Horror picks: all treats, no tricks

Screen

Fancy scaring yourself silly on Halloween? Emily Searles recommends some fearsome flicks.

Whip out the creepy decorations, gorge on candy, and indulge in a night of fancy dress and fright – it’s Halloween! And in celebration of the most horrific night of the year, a reflection of cinema’s most terrifying, chilling, and campy films is in order. So pop the popcorn, turn off the lights, and revel in the joy of fabricated terror.

The horror film genre is as ancient as film itself. In the silent-era horror films told Gothic monster stories set in spooky mansions and dark castles, enshrouded in fog and shadows. Monsters, vampires, and mummies stalked the screen as legends such as Nosferatu (1922), Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), and The Mummy (1932) were brought to life, making celebrities out of Boris Karloff and Béla Lugosi.

The 1930s-1950s were an era of B-grade horror movies, characterized by toxic scientific experiments gone wrong and atomic or extraterrestrial threats.  Vincent Price made a name for himself as the King of Horror through his countless roles as villains in films such as House of Wax (1953), House on Haunted Hill (1959), and Theatre of Blood (1973).  Creepy and campy, the horror films that were churned out in these decades are more for fun than serious, hardcore fright.

Thrillers and zombie flicks were typical of the1960s, while the 1970s-1980s witnessed the introduction of slasher movies.  Devil-possession films such as Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Exorcist (1973) also began to infiltrate the public conscience.  Since then, horror films seem to have become more gory, explicit and sadistic, with the rise of ‘torture porn’ pioneered by films such as Saw (2004) and Wolf Creek (2005).

Whatever your taste in horror, there is a film for you this Halloween.  If you are at a loss where to start, consider one of the following suggestions.

Night of the Living Dead (1968), directed by George Romero, is the ultimate zombie movie: a group of strangers shack up in a rural farmhouse when hungry zombies rise from the dead.  A low-budget, independent horror movie, Night of the Living Dead could be considered to be one of the first films to loosen the grip older monster movies had on the market.  By setting it in modern times and letting the characters loose in the farmhouse to bicker and fight the zombie attack, Romero investigates the complicated relationships between humans whilst delivering one scare after another.  The film questions the survival instinct and throws a bright light on the racial tensions that were exploding in the United States at the time.  Watching this movie will terrify you, but it will also raise your awareness of social issues of the late 1960s – a feat not many horror films can accomplish.

Halloween (1978), directed by John Carpenter, is one of the first slasher films to grace cinemas, featuring perhaps the most horrifying villain to be depicted on screen: psychopathic Michael Myers. Having stabbed his sister to death when he was only six, Myers breaks out of a sanitarium years later, days before Halloween, and returns to his home town to kill.  This was Jamie Lee Curtis’s first film, playing Laurie Strode, an innocent but tough teenager who battles Myers to avoid becoming one of his countless victims.  Carpenter’s point-of-view shots influenced the notion of voyeurism in horror, where the audience can only helplessly watch the terrors committed on screen.

The Cat and the Canary (1927), directed by Paul Leni, is an silent horror movie, an eerie and fun black comedy, which takes place in an old mansion in the Hudson Valley.  A millionaire, Cyrus West, approaches death only to be beset by insanity as his greedy and voracious relatives descend on him like cats hunting a canary.  He dies and leaves a will to be opened twenty years after his death – and so, at the elected time, his relatives gather in the mansion as midnight draws near, to reveal the contents of his will.  A little tongue-and-cheek, humor abounds in The Cat and the Canary as lunatics on the loose wreck havoc and diamonds go missing – a charming, spooky, and ultimately fabulous work of horror.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), directed by Don Siegel, is a masterful work of paranoid camp.  Dr Miles Bennell returns home to his tiny, California town to discover a bizarre epidemic. People, despite appearing and behaving as usual, are actually not who they claim to be – although the victims look and sound exactly like whom they say they are, they lack emotion.  The title explains the story: the epidemic is an extraterrestrial invasion, accidental but potent.  Filmed at the end of the McCarthy era, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is rife with anti-communist propaganda.  Viewed today, this film delivers laughs, rather than screams.

Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), directed by Robert Aldrich, is a psychological thriller, horrifying to the extreme.  Two aging actresses live together in an old Hollywood mansion.  Jane Hudson (Bette Davis), was a vaudeville child star, but she never found success as an adult.  Her sister, Blanche Hudson (Joan Crawford) never had success as a child but rather gained popularity and fame as an adult.  Now the two sisters are forced to live together, and their increasingly erratic behaviors and actions will make viewers scream.  Sisterly hatred and intense competitive jealousy are motivators for the monstrosities committed on screen.  Despite not being a typical horror film, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? is one of the scariest films ever released.

by Emily Searles