Halloween has long been my favorite holiday, and October my favorite time of year. I love that the days are warm yet the nights cool. There's a nice crispness in the autumn air, the leaves change color and fall from the trees, there are pumpkins, corn husks and scary decorations everywhere...and of course, TV stations flood their schedules with horror movies and yearly specials. It doesn't hurt that my birthday falls in October, as well. I may have long outgrown trick or treating, dressing up in costume and visiting haunted house attractions, but a part of me always thrills each year as October dawns.
Growing up in the 70s, I was a regular viewer of monster movies; every Saturday would find me sprawled on the floor in front of our dinky 19 inch TV, eyes rapt, as KSTW Channel 11's Sci-Fi Theater unspooled monster movie hits both schlocky and sublime. Later, as teenagers are wont to do, I consumed more than my fair share of splatteriffic horror films, the gorier and grislier the better. As I've gotten older, my tolerance for such fare has diminished considerably...except for around this time of year. This season brings with it an incipient desire to curl up with a hefty collection of great ghost stories, to decorate my house with miniature pumpkins, bobble-head Frankensteins and witch window decals, and to comb through my DVD collection and indulge in a month-long monster bash.
Even though this blog wasn't around last Halloween, I thought I'd take a moment and share my thoughts on my own personal 2011 scary movie challenge. It was a banner year in my adult movie viewing life, as I made a concerted effort to watch as many genre flicks during last October as possible and, much to my surprise, managed a solid 36 films. (Note: This is total amateur hour compared to some online horror movie freaks and geeks out there, who regularly surpass 100 films in 31 days every year).
This year, various real life contingencies preclude me from attempting anything like that number again, but I do plan to chime in on a baker's dozen of spooky delights later in the month, so stay tuned. In the meantime, let's take a little trip back to this time last year in The Stalking Moon's video diary:
1. A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (2010)
While it's lacking the inventive dream imagery of the original, I found this to be a decent enough remake, serious and workmanlike. Jackie Earle Haley is pretty much the whole show here, and he makes for an inspired Freddy Kruger, less jokey and more menacing in comparison to Robert Englund (if certainly less colorful). The kid actors are OK but not especially noteworthy, and while the film delivers some decent setpieces, the filmmakers neglect to milk the full potential of the various dreamscapes. Connie Britton, so wonderful in the Friday Night Lights TV series, is wasted here as the heroine's mother, as is Clancy Brown. I quite liked the more-realistic burn victim make-up on Freddy.
2. BLADE II (2002)
More fun than a barrel of monkeys. This is a proper way to do a sequel, as Guillermo del Toro brings to the screen a bunch of fresh ideas, gothic horror trappings, cool comic book flourishes, snarky humor and wall-to-wall action. Mike "Hellboy" Mignola was production consultant on this film, and it shows. You can tell Wesley Snipes is having a ball here, giving a looser, hipper performance than in the original, and the rest of the cast is spot-on.
3. I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (1943)
Recently, I picked up that great Val Lewton Collection boxed set, and am enjoying running through most of the films in it for this Halloween. Here's one I've never seen before. Though it plays much more like a Jane Eyre-ish melodrama rather than an out-and-out horror film, the famous "night walk with a zombie" section is pretty great in and of itself, atmospheric and eerie. Overall, an engrossing, beautifully-shot movie, and Frances Dee sure is purty.
4. THE GHOST BREAKERS (1940)
Well-made and quite funny "old dark house" spoof, with Bob Hope in fine form and featuring several laugh-out-loud moments from the indispensable Willie Best. Paulette Goddard makes a perfect foil for Hope, lovely and down for a lark. Nice atmospheric production as well.
5. ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET THE MUMMY (1955)
I vaguely remember seeing this one as a kid. It's silly stuff, but enjoyable, with some good shenanigans from the boys, who are looking a bit long in the tooth here but are still game. I was surprised at how little actual mummy action there is (confined mostly to the last 20 minutes) but there are some nice gags placed throughout. Nowhere near as good or well-made as Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, but good for some yuks.
6. THE CAT AND THE CANARY (1939)
Spookier and better-plotted than the following year's The Ghost Breakers (though certainly less funny), this is a diverting "old dark house" movie. Paulette Goddard and Bob Hope again show an easy chemistry, though I confess to missing Willie Best's antics. Gale Sondergard adds memorably sinister support. The pristine transfer on the DVD really highlights the excellent gothic production design, not to mention Goddard's luminous features.
7. TUCKER AND DALE VS. EVIL (2010)
Frequently laugh-out-loud funny horror comedy takes the crazy hillbilly cannibal formula and turns it on its ear. Alan Tudyk and Tyler Labine play the title duo, a couple of well-meaning good ole boys out for a little fishing holiday who, though a series of misunderstandings, get mistaken by a group of college kids for crazy psycho rednecks. Hilarious and bloody mishaps ensue. Sure-footed feature film debut for writer/director Eli Craig, well worth checking out.
8. PANDORUM (2009)
What seems on the surface yet another Alien ripoff turns out to be an intelligent, well-acted science fiction film of the kind rarely attempted by big-budget Hollywood. Too bad it bombed at the box office. Tech officer Ben Foster awakens from hyper-sleep on a huge spaceship only to find out that something has gone terribly wrong with the mission. Good script, good slimy monster action -- good stuff.
9. THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954)
Watching this film again for the umpteenth time, I came away with an even greater appreciation of just how well-made - and well-paced - it is. Not a lot more I can say about this Universal classic that hasn't already been said much better by others. It's just great. Sure wish I could've seen this in all its 1950s 3-D glory.
10. THE SHINING (1980)
Masterfully directed, unsettling adaptation of Stephen King's book. Another classic title that I can't believe I've never got around to seeing until now. I tend to agree with those, like King, who find Jack Nicholson - while perfectly cast for his later scenes of homicidal madness - altogether too edgy and creepy at the beginning of the film, lessening the arc of his psychological disintegration. But it doesn't really matter in the long run...this is first-class scary movie stuff.
11. THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS (1967)
Wonderfully atmospheric Roman Polanski parody of Hammer Horror vampire films, full of slapstick and clever bits of nonsense. The midnight ball finale and the stunning Sharon Tate are the highlights. The snowy setting (rather unusual for this kind of film) and authentically ruddy-looking supporting cast, give it a proper Eastern European storybook air. Ironically, given the title, not a single vampire gets killed by our intrepid yet inept heroes.
12. ISLE OF THE DEAD (1945)
I remember seeing this as a very young lad, but it's been so long that it pretty much qualifies as a first-time viewing. Boris Karloff is in fine form here, and the cemetery island setting is appropriately atmospheric. However, nominal hero Marc Cramer has got to be one of the most bone-headed in horror film history, always leaving comely heroine Ellen Drew in danger. A fine, haunting film that, despite its short length, will likely linger in your memory for days after you see it.
13. REVENGE OF THE CREATURE (1955)
The poor Gill-Man gets quite ill-treated in this fun but definitely inferior sequel to the previous year's classic. The pic spends way too much time on the lame romance between irritating leading man John Agar and cute-as-a-button lab assistant Lori Nelson. Luckily, there are some great scenes sprinkled throughout, and most viewers will probably cheer as the Creature finally breaks loose and runs amok in the marine park, and later when he crashes the party at the Lobster Shack to grab Ms. Nelson for a late-night swim. One comes away from the movie feeling sorry for the old guy, snatched away from his home while he was just minding his own business, dynamited into a coma and imprisoned in an aquarium, subjected to electroshock experiments, chained up and gawped at by curious patrons. That might not have been the filmmakers' intent back then, but it sure plays that way now. An impossibly-young Clint Eastwood has a bit part as a lab tech.
14. ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948)
Never get tired of Lou's antics. He and Bud are at the top of their game here (for perhaps the last time in films). Costello's fearful reactions to all the monsters are priceless, especially his brief swampland abuse of the Wolfman. This movie has a gloss and sheen to it that's lovely to behold, and the beloved, iconic Universal creatures are treated with proper respect. And best of all, it's genuinely funny.
15. HORROR EXPRESS (1972)
Lively team-up of horror stars Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing makes the most of a modest budget to achieve some great atmosphere and period detail. The script is imaginative and unusual in how the story plays out, and the film moves (appropriately enough) like a locomotive, with more killings, action and incident than any 5 average Hammer films. Great fun, and wonderful to see Lee and Cushing fighting monsters on the same side for a change. Porcelain doll-like beauty Silvia Tortosa lends glamorous support as a Russian countess with the eyes for dashing explorer Lee. Only Telly Savalas rings a false note as a bullying Cossack, but thankfully his appearance is brief (it pains me to say it, as I love me the Telly). The print on my old Image DVD is a mixed bag; lots of dirt, pops and blemishes, especially in the opening reels, but many of the interiors look nice and colorful. Will be eagerly checking out the reviews for the new Blu-Ray edition.
16. THE FOG (1979)
Saw this once many years ago and wasn't that impressed; watching it again recently, I can't imagine why...it's actually pretty great. John Carpenter hits a one-two punch with this one, coming hot on the heels of his 1978 smash Halloween. The film slowly builds up a real spooky atmosphere, and features some memorable setpieces, particularly the finale, with hubba-hubba single mom and radio DJ Adrienne Barbeau menaced on the top of a fog-bound lighthouse. The leprous ghost / zombie creatures are marvelously realized by Rob Bottin, always shrouded in fog and never seen clearly. One can't help wondering what's happening to all the other townsfolk during the final deadly siege. You get the impression that only the handful of main characters are being menaced by the vengeful ghosts. This is one film that could have used a few more scary killings. Also, what's the deal with Jamie Lee Curtis' hitchhiker? One minute Tom Atkins is giving her a lift, the next they're in bed together. Bit of a leap there...chalk it up to the freewheeling 70s, I guess. Overall, this is a damn good, creepy little film. Bonus points for the John Houseman campfire ghost story opening.
17. TROLLHUNTER (2010)
Clever Norwegian "mockumentary" about a trio of college-age filmmakers who get more than they bargained for when they start investigating a strange middle-aged guy in a beat-up Land Rover who claims he's a government-sanctioned hunter of trolls. Otto Jesperson is memorable as the title character, taciturn, burned-out and lonely. Funny in spots, but mostly played straight, delivering some great monster mayhem. There is a fair bit of shaky-cam in this, so be warned if that's not your cup of tea...but to the filmmaker's credit, they slow the camera movement down enough during the big setpieces to get a good look at the giant, lumbering creatures.
18. DOG SOLDIERS (2002)
The first film to put director Neil Marshall on the map, this is a ferocious tale of a group of British soldiers, on maneuvers in the wilds of Scotland, who come under attack by a family of werewolves. Kevin McKidd (of Rome and Journeyman fame) and Sean Pertwee head the cast. Very intense and gory, with lots of man-on-werewolf action. I enjoyed this very much.
19. THE BLOB (1958)
Good-looking and earnest film, but can't decide if it wants to be a 50s small-town teen drama or an out-and-out monster movie, so what we're left with is something that isn't quite successful at either. Still, there are some good moments here, and some charm in the non-Hollywood feel, but it could have used less of the teeny stuff and many more scenes of Blob mayhem. McQueen puts in a pretty decent performance, at any rate.
20. THE CRAWLING EYE (a.k.a. THE TROLLENBERG TERROR) (1958)
Interesting British sci-fi film, with sturdy American Forrest Tucker (towering over the other cast members) uncharacteristically low-key and grave as he contends with giant tentacled alien eyeball thingies terrorizing a German mountain peak. The aliens' influence on psychic Janet Munro, and their reanimation and manipulation of dead bodies to do their bidding, are both intriguing and unusual elements in the film, and the snowy mountain setting makes an eerie backdrop for the grisly goings-on. The monsters are kept off-stage for a remarkably long time, and it's easy to see why, as they're pretty ridiculous looking, if nicely designed. The sight of them -- charred and gloopy like a bunch of napalmed calamari -- on the top of the observatory at the fiery climax, is a memorable one.
21. THE LEOPARD MAN (1943)
Really interesting Val Lewton / Jacques Tourneur film, which despite being more of a serial killer mystery contains a number of creepy, atmospheric horror setpieces, as well as the director's usual preoccupation with death. Especially unforgettable is the early vignette of the young girl walking through the desert arroyo at night, which contains one of the best "bus" jump scenes ever. I must have seen this film as a small child, because the infamous "blood under the door" moment is burned into my memory, but the rest of the film was a new experience for me.
22. POLTERGEIST (1982)
This Spielberg-ian take on the suburban ghost story has too much whiz-bang sturm-und-drang to come off as particularly scary (although that freaking clown doll come to life gives me the willies!), but it is a lot of fun, and I got a real burst of nostalgia at the various early 1980s props in the sunny pre-haunting scenes, such as those old click-type TV remotes, corded telephones, Eggos and Star Wars sheets. JoBeth Williams is especially good as the emotionally wrung-out mom.
23. MONSTER ON THE CAMPUS (1958)
Ridiculous science and plot mechanics aside, this is a fun Jack Arnold monster flick, with decent acting and some cool effects (like the enlarged dragonfly). It's hard to feel too sorry for tragic scientist hero Arthur Franz, as he does so many stupid and illogical things during the movie to speed on his fate. Who in their right mind, after cutting their hand on a rotting Coelecanth's tooth, then submerges the wound in its grody, slimy fishwater and then sucks the wound afterwards!! Or holds a huge-ass dragonfly corpse over one's pipe bowl as its infected blood drips down into it? What a dork!
24. THE NORLISS TAPES (1973)
Dan Curtis directed this failed TV pilot that is so similar in tone and style to The Night Stalker that it feels like a lost episode of Kolchak. Rather than bothering me, this same kind of vibe endeared it to me immediately. Roy Thinnes (typically brooding) is freelance writer and ghost debunker David Norliss, called in to investigate the strange case of a widow (Angie Dickinson) whose husband has apparently come back to life and is terrorizing the local Carmel coastal community. Some good scares (watch out for that face in the window!), with a typically rambunctious and fast-moving monster, a great, rain-drenched setting and a nice supporting turn by Claude Akins. I didn't recognize the husky-voiced sister as Michele Carey (from El Dorado) -- she looked so different here, still lovely by fairly wasted in a miniscule part, as is the equally gorgeous Vonetta McGee. Well worth checking out; it's a pity this didn't make it to series, as the central gimmick (of a missing Norliss narrating his adventures on numbered cassette tapes) is an intriguing one.
25. THE THING (1982)
Since I have the Japanese Blu-Ray, I got the chance to show this to my (also Japanese) wife. She's not a big fan of horror movies, especially of the gory or ghostly variety (she's still not forgiven me for scaring the bejeesus out of her with The Shining earlier) but gamely stuck through to the bleak end. Not exactly an "enjoyable" movie, perhaps (the original 1951 version is tons more fun, but comparatively toothless), but it's a near-perfectly executed sci-fi / horror tale, and remains John Carpenter's masterpiece. Even though I've watched this film countless times, there are still mysteries to be puzzled out regarding some of the (deliberately, I'm assuming) ambiguous story points. Each re-watch I seem to catch something new; that ambiguity is part of the movie's appeal. The Blu-Ray looks great, and the film is still relentlessly tense, disgusting, unnerving and ultimately, haunting.
26. GARGOYLES (1972)
Odd and a bit clunky, but occasionally effective made-for-TV thriller, with Cornel Wilde as some sort of demonologist / anthropologist (it's never made totally clear) and his daughter Jennifer Salt (lookin' cute in her teeny halter top...that's one 70s fashion trend I'd love to see make a comeback!) supposedly on vacation in the American southwest. Instead, seems old dad has a bit of research to do on the way, and before you know it, the pair run afoul of some newly-hatched gargoyles out in the desert. Some decent monster suits and makeups and a few effective scare scenes are damaged by the director's insistence on shooting the gargoyles in slow-motion, which frankly just looks silly and undermines the menace. I can see how this would have freaked me out if I'd caught it on the tube back in the day, though. Scott Glenn has an early role as a biker.
27. THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES (1971)
I was really struck this time with just how opulently designed this film was; the sets, the costumes, the props -- all were immaculate and true to the period. MGM's DVD boasts a really sterling transfer, making the most of the film's rich, stylish sheen. This must be one of the strangest ever "acting" credits for an actress; all we see of Caroline Munro (as Phibes deceased yet perfectly preserved wife) is still shots and, finally, her corpse...yet her presence is felt throughout the film. I'm also curious about Phibes lovely but lethal assistant, Vulnavia...how did she hook up with Phibes? Is she some sort of burgeoning psychopath that signed up for his revenge scheme, or is there some other connection? Differing theories are welcome. Virginia North does make for a striking Angel of Death. Even the absolute uselessness of the bumbling police force didn't annoy me as much this viewing.
28. THE TINGLER (1959)
This Enjoyable William Castle thriller is a little slow in places, and slightly bungles the climactic theater Tingler attack, but is very entertaining overall, with a spry script and another witty (and surprisingly warm) Vincent Price performance. I had forgotten that (SPOILER ALERT!!!) Vincent's nasty wife tries to murder him and gets off scott free! I mistakenly remembered that she got it at the hands (tendrils? pincers?) of the Tingler...Ah, well. And what are we supposed to make of that ending? Doesn't really stand up to close scrutiny, but what the heck. A fun little spook show, and certainly one of the better Castle films I've seen.
29. ATTACK OF THE CRAB MONSTERS (1967)
I know this one is held in high affection among 50s monster movie mavens, especially those who watched it growing up...but sorry, guys and gals, I didn't much like it. It moves fast (it kept me awake, at least), but too fast to make any sense, really, and so things just seem crammed in at random. The idea of the giant crabs absorbing people's brains and consciousnesses is interesting and has a lot of potential, but there's nothing eerie or atmospheric about this film...it's all just flat incident. At least the crab effects weren't too shabby, there were a few grisly moments, and it's hard to dislike a film that gets in and out and job done in 60 minutes.
30. THE UNINVITED (1944)
Terrific ghost story, not out-and-out terrifying like The Haunting, but with some nice and spooky moments. Basically just a really well done and enjoyable film overall. Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey make a charming pair of brother and sister sleuths to spend time with, and a young Alan Napier turns in a most welcome performance as the helpful local doctor.
31. 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH (1957)
Not one of stop-motion maestro Ray Harryhausen's more famous monster romps, but to my mind one of his best. Ray's special effects are really first-rate here, and the cast and script are pretty damn good, too, with William Hopper a commanding hero. I would have enjoyed it even more if the poor Ymir didn't receive such awful treatment throughout. The poor guy didn't ask to be brought to Earth. He just wanted to eat some sulphur and be left alone. Instead he gets caged, shot, poked at with pikes, stabbed with pitchforks, attacked by dogs, electrocuted, experimented upon and just generally has a hell of a bad couple of days. Humanity doesn't come off so well in this one, but it's probably a realistic depiction of how this would all go down.
32. THE INVISIBLE MAN (1933)
The excellent Tom Weaver and the Brunas brothers, in their tome Universal Horrors, rave about this early horror classic, and there are many grand things about it -- it's got a great central performance from Claude Rains, excellent direction by James Whale and some really fun and impressive F/X sequences. The opening 10 minutes or so, where the Invisible Man enters the pub from the blizzard, is fantastic, gripping stuff. But the acting by some of the secondary leads is absolutely appalling! William Harrigan as the weaselly Kemp is just godawful, and Gloria Stuart, while certainly a nice looking lady, is almost as bad. Henry Travers, so beloved in later movies like It's a Wonderful Life and Shadow of a Doubt, to name only a few, is wooden as well, but at least tolerable. The ending scenes, where Griffin runs rampant around the countryside, are a lot of fun, but the climax feels rushed and somewhat limp. Overall, I'd say it's certainly got a lot of classic elements to it but I was a trifle disappointed, considering the elevated status this film has been accorded.
33. THE NIGHT STRANGLER (1972)
The second Kolchak movie is basically just as good as The Night Stalker...in fact, in many ways it is the first movie. Excellent script and direction, plus wonderful performances from the inimitable Darren McGavin and Simon Oakland. Their back-and-forth is perfectly timed and so funny. The only thing that's a little bit of a debit is that the monster this time out is not as frightening as seething vampire Janos Skorzeny (from the first film). But everything else clicks, from the secret fog-bound Seattle underground lair of the killer, to Kolchak's snappy narration, to the roster of supporting actors (John Carradine, Scott Brady, Margaret Hamilton, Wally Cox, Al Lewis and the vivacious Jo Anne Pflug), not to mention the great jazzy score by Robert Colbert. I just wish they had made a bunch more of these as one-off movies and kept the standards of production and writing as high, rather than the fun yet decidedly inferior TV series (which I love, but still...it ain't a patch on the two telefilms.)
34. PARANOIAC (1962)
Diverting Hammer suspense-thriller starts out a bit slow, but once Oliver Reed enters the scene, things pick up and it becomes a lot more interesting. Janette Scott makes for a gorgeous heroine, convinced she's going mad until her older brother Tony (Alexander Davion), missing and presumed dead, returns to the family home and disrupts the plans of some nasty people...but is all what it seems? Reed is typically magnetic here as icy middle brother Simon, vascillating between boorish, charming and batshit crazy with equal aplomb. Freddie Francis directs with a deliberate but sure hand. The film has one surprising shock moment (you'll know it when you see it). Owes a big debt story-wise to Josephine Tey's classic mystery novel Brat Farrar. The British Blu-Ray is spectacular, with a razor-sharp image.
35. THE BLACK SCORPION (1957)
Overlong but mostly enjoyable big bug movie, helped greatly by some cool Willis O'Brian / Pete Peterson effects (the trapdoor spider was a nice surprise). Some shots are repeated over and over (especially the close-up of the googly-eyed, drooling scorpion face) but there's enough action and incident to keep things interesting. An added amusing bonus is watching hero Richard Denning putting the not-so-smooth moves on foxy Mara Corday, in between battling monster scorpions.
36. THE BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960)
Fairly lavish and well-made Hammer film. We have to wait a full 30 minutes before Peter Cushing's Van Helsing shows up, but he takes command right away, and proves himself quite a badass throughout. There are some lovely ladies here, including the exquisite Yvonne Monlaur and Andree Melee. That said, there are some surprisingly major plot problems. (SPOILER ALERT!!!) For example, the creepy tall guy who hitches a ride on the back of the heroine's carriage, then pays off the driver to leave early, then makes a sinister entrance into the local tavern -- he just disappears from the film, never to be seen or mentioned again! We can surmise he worked for the Baroness, but why was he dropped from the story? Also, when Van Helsing is left helpless after his brief bite from Baron Meinster, why aren't the two vampire ladies on him like a shot? Instead, they just watch him from the rafters as he does his emergency cure for incipient vampirism, using a hot poker to cauterize the wound. Later, as the windmill burns, are we to assume the two vampiresses burned with it, or escaped? We are given no clear clue either way. Some sloppy storytelling there. Still, overall, this is a fine Hammer film, well-acted and interesting, and an enjoyable way to close out my October viewing.
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