I love Halloween.
Halloween fascinated me as a kid, and fascinates me to this day. Like Christmas, Easter and the other half-secular Western/American holidays, it's the (so far) end result of an annual celebration that began in Pagan Europe, then got co-opted by Christianity in Medieval times only to re-assert its innate Paganism amid 19th and 20th Century consumer culture. (When enough time has passed for proper perspective, I sense that the "real" history of American spirituality will be a history of Paganism being reborn through Capitalism.) But Halloween, it seems, asserted this aspect of itself much earlier on, as though even my pious ancestors saw in "All Hallows Eve" a chance to let their darker fantasies come out to play.
It's customary for film critics to offer up on Halloween lists of their "favorite" or "rare" Scary Movies, and I am nothing if not a slave to tradition. So, without further distraction, here are a few from my "stuff that needs to be more widely seen" file that I imagine might help make your Festival of Samhain complete.
Brotherhood of the Wolf (aka Le Pacte Des Loups) (2001)
Imagine Castlevania by way of Masterpiece Theater and you're about 1/100th of the way to this astonishing 2001 French mini-epic from "Silent Hill" director Christophe Gans; a one-of-a-kind fusion of gothic-horror, giant-monster, political-thriller, costume-drama, martial-arts and historical-romance. A massive, wolf-like monster (believe it or not, that's the "true" part) is devouring peasants in 18th Century France; so the king conscripts a Canadian naturalist and a Native American shaman/hunter to track and kill it.
Along the way they uncover a sprawling conspiracy involving the local nobles, gypsies, witchcraft, The Vatican, courtesans, one-armed gunslingers, incest, and the shocking secret of The Beast itself... oh, and even though it's 1765 and we're in rural France, everyone (or, at least, everyone participating in the big, brutal fight scenes) knows kung-fu.
All of this seeming nonsense is tied together by being played 100% straight: Nobody ever winks at the audience or crack self-referential jokes, and the result is spellbinding. It also has a great cast, though non-French audiences are most likely to recognize the inhumanly-beautiful Monica Bellucci ("Persephone" from the Matrix sequels) adding some welcome glamor (and nudity) to the proceedings; and multiethnic martial-arts star Mark Dacascos ("The Chairman" on Iron Chef America. Really) as the Indian action-hero. It also contains what may be the single greatest dissolve in motion picture history. You'll know it when you see it.
It's Alive (1974)
There have been a lot of movies with this title, and even a mezzo-mezzo 2009 remake, but there's never been anything quite like this 1974 oddity from B-movie legend Larry Cohen; which holds the dubious honor of being the best "Killer Baby" movie ever made. The feral infant in question has claws, fangs and superhuman strength; and after slaughtering the entire medical team assisting his birth he escapes the maternity ward and proceeds to wreak bloody havoc all over suburban Los Angeles.
Meanwhile, the creature's parents' marriage rapidly implodes under the weight of mutual unspoken guilt and blame. Heavy stuff for what remains superficially a sleazy exploitation thriller, made heavier still by a conscious refusal to explain exactly what "caused" the mutation to begin with. Theories of "evolutionary adaptation" are tossed around, with the creepy implication that "It" may represent a new human species better adapted for a polluted, increasingly dangerous world; what some have interpreted as an even creepier implication that his "adaptation" has a more personal origin - an in-utero defensive reaction to Its mother's onetime consideration of an abortion. Yikes! Now that's edgy. Beat that, "Fringe."