Everything Went Black: Five Hits From Hell
What to watch this Halloween
By Marc Savlov, 8:57AM, Wed. Oct. 24, 2012
I promise I'll get off my Halloween jag just as soon as October ends. It's a habit with a four-decade history and I'm certain you'd rather read my thoughts on the darker side of the aisle than those on the overabundance of Thanksgiving and X-mas holiday treacle. (Plenty of time for that coming up.)
In part to cut short an increasingly heated "discussion" I've been having via a friend's Tumblr, and in part because it seems like everyone asks me this same question every year, here's my Top Five Halloween Night cinematic unsettlers. They're the funhouse mirror equivalent of seasonal comfort food for me and more than a few members of my cabal; some you've heard of, and I'm betting you're already in love with one of them yourself.
Suffice it to say these are the frighteners currently playing in heavy rotation -- even if it's only with the sound off -- in my lair. (Props to I Luv Video and Vulcan Video where props due. Remember, every day is Halloween and Independent Video Story Day in Bat City, USA.)
1) Spider Baby, or The Maddest Story Ever Told
"Spider Baby will give you nightmares forever" should have been the tag line to this 1968 low-budgeter from QT fave Jack Hill. It's theme song alone (warble-growled by a notoriously shellacked Lon Chaney, Jr., believe it or not) is worth the price of rental and should be available for download on iTunes, but isn't. A deliciously perverse slice of southern gothic meets lunatic comedy with a dash of Lovecraftian "something's in the basement and it ain't pretty" charm, Hill's beautiful black-and-white frightmare is only compounded by the mind-erasing weirdness of a very young Sid Haig. It's a mashup of "old dark house" themes and backhanded life-lessons (incest is not best, creepy SoCal mansions are more trouble than they're worth, jailbait gothdollies are always bad news) that never fails to give me hope in a generally hopeless world. Plus, the great Mantan Moreland loses an ear in a scene that surely influenced David Lynch's Blue Velvet.
Far and away Dario Argento's most visually stunning film, this second chapter in his "Three Mothers" trilogy -- bookended by 1977's Suspiria and 2007's Mother of Tears -- is a twitchy, witchy exercise in sustained disturbia. Romano Albani's cinematography is the real star of the film -- although Sacha Pitoeff's hobbled antiquarian bookseller Kazanian is always a shuddery treat -- which is as saturated with blood red and pallid blue lighting effects as any acid trip you've ever taken. Actually, the whole affair is a 107-minute freakout into the whirlpool of bad, black mojo that was Argento's head at the time. Of late the once-great director has fallen on his filmic face more times than I care to count (just ask Adrien Brody), but when it comes to classic Argento, this heady conflagration of dreamlike unreality is unsurpassable.
Not just the scariest film I've seen in the past ten years (no joke, this one honestly creeps me the fuck out every single time), but also a terrific example of how to use audio alone to generate full-body shivers. Underrated character actor Stephen McHattie give a once-in-a-lifetime performance as Grant Mazzie, a boozy, self-loathing radio DJ in a far-flung Canadian province who finds himself on-air when the end of the world arrives. Like a cross between William S. Burroughs and old-time-radio show Arch Obler's Lights Out, Pontypool is a modern classic that deserves to be seen far more than it has been. Genius-level terror and utterly unique.
4) Let's Scare Jessica to Death
The future director of Prancer, John D. Hancock, helmed this 1971 hippie horrorthon and while I still can't adequately explain why, exactly, I love it so much, it's taken up permanent residence in my hindbrain, causing me to twitch in my sleep, or so I've been told. Along with Bob Clark's (Porky's, A Christmas Story) Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things, this is a time capsule of hallucinatory early-70s Americana, replete with a possibly insane protagonist (the amazingly eerie Zohar Lampert) and some of the most startling shock cuts I've ever been suckered by. Unforgettable, no matter how hard you try.
5) It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown
"I got a rock!" I love it. You love it. What's not to love? More fun than a candy corn overdose and you feel all gooshy inside after watching it. I actually went trick-or-treating as the Charlie Brown hole-y ghost when I was nine. No rocks, but plenty of trips to the dentist years later. Sweet!