Everyone has either seen “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” 10 times or simply doesn’t want to see it (fools that they be). Same with “Poltergeist,” “Psycho,” “Alien,” “Halloween” and the other standards.
Makes it pretty tough to pick just the right flicks to screen at your Halloween party. You want to show your horror geek friends you know your stuff without boring them, but you also don’t want to alienate or just plain old offend other guests who don’t want to hear exploding heads in the background as they try to talk up that girl in the ScarJo Black Widow costume.
The following 13 (more or less) films straddle the fence between monster cognoscenti and general movie fandom. A lot of folks will not have seen them, or will have seen them only a couple times and be up for a re-screening. And they are all at least reasonably well-reviewed; we’ve included the aggregate approval score at Rotten Tomatoes for each film as your fallback defense if somebody asks you why the hell you subjected them to THAT movie.
We picked one movie per fashionable sub-genre, to further help you tailor a double feature that best suits the mix at your party. Or just blow the whole weekend in front of the tube. Your call.
All the films are available for DVD rental at Wild and Woolly Video here in Louisville or for sale online. Netflix is increasingly spotty in its DVD inventory, so good luck there. We note on a case by case basis when they can be viewed online from a legitimate (pay) source.
And with that …
“Twins of Evil” (1971)
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 80% positive
You ask for sexy. British horror house Hammer Films brings you the Playboy twins, Mary and Madelaine Collison, in titular roles they sure didn’t win on acting chops. The last of Hammer’s trilogy derived from the kinda bi-sexy seminal novel “Carmilla,” “Twins” is powered (as always) by Peter Cushing as a creepy, deviant “witch hunter” who is thrust into the ill-fitting role of hero because, you know, vampire. The rest of movie is standard Gothic seduction and cleavage, which is not always a bad thing.
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 96% positive
This may well be George Romero’s best film, and that is saying a lot considering the guy defined the whole “living dead” genre. The setting of 1970s Pittsburgh creates as bleak a backdrop as any blasted heath of the Old Country, and the unpolished performances (particularly from lead John Amplas) add gritty realism to this story of generational conflict and mental illness, mistaken for the curse of the vampire. Fair warning: This movie contains depictions of sexual violence that are, by proper intent, very disturbing. No shimmering in the Steel City.
“The Plague of the Zombies” (1966)
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 78% positive
This Hammer Films classic predates Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” by a couple years, but many of the visual trappings that define the zombie horde motif — particularly tilted upshots to make stumbling seem somehow more menacing — are in their full glory here. It’s not radiation or a bio-engineered virus that’s pushed humanity to the verge of extinction; it’s just some fox-hunting jerks using voodoo to terrorize a village and get paid. This is a very pretty film, and it’s a lot of fun to watch a stuffy British doctor knocking off heads with a shovel.
“Carnival of Souls” (1962)
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 84% positive
Ultra-low budget constraints just serve to make this ghastly thriller by director Heck Harvey, who went on to do pretty much nothing else noteworthy in cinema, all the more eerie. After years of being re-cut, re-titled and otherwise milled as little more than filler stock for a comedy track, the film underwent a major rebirth and ended up with a Criterion release. Candice Hilligoss, who like Heck went on to do nothing else, is great as the totally freaked out protagonist; her performance is channeled by Judith O’Dea in “Night of the Living Dead” a few years later. And (spoiler alert) let’s just say that if you had already seen “Carnival,” you would have seen the ending of “The Sixth Sense” coming after about 10 minutes.
Due to Criterion’s distribution deal with Hulu, “Carnival of Souls” is readily available for online viewing.
Rotten Tomatoes rating: Too cool to have one
Director Nobuo Nakagawa beat splatter film auteur Herschell Gordon Lewis to the “let’s pretend bright red cow liver is a human organ” punch by about three years with this, at least to Western sensibilities, quite peculiar film that now is often considered “art house.” Translated “Hell,” Jigoku’s third act is essentially a tour of Dante’s Inferno, minus a linear sense of guilt. The tortured protagonist never does anything all that awful, and whatever redemption he finds is all very Ozu-fuzzy. The rest of the movie would be little more than a bland statement that everybody sucks and old folks homes are bad news if not for Yōichi Numata’s turn as Tamura, one of the best devil personas in all of cinema.
Due to Criterion’s distribution deal with Hulu, “Jigoku” is readily available for online viewing.
“Island of Lost Souls” (1932)
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 95% positive
The incomparable character actor Charles Laughton defines the giddy, almost sympathetic scientist run amok in this recasting of H.G. Wells’ “The Island of Dr. Moreau.” Once widely embraced as a high point of pre-code horror, the film was reviled by Wells himself; his Dr. Moreau was simply morally agnostic, while Laughton is having a really good time with that whip in the House of Pain. And then there’s sex with the Panther Woman and clearly implied ape-man rape. Like we said, pre-code horror.
The Criterion edition release features an interview with members of the band Devo, which drew its name and “Are We Not Men” catch phrase from late-night TV showings of “Lost Souls.”
Overwrought Gothic Costume Terror
“The Masque of the Red Death” (1964)
Rotten Tomatoes rating: Doesn’t have one. But it would be awesome.
Obviously knocking off Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal,” Roger Corman goes livid color in what is probably the best of his loose Poe adaptations. A wicked prince revels with his bloated courtiers in his castle as the Red Death devastates the countryside. That’s about it. Vincent Price is, obviously, awesome in a role that was tailor-made for his wicked austerity, and you also get Hazel Court and Terry Terry. Film fans who know Corman only as the schlock factory boss who brought you “Humanoids from the Deep” will be surprised to find he was a genuinely talented director.
Science Has Turned Nature Against Us in a Big Way
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 92% positive
A stalwart of Louisville TV monster-movie programming in the ’70s, this beautifully lean Jack Arnold flick would run about 13 minutes in the era of wireless. A small desert town is cut off from the outside world when a giant spider topples the phone lines and gets to chomping. Unlike other big bug movies of the era, the science gone wrong here isn’t the A-bomb; it’s a super-fertilizer created by a perfectly likable scientist who just wants to feed folks. Simple effects based on footage of an actual spider are still surprisingly effective.
Special Townie Bonus: Read up on the Fearmonger, Louisville’s own TV horror host from the ’70s portrayed by actor Charles Kissinger. His “Fright Night” double-feature on WDRB relied on the Universal catalog as a programming staple. Trust us, your dad saw “Tarantula” like 15 times when he was a kid. And if you want to go super-townie for Halloween, screen Kissinger in “Asylum of Satan” (1972), shot right here by Louisville’s own William Girdler. You will impress no one by doing so, but it’s fun.
“Dog Soldiers” (2002)
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 77% positive
Nearly a dark comedy along the lines of “The Evil Dead” series, this low-budget UK project strips away the angst usually associated with today’s unwilling, or at least misunderstood, wolf-boys. A British special-ops squad ends up under siege in Scottish cabin by the damn hairy things and does what a special ops squad would do — shoot them. Or blow them up. Doesn’t end up mattering that much. No real surprises or character development here, just a lot of violent, mindless fun.
Everybody’s already seen all the good ones, ’cause there are like three.
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 56% positive
This one is no critical darling, but what do they know — look at that picture. Fishmen are freaking creepy, even indoors. A semi-loose adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” itself a thinly veiled screed against miscegenation by everybody’s favorite xenophobe sci-fi writer, this low-budget piece offers up plenty of R-rated breeding to go with a dark atmosphere and surprisingly solid practical effects. A dying fishing village has made a deal with a mysterious entity to bring back the fish, and, man, do they come back in a big way.
“The Sentinel” (1977)
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 55% positive
At the tail-end of Hollywood’s ’70s-era fascination with the devil, “The Sentinel” is no “Rosemary’s Baby,” and it has suffered critically via that lofty standard. On its own merits, it’s a creepy little flick — although on a lot of key notes it does try really hard to be “Rosemary.” A young model moves into an inexplicably cheap NYC apartment, and then she meets the neighbors and attends one of the most uncomfortable birthday parties of all time. And her boyfriend is a smarmy jerk. You get the picture. A crazy good cast is dominated by Burgess Meredith as one of the great movie devils. They even got friggin’ Ava Gardner to pull a cameo.
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 87% positive
The best of Hitchcock’s later films, much better that even the critical consensus, “Frenzy” balances the master’s best cinematic gifts with the old perv’s obsession to not be out-darked by the next wave of Polanskis coming down the pike. Hitchcock “shows us the bomb” immediately by revealing the identity of a sexual predator stalking London, and builds suspense throughout as the creep keeps slipping the noose. He cast London stage actors, not Hollywood icons, bringing a tangible uncertainty missing from even his greatest films. You’re just not going to kill off Janet Leigh early in every movie, even when you are Hitchcock.
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 75% positive
Dario Argento had a huge hit in Europe with this typically gorgeous, unnervingly sexual and completely illogical Argento flick about Swiss private school girls being stalked by a psycho killer. Twist is, one of the girls, American import Jennifer Connelly, has this psychic connection with insects that comes in handy in case of psycho killers. None of it makes a lick of sense, but it’s great to look at, and Argento’s Italian sensibilities give him no pause in gawking with his camera at a 14-year-old Connelly. Oh, and Donald Pleasence hangs with a chimp.
Bonus: Incredibly Beautiful, Artful Film to Impress Your Grown-Up Friends
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 100% positive
Director Carl Theodor Dreyer’s use of double-exposure effects and, most notably, shadow rivals the great silent expressionist films, including Murnau’s “Nosferatu.” In fact, Dreyer (“The Passion of Joan of Arc“) shot “Vampyr” essentially as a silent film, complete with title cards, using bursts of sound only for emphasis. The story is straight Stoker; an unwitting traveler must save a young woman from the hypnotic grasp of the local, sophisticate bloodsucker. The drawn-out death scene of her familiar, essentially drowning in flour, is far more brutal than anything you’ll see in an “Underworld” flick.
Due to Criterion’s distribution deal with Hulu, “Vampyr” is readily available for online viewing.
Bonus: Completely Insane, Hysterically Funny Movie to Impress Your Juvenile Friends
In commentary for the Criterion release of this Japanese freak show, “House of the Devil” director Ti West aptly compares “Hausa” (translated, “House”) to “Rock ’n’ Roll High School.” It’s an absurdist parody of a genre film that so completely embraces its source that it still functions as a genre movie — just a really crazy genre movie. Since “Hausa” is parodying Japanese ghost stories, which are pretty out there in the first place, the result may be literally the wackiest film that features mortal combat with a lamp ever made. There’s just no point in describing it. Watch it sometime.
Due to Criterion’s distribution deal with iTunes and Hulu, “Hausa” is readily available for online viewing.