Five Great Halloween Films You (Probably, Maybe) Haven’t Seen.
Subtitle: A Horror Film for Every Mood.
I love Halloween. Loved it as a kid, still love it as an adult. My trick-or-treating days are long gone, but I still enjoy a good scary flick on Halloween night.
Of course, not everyone agrees on what is scary (or good) when it comes to movies. And there are times when we want something different from the same old slasher flick. So, I came up with a (mostly) spoiler-free list of flicks I enjoy that range from the comedic to the truly disturbing. With my natural tendency towards films that are a bit out of the mainstream, of course.
#1 For when you want some laughs with your scares - Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988)
Let’s get one thing straight right now: clowns are (pardon my language) fucking scary. They’ve always been scary, and they will always be scary. As far as I’m concerned, the only difference between Bozo and Pennywise is that the latter is *honest* about his intentions. I don’t know who first came up with the idea that a clown could be anything but scary, but I’ll bet whoever it was secretly a clown and/or serial killer themselves.
This fear is the basis for the cult film Killer Klowns from Outer Space. The brainchild of the Chiodo Brothers, the Klowns are a race of carnivorous space aliens who have come in their big top spaceship to capture human beings for snacks on the way home.
If that sounds like a ridiculous premise…well, you’re right. Klowns is an absurd film, and it is deliberately so. The film is very much over the top and tongue in cheek by design. By being so, the filmmakers avoid the dreary clichés typical of low budget horror films — most notably the overreliance on buckets of gore, and the tendency to take itself just a little too seriously.
Instead, we get a film that manages to have a lot of fun with the story, weaving in quite a bit of black humor with the scares. The filmmakers have taken the usual clown tropes and twisted them to fit the behavior of the nightmarish Klowns. The Klowns have quite the bag of tricks as a result, from deadly shadow puppets and balloon dog bloodhounds, to cotton candy guns and some rather sinister pie throwing contests.
Killer Klowns even manages to work in a bit of good acting and dialogue into the film. The lead roles and most of the supporting cast are typical of a grade Z-film. That is to say, people you’ve mostly never heard of and probably didn’t go on to a long and storied career in film. But there is also the presence of the late John Vernon. A versatile character actor perhaps best remembered as “Dean Wormer” in Animal House Vernon has a supporting role as “Officer Mooney”, the stereotypical small-town cop who just won’t believe the kids when they tell him trouble is afoot.
It’s a cookie cutter part, but Vernon brings his usual deadpan humor to the role. As Mooney, he gives us several memorable and quotable one liners. My favorite of them being “I made it through Korea, I can make it through *this* bullshit!”
Klowns isn’t a great film. Hell, it isn’t even really a good one. But it is an entertaining hour and a half that is far more enjoyable than many films with far larger budgets.
Alternative choices: Jack Frost (1997). Not the Michael Keaton film, but the APIX entertainment film about a killer snowman. Jack Frost is much bloodier and far more violent (including a rape scene) than Klowns, but it does have some of the dark humor and sendups of traditions that Klowns has. Arachnophobia (1990) is more straightforward in its humor and scares, but is closer to Klowns in terms of being funny and scary at the same time. And let’s face it, spiders are almost as scary as Clowns.
#2 For when you want some old-school chills and thrills - Les Diaboliques (1955)
Oh, come on now. You all KNEW I was going to have a foreign language film or two on my list. It wouldn’t be an IoN film post without one (or several, as the case may be).
Diabolique/Les Diaboliques is a first-rate tale of suspicion and paranoia from legendary French director Henri-Georges Clouzot. Set in a failing Paris boarding school, the story focuses around a cruel headmaster Michel Delassalle (Paul Meurisse), his frail and frequently ill wife Christina (Véra Clouzot), and Michel’s mistress Nicole Horner, played by French star Simone Signoret. Signoret was something of the French equivalent of Meryl Streep, in that she was widely considered to be one of the greatest actresses of her era, and starred in many critically acclaimed films. She was also quite a beauty.
The seed from which the plot grows is the unhappy marriage between Michel and Christina. Michel is a bullying, domineering sort. He serves day old fish to the children because it’s cheaper than buying fresh. “Just cover it up with sauce”, he admonishes his cook.
Christina, for her part, is mostly passive. Her weak heart leaves her physically and emotionally incapable to standing up to Michel. Oddly enough, her only real friend at the school is Nicole, who is a teacher there in addition to being Michel’s mistress. Nicole is quite sympathetic to Christina, and dislikes Michel’s treatment of her, despite the fact that she is sleeping with her husband.
At this point, Diabolique probably doesn’t sound much like a horror film. And you’d be right, to a degree. Diabolique isn’t about hockey mask-wearing villains or monsters of the unearthly sort. But there are indeed monsters afoot, only of a much more human variety.
Nicole, fed up with Michel’s unending cruelty towards Christina, offers Christina a way out. The only way for either of them to be free is to murder Michel, and make it look like a disappearance. With him gone, the abuse will stop, the school will be again run properly, and both women will be free to live their own lives again.
I am loathe to spoil any of the film, so I’ll just say It is at this point Clouzot takes the viewer on an ever more frightful journey into psychological terror. Guilt, doubt, trust and mistrust, neurosis, and the fraying of sanity. Will Christina agree to the plot? If she does, will it go off as planned? And what about after? Things aren’t always as tidy as we plan, nor are they always what they seem.
BTW, there is a remake of Diabolique from the 90s starring Sharon Stone and Kathy Bates. It’s godawful crap, and boring to boot. For real old-school horror, stick to the original French film, which you can find on youtube here (don’t to forget to turn on closed-captioning if you don’t speak French!).
Alternatives: There aren’t a lot of close alternatives, but The Haunting (1963 original film) is another superb example of old school, bloodless horror. The premise of that film is that a scientist if brought into to investigate claims of the paranormal while the woman in the house is slowly losing her sanity. 1961’s The Innocents, an adaptation to classic short story “The Turn of the Screw”, would also be a pretty good pick here.
#3 For when you want something animated in the horror genre — “The Mysterious Stranger”
Okay, I confess. I have very little experience with animated horror films. Most of the really classic ones come from Japan, and I can’t bring myself to watch anything involving anime. Especially hentai (that’s the perverted tentacle monster anime). The only other film I could think of was Heavy Metal (1981), but everyone’s already seen that one.
Nevertheless, I think I have a keeper to share. The clip below is from a 1980’s Claymation film called The New Adventures of Mark Twain. It’s based on the unfinished works of Twain that were discovered after his death.
What makes this so interesting is that someone actually thought this was an appropriate scene for a G-rated kids’ film. It’s extremely well done, and raises a lot of interesting philosophical questions, but it’s A G-RATED KID’S FILM, FER CHRISSAKES! I can only imagine little kids being scared witless by the scene, and slightly older kids scratching their heads at the philosophical points present. This is teen-level stuff at least. And what teenager is going to want to watch a G-rated Claymation film?
#4 For when you want your flesh to crawl and feel the need to take a shower after watching -Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986).
Horror movies rarely “get to me.” I’ve been grossed out by horror films before, and have been scared by horror films before. But I generally take everything in stride, and get bored with horror flick that purposely try to “get me.”
And then there’s Henry.
Full disclosure: I’ve never watched this film in its entirety. I’ve seen it in parts, including the most infamous scene (more on that in a bit), but I can never sit through more than 5 or 10 minutes of the film at the time. Longer than that, and I start to feel dirty. As if the grime (moral and physical) of the film is building up on my skin.
Henry focuses primarily on the characters of Henry and Ottis. Though it’s never said in the film, these two are meant to be (loosely) based on real-life serial killers Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis Toole. Henry is played by Michael Rooker, while Ottis is played by the late Tom Towles.
Rooker’s performance as Henry is superbly chilling. He’s not some masked villain stalking all the attractive local teens for some unknown reason, with creepy theme music playing in the background. That’s Hollywood. Henry is all too real.
Like the real Henry [Lee Lucas], Rooker’s Henry was raised by a prostitute mother, and was repeatedly sexually abused by her and several of her clients. He’s unhindered by anything resembling a conscience, and looks at the world most of the time with an almost clinical, detached coolness, as when Ottis’s sister Tracy asks him in he really did it.
Many of Henry’s victims are female, and are often seen in stomach-turning post-mortems. The only clues to Henry’s activities are audio flashbacks playing over the scenes, where Henry’s mask has slipped and the murderous rage and hatred driving his compulsions to kill are laid bare. It’s ugly stuff, without filter or even a veneer of mainstream horror entertainment value.
Along with Henry is Ottis (Towles). The real life Ottis Toole was also a serial killer, and did in fact partner with Henry Lee Lucas for a time. Toole was perhaps most notorious for having killed Adam Walsh, son of John Walsh, who would go on to start America’s Most Wanted.
If Henry is the calculating, remorseless killer with a short fuse, Towles’ Ottis is the depraved sidekick who gets a thrill from it all. Like so many real-life serial killers, Ottis gets a form of sexual gratification from the power he holds over his victims, and the pain and murder he inflicts on them.
The strong, unflinching characterizations of Henry and Ottis make for a horror film that feels like a documentary more than a movie. We recoil at their actions, but we also know deep down that people like this do exist, and Henry and Ottis behave like those very real people. And that is what is truly terrifying about the film.
It’s worth noting that Henry received a great deal of critical praise from prominent film critics. The late Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert both felt it was an excellent film. It’s also worth noting that one particular scene — the infamous home invasion scene — earned the film an “X” rating from the MPAA***.
Ponder that for a second. Your typical “R” rated film out of Hollywood has a lot of leeway when it comes to violence and gore. A *lot* of leeway. So, ponder how troubling a particular scene — actually just 23 seconds of a particular scene — had to be to earn a rating typically reserved only for pornography? Yeah, it’s that disturbing.
***(The film has since been re-rated NC-17 with the introduction of that Adults Only rating).
Alternatives: I can’t think of any, to be honest. Some might recommend Natural Born Killers (1995), but that’s really a film of a much different nature. There was a sequel to Henry, but it’s my understanding that film is just a gorefest with none of the disturbing nature of the original.
#5 Finally, for when you’re in the mood to do your own episode of MST3K with a truly terrible film — preferably something 1970’s shlock with an appearance by William Shatner — The Devil’s Rain (1975)
Where do I start with this one? Well, what can you say about a movie with William Shatner and Tom Skerrit doing battle with a satanic cult headed up by Ernest Borgnine?
This movie is hilariously bad, and hilariously fun because of its badness. The film opens with High Priest Corbis (Ernie Borgnine) being burned alive in the 17th century. He vows revenge on the town and its descendants and claims he will come back for all of them. Which, naturally, he does.
The plot, such as it is, rambles on with little coherence and a cavalcade of 70s tv stars (Shatner, Green Acres’ Eddie Albert, etc.). Borgnine, for his part, is having far too much fun for his own good. He chews the scenery with glee, uttering lines like “Who calleth me from out of the pit?” and “As the cock crows, so to shall my shadow once again be cast!”
There are the usual scenes of cult figures chanting in dark mass, rubbery special effects, the occasional human sacrifice (including an uncredited John Travolta), and the predictable twist ending. It’s a crap film, but one that begs to be riffed on with friends.
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