Ah, Halloween, the one day/night of the year where people all across America can dress up and pretend to be someone they aren’t, and nobody’s going to call you a weirdo for doing so. We are allowed, nay, expected even, to adopt a different persona for the evening’s events, which include candy collection, practical jokes, and unfortunately, there’s always a few instances of vandalism.
But in the weeks leading up to Halloween proper, we indulge ourselves in all manner of macabre activities, from haunted houses to making fake corpses to string up on the porch or lay out in the yard for the evening in question. One of the past times that we enjoy best as Americans, one that certainly doesn’t slow up during this harrowing holiday season, is the Halloween movie experience.
We’re going to take a look at ten films that I personally feel to be long-standing greats of the horror genre, and give a handful of reasons why they deserve inclusion on the list. This being the first such list, it may seem to stretch back quite a ways chronologically, but classics earn that title for a reason; they’re classic.
#10) Bram Stoker’s Dracula- Featuring exquisitely designed sets and elaborate environmental establishment, this representation of the King of Vampires’ tale has exactly what the Halloween movie crowd is gunning for; intrigue, suspense, visceral yet not overdone gore where appropriate, and the sex appeal that is a staple of the eternal bloodsucker. Between the set design and costume work alone one can tell that a great deal of time was spent ensuring that the audience is taken into the moment, and into the hunt of ol’ Vlad.
#9) The Shining- And by this, I mean the original with Jack Nicholson, who portrays Stephen King’s cabin-fevered caretaker and his family, set to take care of the cleaning and mending of a grand hotel up in the mountains, quite a ways from any sort of neighbors. The sense of dreadful isolation this small group of people has to contend with up at the hotel is clear from the visible stretches of nothing but snow and treacherous not-quite-roads around the building. Nicholson’s performance as he drops deeper and deeper into the chasm of depression and madness is one of the finer ones I have seen in horror films from the era. It certainly doesn’t hurt that I believe he might actually be a little mad himself.
And oh, those twins! The first time I saw this movie, I was about ten, and that was one of the creepiest things I’d ever seen in my life. It still gets to me.
#8) Friday the 13th, Part 2- This is where the real monster from Camp Crystal Lake comes into play, when Jason Voorhees dons the emblematic hockey mask that will become his trademark signature, along with that machete of his, for years to come. From slicing and hacking to simple stabbing and crushing, the methodical stalking that is also a trademark of this uber-zombie juggernaut is first established here. While not a new tactic per se, it is one that American moviegoers will always associate with the lumbering savage.
Camera work was not the most impressive, nor was lighting and shadow effect, but the overall darkness works considering how old the movie is by today’s standards. For the fans of the more splatter-oriented sort of horror, this is a film that surely must scratch the surface at least of their favorites list.
#7) Pulse (Japanese original)- Your friend has recently died, leaving your life forever. Torn by the loss, you try to think of them as they were, vibrant and alive and full of laughter. Then one day shortly after their demise, you receive a video message via your email or web capable phone. It shows your friend dying in every grisly detail. And there seems to be a message, a message that they’re coming back for you, but not in any kind of ‘let’s stick together as friends’ sort of way. Such is the premise and execution of ‘Pulse’, a techno-horror cautionary tale that warns us to beware how deeply we immerse ourselves in a reliance on technology. Especially if tech is the way back to us from the land of the dead. This is a high-marks film, a must for anyone who is a fan of Asian horror.
#6) A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors- Freddy Krueger’s third jaunt in the dreamscape of teenagers from Elm Street is arguably the best entry in the series by far, and more than deserving of being on this list of top ten Halloween films. First and foremost, this entry into the series is a departure from the previous two installments in that it doesn’t take place specifically on the famous Elm Street itself. Rather, the teenagers who are Freddy’s intended victims are locked in an asylum together. Can you guess where they all hail from, though? You’d guess right. With clever and disturbing dream imagery separating each of the victims’ dreamscapes and thus giving them each their own individual persona for Freddy to confront and conquer, it leaves the impression upon the viewer that regardless of how sweetly you dream, you’re dead. The very fact that this particular boogeyman came back for a third round should also say something for his power, and does.
#5) Dog Soldiers- Yet another foreign-made film, this action/horror movie takes the audience to some unknown woods in Scotland. In these woods, two groups of soldiers are dropped in to perform maneuvers with one another in a training exercise, unaware that there are ravenous lycanthropes living in said woods, ripping apart anything and anyone they come across. While the film doesn’t show a great deal of the werewolves themselves in up close action, utilizing blur motion and other shot-blocking techniques, when we are shown the carnage of the melee with the creatures, they are incredible. The fur bristles, the teeth are agonizingly nasty to look at, and the suddenness with which the violence erupts and continues through each scene is incredible. This is a must if you are a fan of the three ‘Big Boys’ of horror; the vampire, the werewolf, and the zombie.
#4) Dawn of the Dead (original)- This Romero masterpiece set the stage for what zombie cinema should rightfully be, and it does so uncompromisingly. Characters the audience roots for are ultimately taken down by the flesh-eating, shambling idiot undead. The mall’s resources are not infinite, which helps add to the tension that builds over the course of the film. And when the road raiders come crashing into the mall to try and scavenge supplies from the hapless survivors, we are treated to all new levels of trouble. The key elements for proper zombie cinema are all here; slow, stupid, mindless eating machines in various levels of decomposition and, in a few cases, strange coloration. Oh, and zombies don’t run, folks. These are what zombies are supposed to be.
#3) Saw- The first in the series, and still far and away the best of them all. The premise, simple and clean and terrifying in a claustrophobic manner, is executed with a minimum amount of set work, effects, or other fancy trappings of the cinematic work experience. The paranoia, the uncertainty, and the riddles involved are clever and disturbing, their presentation genius. When compared to the rest of the series, one is left wondering if the amazing traps used in later installments were worth convoluting the story to the epic proportions reached as time has gone by. The first was clean, independent, and on its own, still stands as a great bit of terror.
#2) Ju-On (The Grudge, original Japanese version)- Don’t waste a minute wondering if the American remake was anywhere near as good as the original; simply put, it wasn’t. Ju-On had the atmosphere of a ghost story, which quickly devolved into something far more disturbing, which was a sense of the truly awful always being just moments away. From the long, dragging black hair to the pasty white-fleshed boy-thing crawling around like some kind of crack-addled cat (meowing as well to heighten the effect), one can never be certain just how the curse of the house featured in the film is going to take its victims. The angles the cameramen took throughout this film, while so standard, so fitting in other sorts of features, adds to the overall sense of ‘yeah, this is supposed to be normal. Try fitting your head around that.’
And, of course, the final entry, one that cannot be skipped over when dealing with films of the occult, the macabre, the supernatural. While not a horror film in the traditional sense of the term, I would challenge anyone to deny that my #1 choice for Halloween movie watching enjoyment should be in the top tier of this list.
#1) Ghostbusters- From the catchy theme song, the first collection of ectoplasmic goop in a sample dish, the first quote I recall (‘Shh, do you smell something?’) from any movie of my childhood, all the way to the Slimer, the Stay-Pufft Marshmallow Man, and “There is no Dana, only Zule,” this film is the penultimate Halloween flick. It’s got silly action, special effects that, for the time, were nothing short of incredible (and still look good), a great comedic presentation, and it captures the look and feel of its city environs like few other films of the era could have hoped. Let’s also examine this question; can you say, in all honesty, that you know anybody who has ever said they hate this movie? No, because it’s impossible. There are only degrees to which you like it, from not much, to completely and without reserve.
Well, that’s all for this year’s entries into the top ten Halloween movie list. There will no doubt be those of you reading this who are wondering where Michael Myers and the movie ‘Halloween’ come in, to which I can only say, wait for next year’s list. He may make an appearance yet.