Monday, October 28, 2013

Being Smart on Halloween: A Monster Movie Guide

If you’re too old for trick-or-treating or too clever to actually throw your Halloween party on Halloween (so rarely it falls on a weekend night, and who wants to get blitzed on Tuesday and have to drag themselves to work Wednesday morning?) you might spend October 31st doing what I do: cramming as many horror movies into 24 hours as you can. But what to choose? What to choose? One wrong selection and— Ka-POW!—the entire atmosphere of this most atmospheric of holidays shoots right down the crapper, leaving you holding your head in anguish and weeping, “Why, oh why did I ever put Leprechaun: Back 2 tha Hood into the DVD player?” That would be pretty stupid. So here’s some Halloween-movie-selecting advice that will make you smart.

Obviously, a film set on or around Halloween is the perfect choice, though these are shockingly rare. Halloween and its sundry sequels and remakes are at the front of the pack. Jacques Tourneur’s Night of the Demon, with its children’s Halloween party gone awry, is a wonderful seasonal mood piece, as is the “Sleepy Hollow” episode of Disney’s marvelous Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. More recent examples are Rob Zombie’s House of 1,000 Corpses, a rummage through dusty Halloween decorations stored in an attic reeking with dankness, and Michael Dougherty’s Trick ‘r Treat, a picture I didn’t care for but one that has some truly rabid proponents who adore its nostalgic ambience. Something Wicked This Way Comes begins just a week before Halloween in a golden October in which “1,000 pumpkins lie waiting to be cut,” and movies don’t come richer in autumnal atmosphere than Jack Clayton’s. The neo-cult classic May finds the title character collecting some bloody booty during a psychotic trick-or-treat excursion. As the kids of The Blair Witch Project prepare for their own excursion into the woods, we see Halloween decorations in shop windows, so that one passes muster too.

There are exceptions to this seemingly obvious rule. Movies with Halloween scenes aren’t always ideal holiday fare. Classics they may be, but I wouldn’t want to spend the night of spooks watching, To Kill a Mockingbird, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, or Meet Me in St. Louis, though a chorus of “Clang, clang, clang went the trolley” has been known to terrify.

Give it up, E.T. You're not scary.

Certain movies are pretty safe to categorize as honorary Halloweeners. We know that a man may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright, but for all we know The Wolf Man takes place in late September, November, or shudder to think, early December. Nevertheless, it’s a good choice, so try not to get too hung up on when exactly Larry Talbot’s life goes to pot.

Films that immediately break the seasonal spell are those that glaringly take place in the wrong season or environment: desert horrors such as Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Near Dark, seaside ones such as The Birds, or snowy ones such as The Thing. And perish the thought of watching one that takes place on a completely different holiday! That means no Gremlins (Christmas), Jaws (4th of July), or April Fool’s Day (April Fool’s Day). If you lived in the New York area during the late seventies/early eighties, you may also find that King Kong has too many Thanksgiving associations to enjoy it on October 31st. With its island and metropolitan settings, it’s not very Halloweeny anyway.

You get an F for effort, King Kong.

Creature from the Black Lagoon is a bit of a grey area. On the one hand, no environment recalls Halloween less than the Amazon (except maybe space, which means no Alien!). On the other hand, as the studio’s ad campaign once insisted, “Universal IS Halloween.” Considering the place its iconic monsters hold in Halloween costumes, decorations, and holiday movie marathons, exceptions can be made for Black Lagoon and the snowy Invisible Man. Go ahead and enjoy them with a clear conscience on October 31st. That being said, more ideal selections would be Dracula, The Mummy, Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, or The Wolf Man. But you already knew about that last one.

Halloween is a distinctly western holiday, so at the risk of coming off xenophobic (I swear I’m not! Some of my best friends are xenos!), Asian horror films may not exactly hit that sweet spot. Still, North American Halloween influences have become pretty internationally pervasive over the years, so if you still feel compelled to spend your holiday with Godzilla or that cute little girl from Ringu, that is your prerogative. I also encourage you to indulge in movies centered on such seasonal tropes as haunted houses (recommended: Robert Wise’s The Haunting), black cats (recommended: Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Black Cat), witches (recommended: John Llewellyn Moxey’s The City of the Dead), pumpkins (recommended: Stan Winston’s Pumpkinhead), and candy corn (recommended: TK).

Oh yeah. That's the stuff.

Just remember that as kooky and crazy as Halloween is, there are rules to enjoying it. Stay safe. Always wear reflective clothing. Check your candy for razor blades and light artillery. And no matter what you do, follow every guideline I’ve delineated above. Doing so just may save your life.

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