A lot of my friends took the “31 horror movies in October” challenge. Binging on horror flicks all month sounds like total bliss to me, but with a work trip to New York at the end of October and me being behind on my scripts, there was just no way I could’ve pulled it off. Still, I wanted to make sure that I spent some of the Halloween season sitting around and ingesting loads of horror, so I decided to watch as many as I possibly could and justify it all with this meandering blogpost that would go largely unread.
My first mission, priority one, was to watch one film from every decade since the relative birth of horror cinema. By most accounts the first real “feature-length” horror film is The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari filmed in 1919, released in 1920 (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde Starring John Barrymore came out a few months later and so is recognized only as the first American horror film), but as far back as the late 19th century there were films that featured macabre elements and many short films were dedicated to adapting famous horror literature. So I split the difference and chose 1900 as my year, meaning the minimum mission requirement was to get 12 horror movies under my belt, way more doable than 31. After that mission was complete I just kept watching horror films at random until it was time to cobble together this post.
My process for deciding what I watched was pretty haphazard. For the most part whatever the first thing that Netflix recommended based on the algorithm data I’ve built there over the years was what got played. The earliest decades had to be googled. I ended up getting gleefully stuck on the silent horror films and watched more of them than my exercise warranted. Something about those first, quiet monsters really spoke to me. They are so theatrical and minimal and the actors really gave their all to them.
I had only one other rule about what I would or would not watch. If I’d seen the movie in the last ten years then I had to find something else. If it had been longer than ten years, it was fair game for reevaluation.
So there you go. Here’s my best attempt at seeing as many horror movies as I possible could this October. As with all the bullshit that makes it onto my journal page, this whole post is more for me than it is for you, I obsesses on stuff like this. I can only hope someone out there will dig it too.
The films are listed in the order in which I saw them, NOT from “best” to “worst”.
“Nothing happened? With your damn tit in his mouth, and you call that nothing? Lying bitch!”
A real mixed bag. Sometimes this is hilariously bad in the most campy and wonderful of ways, other times it’s just flat out boring. It doesn’t really rise to a place of interesting cinema for me until Baby’s birthday party around the halfway mark. The party, on the other hand, is a thoroughly enjoyable mash of saturated primary lighting, wonderfully flat framing and wide-eyed bold theatrics. The ending does bring the whole film home in an awesome way and it’s as if the movie has been waiting its entire duration for this glorious moment of inspired insanity. What pushes the viewer through its leaner moments is the psycho-sexual exploitation angle. All these gorgeous women battling over an essentially useless male. One neutered by the women themselves, of course. Though the movie stars five actresses of varying age, it spends its entire running time spectacularly failing the Bechdel Test. But then we don’t go to exploitation – even tame fair like this – for political correctness.
Director: Ted Post
Writer: Abe Polsky
Stars: Anjanette Comer, Ruth Roman, Marianna Hill
DP: Michael D. Margulies
“Power, I said! Power to walk into the gold vaults of the nations, into the secrets of kings, into the Holy of Holies; power to make multitudes run squealing in terror at the touch of my little invisible finger. Even the moon’s frightened of me, frightened to death!”
Characterized by director James Whale’s incredible sense of humor, this is also a pretty masterful exploration of mass hysteria and collective fear. It rings especially true in this war-on-terror age. In this film the mighty nation of England begins the impossible hunt for a single, invisible, man. It’s hard to watch and not be affected by its premise. This is H.G. Wells done right. Claude Rains, in his first “talkie” – he’s little more than a voice actor for this movie – is pretty amazing. Gloria Stuart is stunning, but isn’t really given much to work with. Despite that, it’s a great, great film.
Writers:H.G. Wells (novel), R.C. Sherriff (screenplay), Preston Sturges (contributing writer/uncredited), Philip Wylie (uncredited
Actors: Claude Rains, Gloria Stuart, William Harrigan
DP: Arthur Edeson
”You will never escape my vengeance, or Satan’s! My revenge will seek you out, and with the blood of your sons, and of their sons, and their sons, I will continue to live forever! They will restore me to the life you now rob from me!”
Mario Bava in the motherfucking castle, yo! As to be expected, every shot, every set, every camera placement is stunning. The black and white drips with thick atmosphere and dread. Barbara Steele is staggeringly gorgeous. A harrowing opening sequence propels you forward into a movie filled with strange magics, ghosts, witches, ancient castles, satanic curses, secret passageways and what I think are supposed to be vampires. It’s not all brilliant. The dialogue is often labored. Some of the acting is far from top-notch and running around a big castle makes up most of the latter half of the movie, which caused me some viewer fatigue. But who cares, the movie is beautiful to look at and so is Barbara. Just let it, and her, wash over you.
Director: Mario Bava
Writers: Ennio De Concini (screenplay), Mario Serandrei (screenplay), Nikolai Gogol (short story), Mario Bava (uncredited) Marcello Coscia (uncredited)
Stars: Barbara Steele, John Richardson, Andrea Checchi
DP: Mario Bava
“The ghosts are moving tonight, restless… hungry. May I introduce myself? I’m Watson Pritchard. In just a moment I’ll show you the only really haunted house in the world. Since it was built a century ago, seven people including my brother have been murdered in it, since then, I’ve owned the house. I only spent one night then and when they found me in the morning, I… I was almost dead.”
William Castle can’t help but run gleefully at the schlock in this, his most well-respected film. Vincent Price is amazing here, a truly ominous and creepy presences, and his scenes with the beautiful, hard-edged Carol Ohmart as his wife are great. There’s something truly engaging about the idea of being locked in a large house, which may or may not be haunted, with a psychologically depraved millionaire, who may or may not be playing a game of murder. That’s mostly what the second act is about and it’s wonderfully affective. But this is Castle we’re talking about, and he can hardly wait to get to the cheese. So while one idea of fun for me would be watching a taught psychological horror thriller staring Vincent Price in which a living man in a world of ghosts turns out to be the greatest terror of all, another idea of fun is just watching Price ham it up in the name of ridiculously elaborate plot twists that bend over backwards to justify a premise… either way, good stuff. It should be noted that at the original run a skeleton would sweep over the audience on a wire during the last scene. They had to discontinue the gimmick as boys, who had gotten word of the flying skeleton, were taking slingshots to the screenings and opening fire on the poor prop.
Director: William Castle
Writer: Robb White
Stars: Vincent Price, Carol Ohmart, Richard Long, Elisha Cook Jr.
DP: Carl E. Guthrie
There is literally no line of dialogue worth quoting in this whole fucking movie.
Overall this franchise is pretty worthless. And yet, pound for pound, it still delivers the “gotch-ya!” scare better than any of the other mainstream horror flicks around. And its creepiness lingers too. You carry it with you into the dark rooms of your home after you’ve seen these movies. I think it works on that level because of a combination of vérité camera work, slow pacing, super limited effects as well as the idea that something is happening around you while you and your loved ones, particularly your children, are sleeping. So here we are, third time out with the little franchise that could, and it has its effective moments, to be sure. There’s a stronger sense of naturalism in the acting than in the first one, but… and here’s where the kindness ends, it’s so FUCKING STUPID! The first half is entirely made up of fake bullshit scares, which I have no patience for. Then the second half amps up for no reason, features people acting in ways no human being in this situation would ever act (hey, asshole, how about you drop the camera and work at getting those kids out alive!), and ultimately delivers a “surprise” ending that amounts to… absolutely nothing. It really feels like they were just writing it as they went along. The movie is blissfully short, but horribly structured. To its credit, I did jump, and was creeped out by the silence of my dark apartment after I turned off the TV, so I guess that’s something.
A warning about the trailer, it is almost ENTIRELY made up of scenes that are not in the actual movie. To me the trailer movie looks way, way cooler than the movie we actually got, but if you’re one to complain about trailers giving away all the best parts of their movies, that’s certainly not the case here.
Directors: Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman
Writer: Christopher Landon
Stars: Chloe Csengery, Jessica Tyler Brown, Christopher Nicholas Smith
“Don’t you know who I am? I am Chocolate-Chip Charlie! My hands are registered with the mid-New Jersey police as lethal weapons, and I eat them guns for breakfast!”
YES! Larry Cohen is the man! Starting in TV where he created series like Branded and The Invaders, Cohen later became a driving force in the Blaxploitation movement. Then, when that ship sailed, he reinvented himself again, this time as the king of 80′s B-Horror. The Stuff is a gem from this era. At the movie’s core is the phenomenal Michael Moriarty in his best role as David ‘Mo’ Rutherford, an ex-FBI agent, now corporate saboteur in the employee of the Ice Cream industry who teams up with an upscale beautiful advertising executive and a racist, militant isolationist in an effort to save America from a raw health food invasion. YES!! Mo is a genuine character in a world being zombified by consumption, and Moriarty portrays him with such a strange sense of swagger and such lazy hickish charm that he’s kind of captivating to watch. Of the great B-movie characters, Mo is literally to horror what Jack Burton from Big Trouble in Little China is to action. And like with Russel’s Jack, in a perfect world we would’ve had multiple adventures featuring Moriarty as Mo put on film for us to enjoy. But then everyone in this film seems to have the magic, the chemistry of no-chemistry as it were. The cast is incredible, Garrett Morris as martial-arts master and cookie maven, ‘Chocolate Chip’ Charlie, whose company was wrested from him in a corporate takeover; Paul Sorvino as Colonel Spears, an anti-communist racist with a penchant for being caught in bed with black women; and Danny Aiello as the FDA inspector who’s afraid of his own dog. Plus there’s cameos by Eric Bogosian, Patrick Dempsey, Mira Sorvino, and others. They all just sort of lackadaisically wonder around the plot delivering lines like they’re making them up as they go along, and this strange off-kilter manner is extended to the pace of the film and the editing as well. The whole thing is just a big clump of clumsy amazing. If you think that great, over-the-top characters and a heaping helping of early 80′s cheese (all natural!) is an asset instead of a hinderance, then you’ve got to see this. Larry Cohen is an incredibly valuable American!
Director: Larry Cohen
Writer: Larry Cohen
Stars: Michael Moriarty, Andrea Marcovicci, Garrett Morris, Paul Sorvino, Danny Aiello
DP: Paul Glickman
“Is this your wife? What a lovely throat.”
I’m probably not supposed to say this, but the first half of this silent film is pretty funny. There’s quite a bit of over-gesturing and mincing from the foppish, dickish, overconfident lead who prances off on some grand adventure, leaving his overly morose wife alone without any regard. It’s all kind of silly. This is two years after the American production of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with John Barrymore, and though Barrymore hammed it up quite a bit in that flick, there was still much more naturalism there than here. However, everything changes once Max Schreck hits the screen as Graf Orlok, Nosferatu. At first glimpse of him it becomes understandable why this is probably the most famous silent film of all time. As horror cinema imagery goes, there is nothing to compare with Murnau’s vampire. It is the oldest and still the greatest visual horror meme we have. Schreck slides and creeps around the screen. He is terrifying. His magic is unstoppable. The images of a ghost ship adrift on the ocean, a plague ravaging the streets of the modern town in which he settles and finally, of his death by sunlight shut my laughter down and transfixed me (this is the first vampire death by sunlight, and like with so many additions to the Dracula myth that Murnau made, it persists to this day). It’s a wonder that we have this film at all as Stoker’s estate, led by his wife, attempted to wipe it from the face of the earth due to copyright violation on the part of Murnau. That makes Nosferatu an argument against staunch copyright control to my mind, as its importance to cinema, horror narrative and our collective vampire mythology cannot be overstated.
Directory: F.W. Murnau
Writer: Henrik Galeen (screen play)
Stars: Max Schreck, Greta Schröder, Ruth Landshoff
DP: Fritz Arno Wagner, Günther Krampf (uncredited)
“Death was… eternal loneliness.”
I’m a fan of Kiyoshi Kurosawa. Tokyo Sonata is a beautiful film and Cure is one of my favorite Japanese horror flicks. Pulse isn’t as good as those, but it is super intoxicating and creepy. Not a movie that lives off of jump scares, this is a slow crawl of existential dread about a ghost plague that takes over the living world one soul at a time until only a handful of living human beings remain. Occasionally characters break out into pontifications as to what’s happening around them, or what it all may mean philosophically, in these moments the film becomes tedious and pretentious, but when the powerful ideas of the film are allowed to live inside the imagery or in simple offhand comments, it excels. A movie that is ultimately about how technology can make us feel disconnected and solitary, there are moments of truly transcendent horror and sad beauty here. I walked away from it in a pondering and quiet mood.
Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Writer: Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Stars: Haruhiko Katô, Kumiko Asô, Koyuki
DP: Jun’ichirô Hayashi
“Well, a son is a poor substitute for a lover.”
Okay, so yeah. This is the much maligned Gus Van Sant version. But here’s the deal, I’m here to defend this movie. It is so rare and strange that we get to see another director, one who frequently has shown great vision, riff so heavily on another work of art. Without Hitchcock’s Psycho this movie simply doesn’t exist, and I don’t mean that in same way that it would be true of other remakes (Van Sant could have simply riffed off the novel in his own way) I mean that this is in dialogue with the original film. This is a conversation between works of art. Van Sant is saying it simply cannot be done better, but as a creative exercise it can become a companion piece, something strange and interesting that speaks to the nature of art and adaptation. And though it’s touted as a shot-for-shot remake of the original, it isn’t the same film at all. The addition of color (gorgeously photographed, more on that in a minute) changes everything. And the performers find there own way inside these calculated shots. In a way Van Sant is discovering all the joys of the little decisions that make up cinema. If you copy the camera angle, length of shot and script, then creativity must flourish in the updated costumes, the actor’s choices, the set designs and the quality of the image… and the quality of the image brings us to the great Christopher Doyle. One of the worlds most talented cinematographers. The colors and the light are a treat all by themselves. As much as Van Sant is riffing on Hitchcock, Doyle is riffing on John L. Russell’s photography in the original. In the way the actors get room to play in their rigid frames, he gets room to play with color and light. Often the film embraces anachronism and then so too does Doyle’s image, appearing one moment like a grainy rear projection, then at other times taking on a such a crisp and modern characteristic as to be breathtaking. And there are plenty of insert images throughout the film that take the whole exercise to an even stranger, more meta, place. Anyway, that’s my answer to the often asked question, “Why make a shot-for-shot remake of Psycho?” For me it’s exciting to see another artist explore a previous work of art. I think it’s important that cinema have room for creative exercises that are more about the act of execution than the finished product. Then there’s what Van Sant said we he was asked the same question, “I did it so no one else would have to.” That makes complete sense to me. Admittedly however, Vince Vaughn is a pretty strange choice for Norman Bates… I’ll give the critics that.
The trailer below works its ass off to make the audience think they’re going to a different movie then the one they get.
Director: Gus Van Sant
Writers: Robert Bloch (novel), Joseph Stefano (screenplay)
Stars: Vince Vaughn, Anne Heche, Julianne Moore, Viggo Mortensen, William H. Macy
DP: Christopher Doyle
“I believe a man lost in the mazes of his own mind may imagine that he’s anything.”
There’s so much that I love about this movie. The super smart script. The amazing atmosphere. The incredible sets. The cast. The clash of science and superstition. But to me the most brilliant thing about this movie is that Lon Cheney’s character, well, he was ALWAYS a wolf. He rolls in to a rural British hamlet surrounding an Estate, of which he is the heir, with an easy charm but a brutish bravado, particularly when dealing with an engaged woman that he sets his fancy on. What is eventually revealed through the gypsy’s curse is his true nature, not some hidden aspect of his dual nature as in Jekyll and Hyde. This is just a fantastic movie and everyone is great in it. Especially the holy horror trinity of Cheney Jr, Rains and Lugosi. There’s several reasons why this period is known as the Golden Era of horror movies and this is absolutely one of them.
Director: George Waggner
Writer: Curt Siodmak
Stars: Claude Rains, Warren William, Lon Chaney Jr., Bela Lugosi
DP: Joseph A. Valentine
11. LE MONSTRE (1903) If the synopses is to be believed, an egyptian sorcerer animates a dead body for his own amusement, seemingly toying with a Prince who would have his deceased lover brought back. Coming in at just under three minutes, it’s a single camera set-up with what amounts to a magician’s performance, one of several of Georges Méliès “magic films” that worked collectively to push the boundaries of early cinema effects. It’s great fun. I’ve included the whole film below.
Director: Georges Méliès
“A man cannot destroy the savage in him by denying its impulses. They only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it.”
John Barrymore was a handsome motherfucker. His presence defies time. Already considered one of the great stage actors when he made this film, his classical training means he often tends to go big with his performance, sometimes too big. However, his Hyde, a very theatrical monster, is a great success, truly grotesque and frightening. This has been called the first American horror film and is predated by The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari by only a few months. It’s incredibly well put together, the sets are gorgeous, the feeling of dread as things ratchet up to the ending is palpable and as a metaphor for drug addiction, among all the obvious dual-nature themes, it’s pretty powerful stuff. There are a couple of truly amazing sequences here, but a ghost spider Hyde crawling over the sickly Jekyll to consume him in transformation is truly awesome cinema. Very cool movie. Also, how gorgeous is that original poster?!
Below I’ve included the first transformation scene, in which Barrymore uses his face to suggest a primal shift in his character before they superimpose an effects transformation onto his hand.
Director: John S. Robertson
Writers: Robert Louis Stevenson (Novel), Clara Beranger (scenario)
Stars: John Barrymore, Martha Mansfield, Brandon Hurst
“If what I’m feeling isn’t the presence of God… then what is it?”
The found footage film The Borderlands had its Los Angeles premiere this month during FROM BEYOND FILM FEST (where I also saw the AMAZING A Field In England. Not listed here as it’s not really a horror flick). The Borderlands is being touted as the greatest found footage horror movie ever made, and the concept at the heart of it is pretty engaging. A Vatican research unit tasked with debunking miracles descends on a small southwestern English hamlet Church where the local priest claims the presence of God is causing some commotion. The idea of following the Vatican’s agents whose job it is to debunk belief is an amazing one and the team leader, a priest set up to be the group tool, has a great speech right before everything goes to hell about the difference between believing in the teachings of a man named Jesus and having to believe in a bunch of magical bullshit. The premise behind the found footage setup is solid as well. The Vatican wants everything documented by the investigation team. That means cameras and microphones mounted around the church as well as having the investigators wear headcams (not always a successful device as their perspectives are either too forced, or so obviously not the source of the shot that it took me out of the scenes). It’s got all the components to be a really fantastic movie. But a relatively unimaginative script (until the hilariously awesome ending), a lack of subtly in the acting, tons of tedious exposition, some real bullshit scares and a general sense that the whole endeavor could’ve been just a touch more ambitious keeps this from reaching its full potential with me. It’s a shame. It feels a little like an opportunity lost. Regarding the ending, viewers will vary on whether its successful or not for them, I found it to be wonderfully Lovecraftian and properly baked into the themes of the film. I did laugh out loud though.
As far as I can tell, there is as of yet no trailer available for this film.
Director: Elliot Goldner
Writer: Elliot Goldner
Stars: Gordon Kennedy, Aidan McArdle, Robin Hill
DP: Eben Bolter
14. THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI (1920)
“Du musst Caligari werden!”
A revolution in cinema, the German expressionism that is the very beating heart of this film was mostly adopted to cut costs on lighting the sets, a pragmatic decision that has pushed this film into the realm of lasting art. Everything is askew and mad here, from the sharp and dangerous angles of the world to the hyper-stylized, jerky acting of the performers. This film hurtled several landmarks for the medium, it’s considered the first true feature-length horror film as we understand the genre today, the first attempt to visually place the viewer inside a madman’s mind and the first twist ending - though after viewing the long thought to be lost 1910 version of Frankenstein, I question this last claim . Apparently the flip ending of this film was Fritz Lang’s idea, floated while he was briefly attached as director. Regardless, every frame is a work of art. The production design, sets and costumes are amazing. A truly beautiful film.
Director: Robert Wiene
Writers: Carl Mayer, Hans Janowitz
Stars: Werner Krauss, Conrad Veidt, Friedrich Feher
DP: Willy Hameister
15. FRANKENSTEIN (1910)
The first filmic interpretation of Marry Shelley’s Frankenstein is a twelve minute (wikipedia says sixteen, but I can’t find a cut that long) short horror film that was thought lost for more than sixty years. When a print finally did emerge it was in pretty rough shape, and that’s the one I watched on youtube, though there are claims that even that copy has been restored to the best condition possible. Obviously a very truncated take on the novel, it’s a one camera setup with four sets. There’s some interesting stuff here. Like the fact that the monster seems to be cooked into being from a chemical bath and fire instead of cobbled together from corpses. Though they obviously burned a wax dummy of the monster and filmed it in reverse, it makes for a pretty cool affect. And the monster himself is horrendous. Played by Charles Ogle, who did his own make-up effects, is a lurching, giant, ghastly thing. And the ending… the ending… well, it’s kind of cool, and open to interpretation. Was the monster just in the mind of Dr. Frankenstein all along? Did love finally set him free? And if so, doesn’t that put into question the claims that The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari featured the first twist-ending? Fascinating stuff. I’ve included the whole film below.
Director: J. Searle Dawley
Writers: Mary Shelley (novel), J. Searle Dawley
Stars: Mary Fuller, Charles Ogle, Augustus Phillips
16. STOKER (2013)
“We don’t need to be friends. We’re family.”
This is Park Chan-Wook’s First American Film and he fares better than most Asian filmmakers that make the transition to Hollywood. The direction is characteristically consummate, wildly swinging from cold and pretentious to out and out lush and brilliant. The acting is so reserved as to be robotic most of the time and the final reveal is less engaging on a contextual level than it is on a visual one, but none-the-less, there’s a lot here to keep you captivated. Including an amazing piano duet sequence and an ending that comes together rather cinematically. It’s miles from his Old Boy or, my personal favorite, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, but it’s worth your time if you’re a fan of the director. Watch out for a horribly played bully subplot that does nothing but offer up second act filler. Meh.
Director: Chan-wook Park
Writer: Wentworth Miller
Stars: Mia Wasikowska, Nicole Kidman, Matthew Goode
DP: Chung-hoon Chung
17. HäXAN: WITCHCRAFT THROUGH THE AGES (1922)
“We no longer burn our old and poor. But do they not often suffer bitterly? And the little woman, whom we call hysterical, alone and unhappy, isn’t she still a riddle for us? Nowadays we detain the unhappy in a mental institution or – if she is wealthy – in a modern clinic. And then we will console ourselves with the notion that the mildly temperate shower of the clinic has replaced the barbaric methods of medieval times.”
Holy shit! I’ve heard about this Danish/Swedish/Dutch movie, possibly the first ever fake documentary, for years and years but never actually sat down to watch it. Jesus Christ! First off, 1920 to 1925 is truly the heyday of horror cinema, the genre is rich with defining moments in this period, many of which I got to see during this exercise. It’s as if a foundation was being built without which all future efforts could not stand. And Häxan is lightyears ahead of anything else visually. At first it seems like it’s going to be a slog, as the opening twenty minutes or so try to sell the “documentary” premise by filming nothing but engravings and drawings from manuscripts. But I highly recommend you push on through, because in no time you’re going to be seeing little people dressed as demons climbing out of a woman’s vagina, dancing rat monsters, women stomping on crosses and the director himself dressed as a tongue -wagging, butter churning demon. There is so much amazing imagery in this movie that it puts its contemporaries to shame. I love how gloriously fucked up Scandinavian cinema is today, with its Lars Von Triers and the Nicolas Winding Refns perpetrating their cinematic madness on unsuspecting viewers. Well, that all seems to start right here. This is one of the best finds of the month (thanks Fred and Crystal!)
Director: Benjamin Christensen
Writer: Benjamin Christensen
Stars: Benjamin Christensen, Elisabeth Christensen, Maren Pedersen
Thanks for reading! Happy Halloween!!