Happy October, boys and ghouls (I’m sorry—I had to)! Finally, after weeks of preparation, I get to begin my Spook Series! I never thought watching movies would be so much work. But yes—I have indeed been working my tail off to find and watch (or in many cases rewatch) some of the best movies out there for the Halloween season. I’ll be reviewing several different categories of scary films for Spook Series, but what better way to begin than with the classics? So as not to overwhelm you with a massive post, I’ve split my 13 classic horror film reviews into two parts. Without further ado, I give you Part One, numbers 13 through 7.
#13: The Hitcher (1986)
Synopsis: “A young man who escaped the clutches of a murderous hitch-hiker is subsequently stalked, framed for the hitcher’s crimes, and has his life made into hell by the same man he escaped.” –www.imdb.com
Why It’s Classically Creepy: Here we have leading man Jim (C. Thomas Howell), a kid on the road to San Diego who becomes an innocent victim caught up in the bloody crimes of crazy hitcher John Ryder (Rutger Hauer). You feel bad for poor Jim. That might seem obvious, but so many horror movies (especially recent ones) lack sympathetic or even likeable characters, which can have a huge impact on whether or not the film is effective. With that in mind, we pity Jim when here he is, just trying to help out a hitchhiker left out in the rain, and suddenly he has a knife to his throat. Jim manages to fend him off, but the hitcher continues to reappear along the road. The kid is scared out of his mind, his car is beat up by multiple wrecks, and Texas policemen are hot on his trail, believing that he is to blame for the hitcher’s string of roadside murders—which includes two policemen. Needless to say, he’s in deep. And because the hitcher always conveniently disappears, there’s not much Jim can do to prove his innocence. Howell conveys Jim’s stress well, and Hauer is equally effective as mysterious murderer John Ryder. The two characters have this strange connection—something that I actually wish was explored in more depth. They seem bound together for some reason, though we don’t fully understand why. More could’ve been done with this film, and the ending isn’t what I’d hoped, but it’s still a fun, thrilling little piece of horror. At the very least, it’ll make you think twice about giving strangers a lift.
My Grade: B
#12: The Stepfather (1987)
Synopsis: Jerry Blake thinks he’s created the perfect family when he marries Susan and becomes stepfather to her daughter, Stephanie. But underneath Jerry’s cheerful exterior is a man with a much darker past than anyone can imagine.
Why It’s Classically Creepy: Friggin’ Terry O’Quinn. And I thought he was creepy on ABC’s Lost. Here he plays family-oriented Jerry Blake, a guy squeaky clean on the outside but way twisted on the inside. You see, Jerry is absolutely fixated on one idea: the “American Dream.” Loving wife and kids, house in the suburbs, white picket fence—the whole shebang. He couldn’t find that with his previous family, so he’s moved on, hoping to grasp that dream with his new wife, Susan (Shelley Hack), and her 16-year-old daughter, Stephanie (Jill Schoelen). But when things begin to unravel, Jerry reveals a much uglier side of himself. In fact, beneath that Ward Cleaver façade, he’s got himself a little streak of Michael Myers. O’Quinn does a fantastic job of turning this doting family man inside out, flipping the switch from “golly gee” to “I’m gonna freaking stab you” flawlessly. And no, those are not direct quotes. On top of O’Quinn’s performance, we’ve got a solid story, an effective script, and a likeable heroine in Stephanie, who doesn’t buy the perfect father act for a minute. The Stepfather may be a somewhat familiar story, but it’s done well, easily earning this ‘80s thriller a slot among the classics. P.S. Don’t waste your time on the 2005 remake. It sucks.
My Grade: B
#11: Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Synopsis: “A group of people hide from bloodthirsty zombies in a farmhouse.” –www.imdb.com
Why It’s Classically Creepy: It might not have been the very first of its kind, but when people think back to the classic zombie films, George A. Romero’s original Night of the Living Dead is often the first one that comes to mind. This film set the standard for all the undead flicks that followed. Night of the Living Dead hones in on a group of people trapped in a very vulnerable farmhouse with growing numbers of the undead wandering around outside, slowly working out how to get in. What I find really interesting about this film is how progressive it was for its time. It was filmed right on the heels of the Civil Rights Movement—a point in history when I’m sure tensions were still very high—yet Romero boldly cast African American actor Duane Jones as the brave, resourceful lead. As Ben, Jones is the one we root for the whole way through. He’s a man of action, always planning or setting up new defenses, and he doesn’t take crap from some of the more annoying members of the group. Another surprising aspect of the film is how very gory it is. By today’s standards it’s fairly tame, but for the ‘60s I imagine it was brutal. Zombies with limbs missing, zombies slurping up entrails, zombies munching on arms and legs and brains—it’s all gruesome, and there are several unsettling scenes. I do, however, have one major qualm with this film: the women are useless. They don’t do a single thing to help, and that’s frustrating. That aside, you should definitely check out this classic—especially if you like zombies. One warning: the 30th anniversary DVD has 15 minutes of awful new scenes they added in 1998. Don’t waste your time on that crap. Just stick to the original.
My Grade: B+
#10: The Evil Dead (1981)
Synopsis: “Five friends travel to a cabin in the woods, where they unknowingly release flesh-possessing demons.” –www.imdb.com
Why It’s Classically Creepy: It’s low-budget, campy, unnervingly disgusting, and usually pretty ridiculous, but somehow that doesn’t take away from the greatness of Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead. Honestly, it’s hard to find a horror that embraces the genre quite as gleefully as this wild, gory film. Shortly after arriving in a remote cabin for a weekend retreat, Ash (Bruce Campbell) and his four travel buddies discover a strange book and voice recordings dealing with the subject of demonic possession. But they let the recordings play too long, and out in the dark, thorny woods, something evil stirs. One by one, the friends fall prey to flesh-possessing demons, until a single survivor is left struggling to escape alive. It’s a simple premise, and the plot plays out to be equally simple, but it’s surprisingly effective. Everything in this film has so much personality—the bizarre, decaying demons especially. They mock, they sing a creepy song, and they ooze all over. For lack of a better term, they are juicy. Though I’m thoroughly grossed out when I watch them, I also can’t help laughing a little. It’s so, ridiculously overdone that you just have to. The Evil Dead will undoubtedly leave an impression on you. If nothing else, you will probably feel like you need a shower at the end. P.S. If you watch the remake that came out earlier this year, don’t expect the same film. Totally different, darker tone—not necessarily a good change, I might add.
My Grade: B+
#9: Poltergeist (1982)
Synopsis: “A family’s home is haunted by a host of ghosts.” –www.imdb.com
Why It’s Classically Creepy: Poltergeist is one of those rare horror movies that manages to be funny and heart-warming while still scaring the pants off you. When you think about some of the things that happen in this film (trees eating children, clown dolls attacking, a person nearly drowning in a muddy pool of bodies, etc.), you realize that so much of it is truly the stuff of nightmares. Here we have the Freelings, your typical middle class American family of the ‘80s, who have recently moved into a newly built home. But things begin to get a little strange. Voices call from the television set, inanimate objects move by themselves, a child gets sucked into an alternate plane of existence—you know, slightly off things like that. First, the Freelings call in a stunned para-psychologist (Beatrice Straight), then a feisty, eccentric little clairvoyant (Zelda Rubinstein) to help. Steve (Craig T. Nelson) and Diane (JoBeth Williams) Freeling are determined to get back their ridiculously cute daughter (Heather O’Rourke) no matter what—even if it means tackling the bizarre terrors of their house. We get to know and like this family, and even though much of this film remains within the walls of their suburban home, director Tobe Hooper and writer Steven Spielberg make us feel as if we’ve gone on a wild adventure with them. Peppered with fun special effects, solid performances, and doses of humor, Poltergeist is a great horror classic. You just may be surprised when all of the action comes to a sudden, screeching halt at the end.
My Grade: A-
#8: Halloween (1978)
Synopsis: “A psychotic murderer institutionalized since childhood for the murder of his sister, escapes and stalks a bookish teenage girl and her friends while his doctor chases him through the streets.” –www.imdb.com
Why It’s Classically Creepy: I think it should be illegal to let the month of October go by without watching John Carpenter’s Halloween. It’s a fairly simple premise, and an equally simple story pans out, but from the opening scene on everything is done so effectively that it’s easy to understand how Halloween has remained one of the best horror films out there. Here we have Michael Myers (Tony Moran), who begins as a psychotic little kid in a clown costume and becomes a hulking, knife-wielding, psychotic grown-up in a creepy mask. He somehow manages to escape the mental institution where he has been imprisoned for 15 years, fleeing to his abandoned childhood home. Back to his old stomping grounds, he settles in and decides to wreak havoc on the good people of suburbia—including high school student Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis) and all of her friends. As an almost supernatural being, Myers is super strong, he always knows where to find his victims, and he seems impervious to pain. Plus, he wears this expressionless rubber mask that amplifies the sound of his heavy breathing. Creepy to the max. And we don’t know why he feels the need to go on these killing sprees. According to his doctor, he’s just got the devil in him. With a heroine worth rooting for, one of the scariest killers ever, and quite possibly the best horror theme song of all time, Halloween is a classic that is well worth your time.
My Grade: A-
#7: A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Synopsis: “In the dreams of his victims, a spectral child murderer stalks the children of the members of the lynch mob that killed him.” –www.imdb.com
Why It’s Classically Creepy: A Nightmare on Elm Street is a horror film with a really fascinating premise: children begin to die in bizarre ways, and they realize they’re all dreaming about the same, sinister character. It’s a slasher flick to be sure, complete with messy, gushing wounds and a spurting fountain of blood, but it’s also much more than that. This horror film invades a place that we can’t fully control: our dreams. That’s scary, people. A Nightmare on Elm Street cleverly blurs the lines between dreams and reality, which makes watching the film a pretty surreal experience. How do you know when poor, terrified Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) is awake or asleep? For a lot of the time, you don’t. Even the shocking final scene ends with sort of a question mark, which I think makes it even more frightening. And Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) is the king of this weird world. With his tacky striped sweater, razor blade fingers, and seriously burned face, Krueger is easily one of the most iconic horror villains of all time. He’s kooky as he cracks jokes and teases his victims, but that doesn’t make him any less menacing. Unfortunately, the 2010 remake of Nightmare on Elm Street loses so much of that character, weighing Freddy down and completely losing his playfulness. But the original film’s inventive premise, feisty heroine, and one-of-a-kind villain ensure that it will remain a horror classic for many years to come.
My Grade: A-
That’s all for today! Come back tomorrow to see the sinister top six…