have to do is find a good arm to hold onto and start screaming!!

Comment by chrisybug 10.31.05 @ 7:50 pm

Thanks for another list of intriguing movies I now must revisit or see for the first time, regardless of whether it’s Halloween….

The first time I saw the Shining is particularly unforgettable – a life imitates art experience. I couldn’t have known an estranged family friend would show up at our door–a place pretty much in the middle of nowhere–ranting and threatening break down the door–he was obviously crazed on Speed. We locked him out, pulled out the shotgun, and waited for him to leave. We then proceeded to watch the rest of the Shining…and see Jack Nicholson turn into a raving madman. My brother and I were so freaked out we took turns staying up all night to keep watch…

Comment by tao 10.31.05 @ 8:03 pm

Our staff watched the Haunting last night. I stopped on that channel because I recognized it from your review. What a great movie! Ghost stories are so great because there is always the element of madness that comes into play. As each player in the film is exposed to more and creepier stuff, they also have to deal with the fact that they may just be going insane! Cool movie. Thanks for your highlights.

Comment by sunday funnies 11.01.05 @ 8:24 am

Thanks, FilmNerd, for all the great suggestions! I actually saw The Shining and The Haunting over the weekend. You are SO right about the music in The Shining. The Dies Irae (from Symphonyie Fantastique, Berlioz?) during the aerial shots in the mountains at the very beginning of the movie sets the mood perfectly!! And I really did enjoy The Haunting despite the dated acting – and that even made it sort of campy and fun. I’m heading to my Netflix web site for some of the other suggestions right now…

Comment by shelby 11.01.05 @ 12:55 pm

Oops! You’re right Shelby….the opening is not Rimsky-Korsakov, it’s a Wendy Carlos adaptation of Berlioz. Oh well….I might be a filmnerd, but apparently not so much a musicnerd!

Thanks to all for your comments!

Comment by The Filmnerd 11.01.05 @ 4:00 pm

i am really glad you included American Werewolf in London. The scene at the little town at the beginning and the stroll through the fogging downs – damn that has got to be one of the creepiest few minutes of cinema. I get the shivers just thinking about it. Not to mention how quickly some of the scares come after laughs – definately a great flick!

Comment by andrei hedstrom 11.17.05 @ 11:12 pm

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