So it’s that time of year again, and neither the big studios nor the independents are offering us any cinematic scares to speak of, unless you’re prepared for the quality mire of direct-to-video digging. For many the big screen will remain dark this Halloween. But if you’re not partying or trick or treating (or if you treat this holiday with the same dubious contempt I do yet still use it as an excuse to watch a couple of decent scary movies), then here are a few suggestions that might not immediately have been your first port of call. Some perhaps obvious, some a little (but not too far) off the beaten path…
1. The Halloween Alternative: John Carpenter’s The Fog (1980)
It’s rather tempting to just go straight for Carpenter’s classic Halloween and have done with it, but how about looking at the next film he made? The Fog is perhaps even more suitable for October 31st. It’s a good old campfire story. It’s even bracketed as such, with a brief but memorable appearance from John Houseman as a fisherman telling the film’s tale to a bunch of captivated children at midnight. The main body of the film sees supernatural vengeance and ghost story co-mingle as Carpenter amps things up slowly, evoking almost Hitchcockian suspense. There’s a great central turn from Adrienne Barbeau and notable supporting roles for Jamie Lee Curtis, Hal Holbrook and Janet Leigh, plus the photography by Dean Cundey (who went on to the likes of Jurassic Park) is just the right amount of eerie.
2. The Folk-Horror Alternative: Blood On Satan’s Claw (1971)
I’m chomping at the bit to see the new cut of Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man and a little disgraced with myself that I haven’t caught it already, but it’s not the only folk-tinged horror that Britain turned out in the 70’s. Two years before it, Piers Haggard’s Blood On Satan’s Claw appeared, and it’s a notable entry in horror’s quaintly disturbing sub genre. A shade nastier than Hardy’s film, but not quite as arduous as the equally revered Witchfinder General, Blood On Satan’s Claw has been unfairly forgotten in some circles. Atmospheric and uncomfortable, it tells the tale of a town that is brought under evil’s thrall, with only a judge played by Patrick Wymark to save them. It’s been a while since I saw it, but it left an indelible impression, and a recent re-release makes this Halloween a perfect opportunity to uncover its sinister charms.
3. The Asian Alternative: Three… Extremes (2004)
This portmanteau horror offering from the East is worth your time whichever way you cut it. Comprised of three 40 minute stories, one from Hong Kong (Fruit Chan’s Dumplings), one from South Korea (Park Chan-Wook’s Cut – pictured above) and one from Japan (Takashi Miike’s Box), it’s an impressive title that somehow got lost in the shuffle when Asian horror was recently in vogue. All three films are effective, though for me personally things get better as they go along. Chan’s Dumplings features Bai Ling as a woman whose venerated foodstuffs stifle the effects of ageing – but what’s the secret ingredient? Chan-Wook’s Cut is an appropriately macabre tale of vengeance and torture from the Oldboy director, though one that is played with a welcome injection of humour. Lastly, Miike‘s Box is simply stunning. One of his most artful creations, it tells the creepy tale of a magic trick gone wrong. It’s nearly wordless and uses silence like a sledgehammer. Proof, if any were needed, that Miike is one of the most adept filmmakers of our times.
4. The Comedy Horror Alternative: An American Werewolf In London (1981)
Of course no Halloween horror night is complete without something fun. If you’re watching movies in a group, the last thing you want is something too navel-gazing, so a comedy horror is going to serve you well. But wait, Shaun Of The Dead doesn’t have to be your go-to choice; John Landis’ An American Werewolf In London remains the finest option, offering laughs and scares in equal measure. It’s a tough mix to get right, but Landis nails it here. Performances are top-notch, and the effects, though dated and familiar, are still extremely impressive if you give yourself over to them. Dig it out and give it another watch, because it’s still as fun as it always was.
5. The Other Portmanteau Alternative: Tales From The Crypt (1972)
The portmanteau horror film is experiencing something of a minor rival of late, thanks to the quality rollercoaster that was The ABCs of Death and the found footage carnage of the V/H/S films. I’ve already offered you one other modern take (Three… Extremes), but if you’re looking for something with a more classic vibe, or if you just can’t be bothered with subtitles, then Freddie Francis’ Tales From The Crypt is a good bet. Offering up five mini horror movies, there’s something for everyone here, from ghoulish revenge from beyond the grave to cursed statuary. Of it’s time and yet also timeless, Tales… is perfect Halloween material. Scariest (and best) of all, is the first offering in which Joan Collins is terrorised by a homicidal Santa, reminding the viewer of the next nightmare holiday on the horizon… Christmas.
6. The Classic Alternative: Nosferatu (1922)
Now this one you can see in the cinema. F W Murnau’s silent horror masterpiece Nosferatu has been newly restored and is receiving a limited release on the big screen in celebration. Don’t let it’s age discourage you; this is one of the finest horror films ever made. 90 years on and it still looks divine. A gothic marvel. Murnau’s expressionistic compositions evoke terrific atmosphere matched by the incredible physical performance by Max Schreck. Arguably the finest screen version of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (though in a failed attempt to avoid copyright laws the names have been changed throughout of course), this is a film to seek out and to savour.