Are there movies that no Halloween season would be complete without a re-watch?
Is there a book that's taken off the shelf every October because it helps create just the right Halloween atmosphere?
Here's a list of movies that never fail to fill me with the Halloween spirit.
HOCUS POCUS (1993)
There are not nearly enough movies about witches. While other little girls were obsessed with princesses, the young Madamoiselle thought witches were so much cooler. They performed magic, wreaked havoc on people that messed with them and they didn't need no handsome prince. I even had imaginary witch sisters. Naturally, as a wee lassie I used to watch HOCUS POCUS until my eyes bled. It not only takes place in Salem on Halloween night, it features a talking black cat, a zombie, a creepy spell book, a plan to steal the souls of children, a badass Halloween party musical number, the kid from EERIE, INDIANA and best of all -- the Sanderson Sisters! Even now that I have grown from a horrible little girl to a horrible young woman, no Halloween is complete without the bickering and bumbling mayhem of Winifred, Sarah and Mary.
And featuring PENNY MARSHALL is just the icing on the cake.
ED WOOD (1992)
Anyone who has affection for cheesy, black-and-white B-(and even a few grades lower) movies will love ED WOOD. It's just a smorgasbord of things that remind me why I love Halloween and horror in general: the black and white photography, the behind-the-scenes view of poverty row monster flicks, '50s horror icons TOR JOHNSON and VAMPIRA, and MARTIN LANDAU's Oscar-winning performance as BELA LUGOSI. A romantic scene in a carnival spook house and a Halloween evening-in where Bela shows Ed his famous hypno-hands routine while watching WHITE ZOMBIE will warm the dark hearts of horror fans.
THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER (1960)
I can't have Halloween without EDGAR ALLAN POE or VINCENT PRICE. It just feels wrong. The first, and perhaps the best, film in ROGER CORMAN's Poe cycle, it's a masterpiece of Gothic horror and I love it a little more every time I see it. I think it's still very unsettling today. The Usher house is full of madness, recrimination and a sense of impending doom. Sorta like my family's house. VINCENT PRICE gives a chillingly understated performance as the doomed Roderick Usher. Perhaps it's because I consumed a steady diet of POE as a child or because on Saturday evenings a local broadcast station used to air VINCENT PRICE movies and I would stay up late to watch them, but THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER just gives me that same morbid excitement I used to get about Halloween.
THE BLACK CAT (2007)
And speaking of EDGAR ALLAN POE, what about this STUART GORDON entry in MASTERS OF HORROR? I think this may be my personal favorite of the MOH films and why not? It features everything that puts me in the right Halloween mood: black cats, Gothic tropes, spooky atmosphere, madness and the original master of horror himself, MR. POE - and he's played by DESCENT INTO MADNESS favorite JEFFREY COMBS! The clever script by DENNIS PAOLI and STUART GORDON fuses POE's fiction with the facts of his own tormented life.
This one is already in the 31 Days of Halloween queue, but I had to include it here anyway. GEORGE ROMERO's and STEPHEN KING's tribute to EC Comics reminds me of everything I imagined horror movies to be as a kid. It's got just the right combination of playfulness and horror to invoke that same feeling you get as a kid walking through a haunted house around Halloween season.
ELVIRA, MISTRESS OF THE DARK (1988)
I was obsessed with ELVIRA as a kid. I wanted to be her. You know, what? I still do!
AMITYVILLE II: THE POSSESSION (1982)
I didn't see this one until I was in college. I was looking forward to a long night of working on a mind-numbing storyboarding project but fortunately I would have AMC MONSTERFEST to keep me company. Now, this was back in the days before it degenerated into a half-assed sloppily programmed garbage-fest. It was a dark, chilly mid-October night and AMITYVILLE II: THE POSSESSION was about to come on. I had never rented it because everything I read about it had been scathing. "Oh well," I thought. "It'll be some nice background noise." Little was I prepared for how much I would be sucked into this underrated tale of familial dysfunction and demonic possession. So much so that now I have to watch it every Halloween! And I'm glad I'm not the only maniac out there who likes it better than the first AMITYVILLE.
THE BODY SNATCHER (1945)
My parents both love classic movies and watched them all the time with me as a kid. I think that's why a lot of films that give me that good ol' Halloween feeling are old-fashioned Gothics. VAL LEWTON produced horror movies with their beautifully shadowed photography, twisted psychology and dreamy menace are perfect October viewing. And especially the underrated THE BODY SNATCHER which also boasts BORIS KARLOFF. BORIS was always like the kindly uncle we wish we had who would sit down with a cup of tea and tell us scary stories. To me, he gives his best performance here as conflicted Edinburgh cabman and grave-robber-turned-murderer John Gray.
SPIDER BABY (1967)
With its mixture of B-movie camp, insane antics and classic Gothic tropes, this is another one that invokes that same mixture of mischievous glee, creepiness and fun that I always associated with Halloween growing up. It reminds me of a combination of Shirley Jackson's WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE and the soon-to-be-made THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE. Lovable LON CHANEY JR. gives his best performance as gentle caretaker to the mad Merrye family, Bruno and even gets to sing the awesome theme song!
When I was in middle school, I went to an all-girls Catholic school. So now all horror movies pale in comparison. Anyway, for Halloween in sixth grade, I made my own Carrie White costume. It was great, my mother sewed the dress and I mixed up a giant batch of fake blood. However, the principal did not approve of anyone using their imagination and I was sent home for my costume being "too horrifying." But I also won the prize for Scariest Costume. Needless to say, Carrie White was my best friend during those terrifying middle school years and I still have to spend time with her every Halloween season.
That perfect mixture of irreverence, Gothic and straight-up insanity combined with my fixation on mad scientists makes RE-ANIMATOR a Halloween staple. I mean, an authoritarian med school professor gets decapitated with a shovel and then his re-animated head is all kinds of pervy, the dean gets trampled by a spastic revived corpse and there's a rampaging zombie cat - even if this movie stunk I would still love it! Luckily it's clever, imaginative and just plain fun. The score alone fills me with Halloween spirit. Like most of the other films on this list, I saw it at an impressionable age when I had a burgeoning interest in horror films so it's just always carried that inexplicable magic. Also, while other middle school girls carried torches for LEONARDO DICAPRIO, I had a mad crush on JEFFREY COMBS. You just can't compete with a sarcastic mad scientist, Leo.
Although maybe if I had seen this back then I would have felt differently:
THE SHINING (1980)
Okay, you got me, I probably use every holiday as an excuse to watch THE SHINING. I think my soul probably looks like Jack Torrance running amok through the Overlook Hotel. And it even inspired a parody/homage on THE SIMPSONS' HALLOWEEN special!
So there you have it, kiddies. There will be a book list coming soon.
So what about you, gentle readers? What books and movies get you in the Spirit of Halloween and fill your heads with unpleasant dreams?
Feel free to shout it out in the Comments section or email me your own list here!