The following is an expanded version of last year's Halloween movie post. If you are looking for something seasonal to rent or order from Netflicks, I am your man.
The U.S. has five holidays that are really celebrated: Christmas, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Easter, and Valentine's Day. Halloween comes second in terms of store displays and yard ornaments, and, after Christmas, it is my favorite holiday. This is due to the simple fact that I am incurably fond of the spooky story. In case you are looking for a good Halloween movie, I have some suggestions.
The best single Halloween movie is, well, Halloween, John Carpenter's 1978 masterpiece, if only on account of its subject. It builds on the plausible and provocative idea that real monsters lurk in the subconscious mind, and is carried by master performances: Donald Pleasance and Jamie Lee Curtis. If you want something more suitable for children, try The Adams Family. This superbly crafted homage to the old TV show is perfect for watching while munching on popcorn and distributing candy to miniature ghouls at the door. And don't forget Ghost Busters, which is also safe for the kids. GB was a genuinely novel idea: demon fighters who approach their job as if they were plumbers. Also, the mix of the supernatural and science fiction genres has roots in the beginnings of modern horror fiction. You find it obviously in Frankenstein, and in Bram Stoker's Dracula. Unfortunately, it all but falls out of almost all the vampire movies.
If you want something classic, go back to the 1930's, when our four basic Halloween monsters saw their first moonlight. Frankenstein (1931) ranks as the undisputed father of the modern monster story, with a number of scenes that have become cultural motifs. And you gotta love Boris Karloff as the monster. But Bela Lugosi as Dracula (also filmed in 1931) is an almost perfect horror film. There is a collection out now that includes a Spanish version, filmed at night using the same script and sets, for Mexican audiences. My kids got it for me for Christmas. Karloff appeared a year after Frankenstein in The Mummy. The plot serves as a template for later versions of Dracula: resurrected man/demon pursues a woman who reminds him of his long lost love. I think it's Karloff's best role. Ten years after Frankenstein came Lon Chaney Jr. as The Wolf Man. Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night, may become a wolf when the wolf bane blooms, and the autumn moon is bright. The inescapable and undeserved curse sets this one apart from all the others.
I would add one movie to this list oldies that never gets the credit it deserves: The Tingler (1959), with Vincent Price. It represents the best work of William Castle, the Alfred Hitchcock of B movie horror. Like Ghost Busters, this story is based on a genuinely innovative idea. Price plays Dr. Warren Chapin, who discovers that the tingling feeling we get when afraid is caused by a creature that lives in the spine of every human being. When we get scared, it grows. When we scream, it shrinks back to insignificance. Castle actually had the seats in some theaters wired to produce a mild shock during a moment when the audience is supposed to be scared, and a narrator urges them to scream in order to save themselves. But it needs no such theatrics. Great acting and a strong screenplay make it a true gem.
For a few laughs, try Mel Brook's Young Frankenstein, in my view, Brook's best movie. There is more than a little sexual innuendo, but it will fly right over the heads of most young trick-or-treaters. Not safe for children, but delicious for more mature audiences, is The Rockey Horror Picture Show. A good rock and roll soundtrack, and a lot of young men and women with too much time on their hands, made this into one of the most successful musicals of all time. It's a good spoof on the Frankenstein story, with a lot of B movie sci fi thrown in. I myself had the honor of playing the criminologist for one performance when Rockey was produced at Northern. Finally, almost any collection of The Simpsons Tree House of Horror is good for the holiday.
If you are looking for some more undiscovered but sinister gems, rent Bubba HoTep. This happens to be my favorite movie. A geriatric Elvis (Bruce Campbell) and a Black man who thinks he is JFK (Ozzie Davis) battle a mummy in a nursing home. In the climax, when Ozzie Davis starts his motorized wheel chair in motion to challenge the mummy, well, I still get tears in my eyes. If you want something with more bite, try Cat People, with marvelous work by Natassja Kinski and Malcom McDowell. The movie is transformed into a masterpiece by Giorgio Moroder's dense electronic score, which is every bit as good as the soundtrack from Chariots of Fire. Another good bet is Demon Knight, a tale that pushes all my buttons. A lone warrior who carries what amounts to the blood of Christ battles to keep a legion of demons from invading the world. Mortally wounded, he passes his mission to a teenage girl who, like Barabbas, was a thief. That, I submit, is a story.
If you are drawn to the zombie genre, there is no substitute for George Romero's Night of the Living Dead. It is not easy to recommend any of the spin-offs, other than the remake Dawn of the Dead (2004). But I warn you, the latter is a very dark and genuinely scary movie. Also scary is 28 Days Later, a movie that introduced the fast zombie to the genre. It's not a true zombie movie, as "the infected" are living human beings who have been turned into proto-zombies by a rabies-like virus. If you want something cheap and cheesy, try Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things (1972), a very amateurish drama about a troop of amateur thespians who manage to wake up an army of corpses. It is a cult classic that I just happened to have watched for the first time tonight.
Finally, if you are wondering what to order from Netflicks and you are in the mood for something very dark but culturally expanding, you might dip into some Asian horror. Three excellent choices for All Hallows Eve are Ringu (The Ring), Ju-On (The Grudge), and The Eye. The first two have American made versions. Unlike most A-Horror fans, I think the American Ring is as good as the Japanese original, but avoid the English version of The Grudge. The Eye, from Hong Kong, is wonderfully produced and acted movie with beautiful cinematography, and it is a deeply moving story.