Like most of you folks clicking on an article with this title, I try to dedicate as much of October as possible to watching horror movies. There’s really nothing finer than getting settled down on a crisp autumn eve while chill winds rattle the windows, ensconced beneath a cozy blanket, holding a stiff drink and indulging in some good ol’ fashioned bloodlust.
That’s just heaven on earth, that is.
But one area where I disagree with the masses (read: dudes I see on Twitter from time to time) is in the type of horror fare that I like to pepper throughout the build-up to All Hallow’s Eve. When other people announce their line-ups and programming for the occasion, it’s usually littered with movies that are nasty, ugly, nihilistic, or literally torturous. “Hey, it’s October, better throw on Cannibal Holocaust!”
Look, man, to each their own, and to be clear, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with horror movies designed to grind your face in the muck of human existence. We should all have room in our diets for that sort of thing (although not Cannibal Holocaust, I mean, Jesus Christ). But Halloween (or Hallowe’en, if you’re British and/or a prick) is special, and there’s a particular flavor of film that makes for the perfect pairing with the dropping temperatures and coloring leaves.
SO WHAT DOES MAKE THE PERFECT HALLOWEEN FILM?
What I’m looking for in a Halloween movie is less scares and intensity than mood. Blood and guts are more than welcome, sure; I’d even say encouraged. But Halloween is the season where we get to rejoice in the macabre, the unseemly, the weird. There should be an element of play, of fun, alongside the requisite amount of jumpscares and slick kills.
That’s why the undisputed king of Halloween-appropriate movies is none other than Vincent Price. Price, bless him, had an irrepressible gleam in his eye that told the audience it was OK to delight in every fresh horror trotted out by the likes of Roger Corman and William Castle. Price could go as big and broad or as internal and restrained as a role demanded, but there was always present a kind of malevolent glee perfectly at home among cobweb-drenched castles, where rusted suits of armor require only the gentlest of phantom touches to topple over.
When I think of the Halloween season, the movies that spring to mind are the Roger Corman/Vincent Price Edgar Allan Poe adaptations. Corman took short stories like “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Pit and the Pendulum” and “The Masque of the Red Death” and built essentially entirely original narratives around the barebones ideas present in Poe’s texts. Just include a sequence where a guy is stuck in a pit and a pendulum is gonna kill him, and otherwise, go nuts. Shot in Technicolor, these are movies so gorgeously composed that their colors almost bleed off the screen. Human logic and historical fact are tossed out flat on their boring asses as we instead plunge into alternate horror universes, where every house is rife with ghosts and any walk through the woods might bring you into contact with the unholy. And there is Vincent Price, cackling along somewhere in the mix like a ringleader of the damned.
OK, SO WHAT OTHER MOVIES FIT?
I’m glad you asked, subhead that I wrote for that specific reason.
As I said, that whole run of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations makes for perfect seasonal fare, as do other Price films like William Castle’s House on Haunted Hill, Jacques Tourneur’s Comedy of Terrors, or the Dr. Phibes duology.
If you’re looking for horror pitched at that same tonal frequency, but with a bit more teeth, the Italian horror films by the likes of Mario Bava (including Black Sunday, Black Sabbath, and Blood and Black Lace) and Dario Argento (including Suspiria, Inferno, Deep Red, and Opera) are as gory and gruesome as you could ever want, but both men paint with color and light to create entrancing, dreamlike imagery, up to and including the scenes where people are getting shredded into meat paste.
For more modern fare with that Gothic flavor, there’s Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow and Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak, movies that are downright fetishistic in how they ladle on impossible quantities of fog and atmosphere whilst siccing hosts of art-designed ghouls after their ensembles.
Most recently, James Wan’s Malignant turned out to be a deliriously entertaining horror film, with Wan indulging in all of his most maximalist instincts. Every color is washed out except for dazzling neon red that fills every room for just absolutely no reason. Every night is dark and stormy, and every abandoned street is filled with fog. The killer has a nu-metal theme that references that Pixies song (don’t act like you don’t immediately know which one). Every single location, whether it’s a residential house, a hotel room, or a police station, looks like a Gothic cathedral. And the movie just keeps escalating, piling on gonzo plot twists and impossible acts of violence until it has gone so far over the top that it actually breaks from Earth’s atmosphere and flies off into the goddamn solar system.
But probably my favorite recent addition to the modern Halloween canon is the brilliant Japanese film One Cut of the Dead. Disguised as a cheap zombie film captured in a single, unbroken take, One Cut… shifts into an entirely different gear in its second half. I don’t want to spoil anything, but suffice to say that One Cut… becomes a film all about the joy of horror, about how difficult but also rewarding it is to try to create a scare.
Horror is about breaking taboos and indulging in bad taste, and facing those dark truths and primal urges that polite society tells us to bury way down. Horror is about confronting death, the unknown, and the unknowability of death; it’s a means to square up against the pitiless universe we inhabit and howl into the abyss that will eventually consume us all.
And that’s all fine and dandy.
But horror is also the genre of catharsis. It’s the most expansive and elastic of genres, in large part because there’s just so many gosh darn things to be afraid of. For as much as horror is founded in principles of darkness and negativity, it is also the most profoundly joyful of genres, the most life-affirming and freeing. Halloween is the time when we get to appreciate the side of horror that is celebration. Because while death is out there, it hasn’t got us yet. So we decorate our homes with skeletons and ghosts and thumb our nose at the reaper. Fuck you, skinny, and don’t forget your shine-box.
So this fall, be sure to fill your playlist with horror movies that will make you jump or flinch, but also with movies that make you cheer and clap. Choose horror movies with set designs you wish you could step into, that know what game they’re playing and invite you to play while safely ensconced beneath a cozy blanket, holding a stiff drink, cold winds outside not able to lay a single, bony finger on you.