Starting over breakfast and keeping you up until 4am, here is a list I’ve compiled to keep you stuffed in to your sofa over the entire of October 31st. Samhain, All Hallow’s Eve, whatever you call it- for some, it’s an excuse to get drunk in a politically insensitive costume. For others, it’s a childish irritation that us grownups should have left behind years ago. For me, and plenty of others, it’s a time to watch some of those films that have been burned in to your brain, the ones that you watched from behind the couch, or peering out from under your duvet when your parents should have been monitoring your viewing habits better, the ones that you spoke about in hushed tones the next day at school. It’s Halloween, so let’s keep the curtains shut, take the batteries out of the doorbell, and open four or five boxes of Mini Rolls (Shock Orange flavour).
31st October, 10:00am
Mystery Science Theater 3000 S09 E07 – Hobgoblins
The MST3K cult passed me by in my youth – I don’t think there was much of a UK TV outlet for it, so it wasn’t until I had a decent internet connection (and a lot of free time at my old job) that I ploughed through the whole series in relatively short order. A comedian in a jumpsuit marooned on a space station with two robot puppets, sitting through the whole running time of an awful movie and making a dizzying succession of observational quips and non-sequiturs. A simple set up, really.
While I’m more partial to the sleepy, freewheeling Joel Robinson episodes, this late-in-the-run Mike Nelson-led riff on late 80s shithousery Hobgoblins highlights what makes the show pop, as this dreadful Gremlins ripoff is made bearable by the goofy nonsense the cast comes up with.
The Simpsons S06 E06 – Treehouse of Horror V
This is the one with The Shinning. It shouldn’t need any more explanation than that, but if you insist: “…In fact, you might even say we just ate Uter, and he’s in our stomachs… right now! HAHAHAHAHAHA! Wait…scratch that one.” Individual segments might be better, but I think this is my favourite across-the-board Treehouse episode.
Elvira, Mistress of the Dark (1988, 96 mins)
The first proper movie of the day and we need something to settle us in, blow away the cobwebs, and then put up cheap store-bought fake cobwebs in their place. The Queen of Halloween’s debut feature takes the LA late night horror host out to small-town America to fix up a long-lost Aunt’s dilapidated house which she has just inherited. Along the way she bonds with “THE (suspiciously old-looking) KIDS” of Falwell while running afoul of the conservative townsfolk with her bawdy puns about her massive boobs. Despite those, the whole affair is remarkably decent and good-natured, even naïve, and almost acts as a precursor to more family friendly goth antics like The Addams Family to emerge a couple of years later.
Not a lot happens- there’s some lusting after a big lunk of a guy and a spellbook and a big gaudy Vegas showstopper, but really we’re here to see Cassandra Peterson radiate her self-aware, sexy goofiness. It’s a pretty perfect encapsulation of the iconic, gloriously tacky Elvira brand, and by extension the gloriously tacky side of Halloween.
Community S02 E06 – Epidemiology
You’ll just have time to sneak in what is, for my money, the best Community Halloween special. Even if you haven’t seen the show, and don’t have the advantage of knowing these characters well enough to get the intricate little exchanges, the genius of those interactions will make you want to go back and watch, and the episode is such a tightly plotted zombie comedy-thriller that you’ll be swept up in it and carried through by a blizzard of nods to horror and sci-fi movies (Troy and Abed’s Aliens costume being the highlight). A great little show in its prime.
The Innocents (1961, 99 minutes)
Time to change pace entirely, and slow down to take in a masterclass in slow-burning, opulent suspense. Jack Clayton’s adaptation of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw sends Debra Kerr to the vast Bly estate of a wealthy widower, tasked with taking care of his niece and nephew full-time while he travels unencumbered by the orphans he has “no room, mentally or emotionally” to look after. As the isolation and the increasingly unsettling behaviour of the children, especially the disturbingly mature Miles, begin to wear upon Kerr’s Miss Giddens, questions arise as to whether we are witnessing the unravelling of a repressed mind, or the echoes of malevolent spirits.
An eerily luminous classic, its influence has reverberated through the years, most notably on the lush, psychologically rich ghost stories of Guillermo Del Toro.
The Mask of Satan/Black Sunday/Revenge of the Vampire (1960, 87 minutes)
Sticking with the early 60s (I’ve always found afternoons to be the ideal time to watch older movies, for whatever reason), we cross to Italy for Mario Bava’s La maschera del demonio, retitled The Mask of Satan or Revenge of the Vampire in the UK and Black Sunday in the US (both versions can be found in various edits/guises). Barbara Steele’s Asa, a 17th Century witch, is about to be put to death by her brother, and vows revenge upon his descendants before a demon-shaped metal mask is hammered in to her face. Two centuries later, a doctor and his assistant find themselves embroiled in the supernatural shenanigans that inevitably follow when Asa’s tomb is rediscovered.
Atmospherically thick with dread, visually iconic, and alive with a heaving, lusty Gothic sensibility that papers over its lapses into illogic (par for the course in Italian horror and either a boon or a burden, depending on your personal tastes), this one’s the ideal film to close out the last few hours of murky daylight and take us to the early evening shift.
Fright Night (1985, 106 minutes)
Tom Holland’s wonderful ode to classic horror, and the cheesy hosts who brought the movies to suburban kids across America, has charm in abundance and makes for the perfect film to usher us in to the night. Roddy McDowall is marvellous as Peter Vincent, the washed up Hammer-esque horror thespian turned late night host to whom horny teen Charley Brewster turns when he becomes convinced that his suave new neighbour Chris Sarandon is an actual vampire.
Funny, atmospheric, loaded with fantastic 1980s practical effects, and delivering on the shocks when needed, this is a perennial Halloween favourite that sucks you in from minute one.
Re-Animator (1985, 86 minutes)
Maverick weirdo Stuart Gordon spent years working in experimental theatre, but branched out in to cinema with a low budget horror movie. His funny, violent and witty adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft sees a revelatory Jeffrey Combs as an amoral Victor Frankenstein, Dr Herbert West, who develops a serum which revives the recently deceased. His feud with the villainous Dr Carl Hill over the discovery unleashes predictable amounts of hell, as reanimated cats, university deans, and disembodied heads stack up.
Avoiding the fate of most 1980s horror (a savaging by critics could usually be relied on), the film was rightly lauded almost immediately, and this grotesque little gem was even awarded a prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Its humour is sophisticated, but not stuffy, its gags gross, but not gratuitous, and its pacing and snappy performances across the board mean the 86 minutes absolutely rattle by.
Trick ‘r Treat (2007, 82 minutes)
The cult for this movie does seem to have caught on, but the fact this it isn’t seen as one of the defining must-watch Halloween movies every year absolutely baffles me. Dumped unceremoniously on to DVD by a short-sighted studio, it has become a word-of-mouth success but deserves to be seen by everyone. A four-part anthology of interconnected vignettes, it weaves Halloween lore, werewolves, ghosts, slashers, and more in to its lean running time.
The tone is a smirking, ruthless black comedy, familiar to anyone who saw director Michael Dougherty’s similarly fantastic Krampus a couple of Christmasses ago. A quality cast of mid-00s faces dig in to their lines with tremendous relish, and the production design gifts us with the iconic image of Sam, the little pyjama clad boy with the burlap sack hood that ties the narrative strands together.
The Witch (2015, 93 minutes)
No recent horror film has left as much of a mark on me as The Witch, an instant classic that saw Robert Eggers concoct a chilling historical horror movie that has the clarity and simplicity of a folk tale told with a relentless ratcheting dread. As an outcasted Puritan family seek to scratch out a living on the edge of the woods, their youngest child is snatched away by an unseen assailant. Their hardships, losses and religious fervour combine to create a madness that consumes them all.
The film plays with a total lack of humour – there is no release valve here, just a phenomenally crafted addition to the top echelon of the horror canon.
Kuroneko (1968, 99 minutes)
This was a tricky position to fill – I knew I wanted to include one stark, beautiful and unsettling Japanese horror movie from the 1960s, and I narrowed it down to 3 options. Kwaidan, an absolutely stunning anthology movie of folk tales rendered in glowing colour photography, was sadly ruled out on account of being 3 hours long; that left Kaneto Shindo’s mid-60s masterpieces in Kuroneko (Black Cat) and Onibaba (Demon Hag). While Onibaba’s defiant bleakness leaves a mark, and the story of an accursed mask offers appealing thematic ties to The Mask of Satan, Kuroneko’s uncanny air of strangeness won out. The tale of two women, brutally murdered by passing samurai and resurrected as cat creatures, takes much of its mysterious energy from traditional theatre, where the actresses’ mannered movements and the wide-open spaces of the tatami-floored rooms are charged with tension. Smoke billows, the murderous samurai are picked off, and the women, now consumed with revenge, inject the whole piece with an intoxicating melancholy.
Ed Wood (1994, 126 minutes)
A pre-sleep wind-down and reminder that our love of horror cinema binds us in to a weird little family. That these films, as diverse a banner as horror can be, may be tawdry, or they may be cheap, or they may be terrible, but they speak to us on a level that other films do not. They can inspire genuine devotion, tales of monsters and fantasy that tap in to our lizard brains and allow us to work out our weirder impulses in the safety of a dark cinema.
Exploitation cinema has to do this, by definition. It has to shock, scare, spook, thrill or titillate, preferably all at once. The drive needed to make these weird slices of cinema demands weird artists, and the wide-eyed, can-do spirit of Ed Wood is infectious. He, and his band of misfit cohorts, bond over the desire to make something. They do what they can with what they have, and the joy they find in creation, as heartbreaking as it is when it ultimately fails, is inspiring. The film encapsulates, for me, why we hold this weird little genre in such regard when so much of it is terrible, cynical, or plain nasty. When you find those films that speak to your exact tastes, when those images and sounds bypass your rational brain and lodge in to your subconscious, they deliver an emotional response that no sweeping drama or action movie or comedy can. It reaches down, plays on your fears, and for a certain kind of viewer, it’s a feeling they want to rediscover again and again.
Ed Wood is a joyful love letter to these films that we cling to, that we allow to stoke our fears and test our nerves, that either terrify us, or whose failures to do so we find endearingly terrible and love them just as much (Ed Wood’s movies firmly falling in to the latter category).
That love of the genre is something that I think binds a lot of the films I’ve picked here. More so than just wanting to watch something scary/violent/shocking/gross, when it comes to Halloween, I want to watch something that evokes the season, something that entertains in some way, and something that reminds me why I love these kinds of movies. Everyone has their own criteria, and I love seeing what other people feel compelled to watch at this time of year. They’ll skew more extreme, or follow a strict theme; they’ll include unimpeachable classics; they’ll highlight the work of underrepresented newcomers. I can’t wait to read them, and I can’t wait to see what I’ll discover, or develop a newfound appreciation of. To paraphrase Wizzard, oh, I wish it could be Halloween every day.