CINE-WEEN: Death And Decay In The Heartland

October and Halloween are synonymous to many horror fans, and I can’t argue with their passion. The holiday is the tentpole of their spooky existence, the celebration that branches out to support a whole universe of strange stories and legends that provide thrills and chills year round. The pull of Halloween is strong, but for me it’s not nearly as alluring as the promise of October – a month when the world around us often feels like the personification of the macabre.

Having grown up on a Midwestern farm, I’m very confident saying that October, to put it bluntly, represents death in the country. In August, a cornfield is an ecosystem that’s green and full of life, dripping with condensation every morning and swarming with insects under the summer sun for more than 12 hours a day. By the end of October, it’s most likely a barren void with only dead brown residue and dry, pale dirt left as far as the eye can see. Around the farm home, leaves have fallen and the cool wind of the season – now facing far fewer obstacles – seems to have a new, dare I say more aggressive, life.

Part of the Halloween legend claims that the night represents the moment when the barrier between the living and the dead is at it’s thinnest, but October is where you find the energy in the air that confirms this as a fact. Even though winter is on its way, there’s a buzz in the air in October that excites my soul in the best way.

Most certainly the piece of fiction that best represents October is Something Wicked This Way Comes, Ray Bradbury’s novel that was adapted for the screen by Walt Disney Studios in 1983. It was one of the studio’s darkest productions ever at the time, and it still stands tall as a spooky reminder of the magic in the air in October. In his book, Bradbury tied to the appeal of October to the birth of the school year and the fact that young men had just survived the first month of that nightmare, but when Something Wicked came to the big screen, the author started the film with a bit of narration that sums up exactly what I’m looking for in an October movie.

“First of all, it was October. A rare month for boys. Full of cold winds, long nights, dark promises. Days get short. The shadows lengthen. The wind mourns in such a way that you want to run forever through the fields. Because, up ahead, 10,000 pumpkins lie waiting to be cut.”

Cold winds. Long Nights. Dark promises. And, yeah, the pumpkins. We can’t forget them; they’ve become the face of the spooky lifestyle that runs wild every fall. But today I’m not looking for movies where those pumpkins have been cut up and filled with candles, I’m looking for movies that remind me that those pumpkins are still plumping up for the occasion. I want to enjoy the final days of the pumpkin to the fullest, and when Halloween comes I can look at a jack-o-lantern sitting on someone’s doorstep and know that the journey to this night was not in vain.

You can probably guess from my tone so far, but I don’t consider the most famous Halloween movie – John Carpenter’s Halloween, obviously – to be the most iconic October movie. That’s not a slight on it – it’s my favorite horror film by a large margin – but it doesn’t appeal to what I love about October. Despite its “Haddonfield, Illinois” setting, Halloween is obviously filmed in urban SoCal locations where the director and his crew famously dumped, raked up, and re-dumped bags of leaves on the green grass.

This might be the only time you ever hear this sequel compared favorably to the original, but Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers is a far better representation of the October I know and love. Dwight H. Little’s film is a reboot of the franchise that came about when producer Moustapha Akkad decided Michael needed to jump into the slasher sequel game alongside Freddy and Jason in 1988. This film goes out of its way to put us into a rural October setting with a montage of images – brown fields, scarecrows, tractors, and farmhouses – that accompanies the opening credits. This feels like a bit of a “cheap pop” moment, where the audience is shown images of a small town around Halloween, transporting them back to memories of the season without any context of what the movie has to offer, but the film does a decent job of following up on the mood set by these images.

The production of Halloween 4 didn’t make its way to the Midwest to recreate Haddonfield, but the new filming locations in and around Salt Lake City, Utah definitely have more of a small town feel than the original film. In Halloween 4 you can easily imagine the cornfields outside of town, and scenes at small town locations like the department store and school certainly give an image of a community where farming is king. Leaves still had to be imported, and they even had to paint some squash to look like pumpkins, but the movie magic works just a little better at making this one feel like a traditional October.

The direct sequel, Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers, doubles down on this setting and adds in parties in the country and teens having fun in a hay mound, but annoying characters, a lack of tension, and ill-advised story decisions draw that one too far from the original’s mood for it to really be effective in any way. This sequel misses the mark, while Halloween 4 has always seemed to me like the most complete Halloween sequel, and the way it brings its boogeyman to a setting where harvest imagery is embraced is a big part of the film’s pull.

While Halloween 4 is a film that bears a passing resemblance to October in a farming community, I have to go back to Something Wicked This Way Comes to get to a pure representation of what I think October is. This is another film that’s set in a fictional Illinois town (though it was filmed in Vermont and California), where a carnival, led by the mysterious Mr. Dark (Jonathan Pryce), brings a brand of mystical madness to the seemingly pure community. That’s right: it’s a tale where a lively and colorful landscape is threatened by Dark.

The adult characters in Something Wicked This Way Comes seem to clearly represent the fact that death is approaching. When we meet each of them, the narration adeptly explains the regrets and long-held desires of each character. At the forefront is Jason Robards, playing the aging father of one of the two young heroes, a man who feels that his time is running out and that his young son is being cheated by having such a worn-down father. Like the fields of an autumn countryside, what he has created will soon be all that is left of the old man, and he struggles with the fact while his peers also lament over missed opportunities or the loss of the beauty and glory they once had.

Mr. Dark and his associates, including a “dust witch” played by the iconic Pam Grier, offer everything these characters desire and a chance to reset the passage of time, but it’s the film’s two pre-teen heroes who serve as a reminder that the autumn of life – in both a literal and figurative sense – is worth preserving. The film’s themes might work in a different setting and with different imagery, but the town created by Bradbury and director Jack Clayton here is exactly the place where what the story has to say needs to be said. This is the October that I want to hang on to.

The beauty of October fades into darkness every night, and when these long nights and cold winds start to put on the pressure is when the month’s connection to horror really sets in for me.

Horror cinema has lived off of dark shadows, surprising noises, and odd breezes since its earliest days, but it takes a special kind of horror film to tap into the natural horror that comes on on October night. The most famous example of this might come from Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, in which the author described the power that a seemingly haunted landscape can have on people as he discussed rumors of the Headless Horseman in Sleepy Hollow.

“It is remarkable that this visionary propensity is not confined to native inhabitants of this little retired Dutch valley, but is unconsciously imbibed by everyone who resides there for a time. However wide-awake they may have been before they entered that sleepy region, they are sure, in a little time, to inhale the witching influence of the air and begin to grow imaginative, to dream dreams, and see apparitions.”

In my experience, that type of physical apparition isn’t common to most rural areas – but the witching influence of the air that makes us imaginative is common to October nights I’ve been a part of. Irving’s story was wonderfully adapted for the screen on at least two occasions – the 1949 Disney version found in the animated double feature The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad and Tim Burton’s Hammer Films-inspired 1999 film, Sleepy Hollow – and has become a Halloween staple based on the iconic image of a flaming jack-o-lantern being thrown at Ichabod Crane. But Irving’s story is not tied to the holiday directly, as the party he is leaving in the story is in fact a harvest party, not a Halloween party.

Both mentioned adaptations are fine representations of how sinister the fall air can feel, and Burton’s version gains bonus points for being very British and representing a western European spooky October. The ominous winds and dark nights I’m more accustomed to, however, are more closely tied to a pair of American monster films released in 1988.

Stan Winston’s Pumpkinhead has become a favorite of horror fans thanks to the creature design and an intense Lance Henriksen performance, which are two fantastic reasons to watch this dark tale of demonic revenge. Once night falls over the rural area where Pumpkinhead stalks his prey the setting takes on a dense fog and never-ending wind, which whips leaves throughout most scenes where the creature appears. The universe here seems to be partially influenced by The Evil Dead – where the wind in the darkness is the monster – but this absurd backwoods setting (which was set up and filmed in areas around Los Angeles, naturally) feels like an endless fall night as bare tree branches jut in from the edges of the frame in most exterior scenes.

Pumpkinhead is a bit of a mess as a film – most of the acting aside from the lead is atrocious, and it seems to stall in scenes led by the youngsters who are the demon’s prey – but it also manages to give me legitimate creeps mostly through its production and sound design. It sounds like a night in the country (though the constant chirping of crickets probably actually places the film in summer or at least an extremely warm October), and I still remember a few nights where a younger version of myself scanned the trees around our land and thought that if any movie monster was going to come riding the wind toward me at night….it was probably going to be Pumpkinhead.

A less popular, but just as dreary alternative released in the same year is director William Wesley’s Scarecrows. This is a film that takes place almost entirely in corn fields and, though it certainly seems to be a little earlier in the season than October, accurately depicts just how dark an October night can be.

Scarecrows follows a rogue group of soldiers-turned-thieves who are trapped together for one very long night in a field where vengeful scarecrows seem to be the “just desserts” that the universe has unleashed on this rather foul troupe of villains. Scarecrows is an odd film where there are very few characters to root for, and at times it devolves into a series of shouting matches, which make the scarecrow violence that much more fulfilling to see.

Scarecrows was filmed in rural Florida and, though the script makes references to Camp Pendleton and San Diego in the expository scenes that bookend the film, the nondescript location of the field certainly helps sell the setting as a kind of purgatory. This film is almost definitely not set in October – the health of the crops and the sweatiness of the sweaty men would make me think this is a midsummer night’s massacre – but the darkness of the night feels endless. The film’s weather doesn’t matter to me when I watch this film, because that darkness takes my brain right to fall in the country again.

It may seem silly to give such reverence to the cycle of nature that passes every year, and the feelings about October and the films that represent it here are certainly specific to my experiences and life. But I hope that any horror fan, whether they’re focusing on Halloween or just trying to cram as much horror into the month as they can, will take a few moments this October to just step outside one night and let the October air surround them. There’s something cold, something dark, and possibly something wicked in that air – and I always get a chill when a movie is able to remind me of how that air feels.