As Halloween fever increases in different corners of the globe, the market for the generally spooky, the gothic and the wickedly thrilling rises. Of course, there have always been dark aspects of every single culture, not just that which has been influenced by Celtic elements, as in the case of Halloween itself. Samhain, the original term, referred to a time when communities prepared for the ‘darker half of the year’, which was said to be imbued with a liminal quality, allowing spirits to wander freely in the land of the living. Inhabitants of villages readied offerings of food for visiting spirits in order to ward off disease, starvation and other evils. Such malevolence, they believed, could be wreaked upon them by the vengeful spirits of departed family or community members, who acquired a greater power during this ‘in-between’ time. The idea of wearing masks, it is said, originated from the desire of village denizens to disguise their identity and thus protect themselves from any curses or vengeance on the part of the dead. In countries where Halloween customs are a recent importation, mostly due to the globalisation of popular North American culture, there has, yet, always been a sense of deference to the dead, with visits to local cemeteries for families to pay their respects and sweets made in the shapes of bones and skulls as a means of commemorating this – literally- darker time of the year.
Of course, you don’t need to have a change towards the cooler times of the year to indulge in your favourite terror-filled offerings – at least, not if you’re a seasoned horror fan like yours truly. There is, however, still something to be said for the atmospheric amplification of the chills you derive from watching a frightening cinematic piece with the wind howling, the rain pouring down or the snow carpeting the ground outside. In celebration of both the season and the occasion itself, here are ten films to particularly enjoy during Halloween week and in the month to follow:-
(1) “Summer of 84” – Yes, I’m afraid that a number of the films I shall be writing about here are either set in the 80s, or actually products of this colourful decade. I have to declare myself – I’m an 80s freak. There, I’ve said it! The casting for this film is absolutely spot on. The conceit that films set in or of this decade are well-known for – that is, the sense of tribal bildungsroman revolving around a gang of pre-adolescents and adolescents who happen upon something exciting and, in this case, terrifying – is showcased here. There is the central character or protagonist (very often male), who is usually a likable one, and his partners in crime – the wisecracking, loudmouth member of the gang, the overly cautious one who tends to pull away from the more daring stunts and the cool, rebellious one with a troubled family background. At least one of these usually has an annoying younger or older sibling who tries to put a damper on their activities. There’s the romantic interest, of course, crucial not only to the plot but the young character’s emotional and sexual awakening. And finally, there’s the villain himself, masterfully played in this case by the versatile Rich Sommer. More entertaining than horrifying, this film yet includes its own set of delicious thrills.
(2) “Suspiria” – As eagerly as I await the Luca Guadagnino reboot, I must hail the Argento original. I can’t think of any other horror film that utilises colour, music and darkness to the extent that Argento does here, although perhaps Roger Corman’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” and anything by Guillermo del Toro, really! come close. Every set piece looks like a seventeenth-century painting, and the glorious hues and heavy textures of the ornate fabrics (think velvet and satin) are the backdrop for each bloody, inventive murder. Prepare yourself to be assailed by shades of sanguinity and ear-piercing screams!
(3) “Fright Night” – no vampire has ever projected the same suave, debonair effect on the screen as the handsome, smooth-talking Jerry Dandridge in Tom Holland’s 1985 film. Whether he exchanges banter with the harried, sexually-suppressed mother of Charlie, Dandridge’s teen would-be antagonist, or smooches around the dancefloor with a spellbound Amanda Bearse as Amy, Charlie’s high-school sweetheart, Dandridge is out to seduce, and seduce he does. As, it must be said, does the entire film, with its Psycho-inspired mansion as the vampire lair, the casting of Roddy McDowall as the plummy-voiced has-been stage-turned-television actor who is roped in to help Charlie defeat Dandridge, as well as the rollicking pop and rock soundtrack and general 80s campiness.
(4) “30 Days of Night” – released on Halloween 2007, this late noughties fangtastic offering is intriguing for a number of reasons:- (a) It presents the bloodsuckers as gruesome, relentless killers. Completely lacking in any form of charm or physical beauty unlike the character of Dandridge above, they are simply ruthless annihilators (b) They speak a language of their own, which sounds vaguely like a distorted version of an Inuit/ First Nations vernacular, although they understand English (or, at least, the head vamp does). (c) The setting is the perfect one, anchored as it is in Northern Alaska, in a town formerly known as Barrow, now Utqiagvik, when the sky is blanketed in complete darkness for about a month. This renders it the perfect battleground for creatures of the night. The extreme Arctic weather conditions also mean that the inhabitants are stuck for at least said amount of time, making them the perfect sitting ducks for a no-holds barred attack.
(5) “The House of the Devil” – This is also a rather interesting one, in that it perfectly captures the essence of an 80s horror film in the naivete of its protagonist, played by the doe-eyed Jocelin Donahue, the creepy house and the quasi-spectral and utterly unsettling presence of the great character actors Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov, who execute their parts to nasty perfection here. The appearance of Greta Gerwig adds even greater indie cred to this flick. Other than the excellent casting, the film’s strength lies in the slow build-up and lack of initial cheap scares that so many of today’s contemporary pieces rely on. Great stuff.
(6) “Sinister” – It takes quite a bit for a film to genuinely frighten me, but this 2012 film starring Ethan Hawke and classically-trained Juliet Rylance pulls its terror off. Easily the most disturbing of the films with a found-footage theme, infamously set off by 1999’s “The Blair Witch Project”, “Sinister” leads up to the introduction of a ghoul-like presence that exerts an apparently unstoppable influence on its young victims, transforming them into iniquitous predators themselves.
(7) “Case 39” – We know that all is not as it seems with the film’s young central character at the outset of the plot, but the nasty truth, when it is eventually revealed in full, is more than a little disconcerting, to put it mildly. Well-made, despite the occasional resort to quick jumps and scares.
(8) “The Conjuring” – Hands-down the best in what would eventually become the Warren series, this flick achieves the seemingly impossible in a world of formulaic, predictable would-be horror films – it is a money-spinner which doles out a sense of authentic dread. Seemingly loosely based upon predecessors such as “The Amityville Horror”, “The Conjuring” manages to set itself apart from previous ‘evil house’ classics by dint of its subplot, ghoulish haunting presences and of course, the incomparable Lili Taylor.
(9) “Eden Lake” – This film will not only satisfy Fassbender fans, but aficionados of less glossy, more low-budget horror efforts. One of Fassbender’s earlier and probably lesser-known starring roles, this 2008 British thriller gives new meaning to the term ‘gritty’, and is deeply upsetting simply because it constitutes a completely believable scenario. It has been said that the most terrifying situations are those which are the closest to our reality, and this film preys on those fears. Utterly nail-biting stuff.
(10) “The Babadook” – An original take on the supernatural presence-themed film, this 2014 Australian-Canadian production layers slightly conventional-looking scares and thrills onto concepts of grief and individuals’ fractured sense of self in the wake of the loss of a beloved family member. Slated by some viewers on its release and loved by others, myself included, “The Babadook” lends itself to a mixture of genres – the fear is truly there, but the ramifications of the ideas explored are interesting and far-reaching. Not for fans of the straight-up, blood-and-gore examples of the horror variety.