With Halloween approaching us, I was tossing around a few ideas for potential articles to embrace the spooky season. I was going to write about my favorite horror films, about some relatively unknown gems or just a simple piece detailing the whole Halloween film series. I decided to settle on a list of ten films that are a great watch over the Halloween period — some well known, some less known, some guilty pleasures. Now, these aren’t all of my favorite horrors, just some that I like to watch at this time of the year. So, without any further ado, and in no particular order, let the rambling begin.
Switchblade Romance (2003)
Also known as Haute Tension/High Tension, this French language film, directed by Alexandre Aja (Mirrors, 2006′s The Hills Have Eyes and Piranha 3D), is a fantastic, tight, frenetic tale of two friends under attack by a maniac.
The film tells the tale of Alex (Maiwenn), accompanied by her friend, Marie (Cecile De France), returning to her family home in the French countryside. They get settled down for the night and all is well in the quiet French outback… that is until a knock on the door in the early hours of the morning. This is where the film diverts off into the depths of tension, suspense and savagery. The knock on the door is from a stranger — an overweight, overall wearing madman (Philippe Nahon) — who proceeds to butcher Alex’s family. He flees the scene, with Alex locked in the back of his van as his hostage. Whilst the slaying of Alex’s family was taking place, Marie manages to stay hidden, only appearing to follow after Alex and to save her friend.
The film is a fast-paced, quick-moving roller coaster ride, with brutal slayings and a killer twist that is one of the best in recent memory. I’ve yet to come across anybody that doesn’t like this film, although I’m sure there are some. It’s gritty, sleazy, dirty feel drags the viewer along for the ride as Marie and Alex are chased and harassed by a lunatic who doesn’t give a second thought to brutalizing anybody that gets in his way. Great direction, a fantastic, well-paced script, stellar performances (particularly from De France), a pounding soundtrack and a film that truly pulls the viewer through the action so much so that you’ll feel the urge to scrub yourself clean afterwards.
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)
Whilst the ’80′s is generally associated with shlocky, camp, cheesy horror films, it did throw up some horror greats, some great franchises and some lesser known classics –- this is the category that Henry falls into.
The film is loosely based on real-life serial killer, Henry Lee Lucas. In the titular role is Michael Rooker, a personal favorite of mine over the years. The film tells the story of Henry, a brutal killer who lives with a friend from prison, Otis (Tom Towles), and his savage, almost mindless murder spree. There is no real single plot to the film, just a mish-mash of brutal acts as Henry and Otis go on a rampage across Chicago. Early on we are introduced to Otis’ sister, Becky (Tracy Arnold), who develops into a love interest of sorts to Henry. Henry and Otis get hold of a video camera and document their dirty work as they go.
As mentioned, there’s no real sense of plot, but the film is unforgiving in its focus, staying with Henry as he slaughters innocent members of the public for seemingly no joy. As Henry, Rooker delivers an absolutely chilling performance, one of the most unnerving performances you will likely ever see. From the opening shots of Henry and dead bodies, to the climactic, suggestive ending, the films holds your attention and draws you in, even though everything about you wants to turn away. An often underrated film, Henry deserves a place in any horror fan’s collection, with Rooker’s performance being right up there with the best in the horror genre.
Following in the tradition of the 1950′s E.C. Comics, horror legends Stephen King and George A. Romero team up to bring a delightfully kitsch mix up of tales to the screen. Written by King, directed by Romero, the film is broken down into five segments, each with their own merits and identity. The segments are titled “Father’s Day,” “The Lonesome Death of Jody Verril,” “Something To Tide You Over,” “The Crate” and “They’re Creeping Up On You.”
The first feature is the tale of a father returning from the grave in a murderous search for cake on his birthday –- keep an eye out for Ed Harris in a small role showing off his dance moves. This is followed by the comedic story of a dimwitted farmer, played by King himself, who comes across a meteorite that causes him to sprout hair from every pore on his body. Up next is a Ted Danson and Leslie Nielsen-starring short about a couple that are buried in sand and left to drown, only to end up returning as zombies and tormenting the person responsible for their demise.
The fourth installment, “The Crate,” is my favorite of the bunch. Featuring Hal Holbrook and Adrienne Barbeau as a long-suffering husband and his abusive wife, the story is the longest of the bunch and also has a hint of dark comedy about it. The story revolves around some students on a deserted college campus that come across some ‘thing’ in a crate. Holbrook’s Henry is the professor that is called in to inspect the creature and soon realizes that the beast could be the answer to all of his problems. The final story focuses on E. G. Marshall’s Upson Pratt, a well-to-do, arrogant, rude man that comes across a small bug problem.
Each of the stories are concise, quick-paced and have a brilliantly tongue-in-cheek humor about them. Whilst King’s script and Romero’s direction are charming, they are also helped along by some brilliant effects work from another horror icon, Tom Savini. At times it feels as if you are watching a comic book unravel its pages on your screen. Creepshow really is a joy to watch, especially for those with a penchant for 1980′s horror and for short story narrative.
The Thing (1982)
As a big fan of John Carpenter, his version of The Thing is one of my all-time favorite horror films. It’s perfect Halloween viewing with its feel of isolation, desperation and a sense of unknowing.
Set in a Norwegian camp miles from civilization, the film starts with a bang as the opening sequence involves a Norwegian helicopter shooting at a stray dog. The scene climaxes in the Norwegian’s dead, the helicopter grounded in a big explosion and the dog playfully seeking affection from the American team stationed at the camp. It slowly comes to light that the pooch in question is not quite what it seems. This is given away when the dog rips in two, develops tentacles and starts crawling up the walls — always a giveaway in these situations. It turns out that the dog is actually a shape-shifting alien of sorts. This alien moves from body to body, copying the form of its host, meaning that it could take the shape of any animal or human and nobody would be any the wiser.
With a cast led by the effortlessly cool Kurt Russell and the brooding Keith David, the tension amongst the principal cast raises to new levels as paranoia takes hold: Who is real and who is a thing? The isolated, atmospheric wilderness is perfectly accompanied by a typically classic and bleak Carpenter score — such a staple of so many of his films over the years. Itself a remake of Howard Hawks’ The Thing From Another World (Carpenter even shows Hawks’ film in his classic Halloween), Carpenter’s The Thing spawned itself a prequel last year. (Whilst not particularly bad, the 2011 film was never going to live up to Carpenter’s effort.) As well as being a great story, Carpenter’s The Thing brought a whole new level to prosthetic and practical effects work, with the make up team, led by Rob Bottin, revolutionizing film effects. As well as the great story, direction, soundtrack, make up work and cast, there was some truly brilliant cinematography by longtime Carpenter collaborator, Dean Cundey.
If you’re looking for a bleak, tense story of paranoia, trust and isolation, look no further than The Thing. Carpenter has rattled off some classics over the years — Halloween, Christine, The Fog, even Body Bags to some — but The Thing is right up there with the best of his work and the best in horror.
Terror Firmer (1999)
Terror Firmer is from the mind of those crazy cats at Troma. Now, Troma often splits opinion — you either find it to be brilliant, primal film making or you find it to be grotesque, vulgar and horrid. I sit firmly in the former of those two ends of the spectrum. Troma is a film studio ran by Lloyd Kaufman, establishing their own cinematic universe, including such classics as The Toxic Avenger (their poster boy), Tromeo & Juliet, Class of Nuke ‘Em High, Silent But Deadly and Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead. The main theme with Troma films is that they involve gruesome-yet-humorous violence, plenty of vulgar language, large helpings of nakedness and an ability to throw up topics that are a little too close to the bone for most. As I said, you either love Troma or hate Troma; either way, there’s a passionate response.
My favorite of all of the Troma films is a little movie called Terror Firmer. I’m not going to say it’s the greatest film ever made — I don’t even known if you could class it as an out-and-out horror — but I will say that it is a big favorite of mine. The story almost parodies the Troma studio itself, focusing on them making a new Toxic Avenger movie. All is not well on set as people start to get brutally massacred in ways that have to be seen to be believed -– my personal favorite is a bong shoved up somebody’s backside whilst they have their brain fried in cocaine. The killer is a dark, mysterious, seductive female figure; a femme fatale of sorts. I don’t want to ruin the suspense too much, but let’s just say the killer isn’t what she seems; in fact, what lies between her legs is not what it seems. (Spoiler: Yes, that’s right, the big twist of this film is that the femme fatale in question turns out to be a confused, deranged transsexual psychopath. End spoiler.) It’s a move that only Troma could pull off (yes, you heard that right, Sleepaway Camp), yet the film doesn’t stop there. It keeps going and going, with the over-the-top violence (and indeed genital shots) continuing until the end.
Again, this won’t be everyone’s cup of tea — in fact, most may find it a vile film with no place in the world — but I like it, and, as this is my list, I’m giving two big thumbs up to Terror Firmer.
Now that I’ve managed to narrow my list down to the first five films, keep your eyes peeled for the next five in my 10 Halloween Treats later today. As mentioned at the start of the article, this isn’t a list of the best horror films of all-time; this is just a list, in no particular order, of the films that I like to watch over the Halloween period. You’ll be surprised by some choices, some will be predictable and others may inspire you to check out a film you’ve maybe never heard of or had been debating watching.