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.”
Most of the famous silent or transitional era horror films require a certain amount of forgiveness on behalf of the modern audiences, but here’s one that’s often overlooked, likely because it was enough ahead of its time to seem “modern” now. Directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer, it’s one of the first (but far from last) vampire thrillers to claim a loose basis on Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Carmilla.” Amusingly, it cheats at being both an early-sound and silent film by having most of the exposition revealed in a book being read by the hero, a young man staying at a rural in who seems to be drifting in and out of a haunted dream (nightmare?) in which he’s tasked with unraveling the mystery of local vampiric goings-on that may or may not be real, imagined, shadows-of-the-past or none of the above. The story, ultimately, is secondary to the real impact of the film: It’s one of the most accurate-seeming renderings ever of what it might be like to inhabit someone else’s nightmares.
Lair of the White Worm (1988)
Here’s a British oddity that features, in no particular order: An acid-spitting snake woman, psychedelic hallucinations of possessed, orgiastic medieval nuns and a giant pagan serpent-god… and yet the most memorable and hard-to-believe sight by far is that of future chick flick staple Hugh Grant (yes, that Hugh Grant) as a cocky, action-ready badass who at one point hacks a killer snake-person in half with a broadsword.
Directed by offbeat auteur Ken Russell, this is a loose reworking of a later-day Bram Stoker piece that is itself inspired by the famous British folk tale of the Lambton Worm: A Scottish archaeologist finds a dragon-like skull at the site of notoriously “cursed” medieval convent, which seems to tie in to the arrival of a vampire-esque noblewoman, a spate of missing persons and the local legend of not-entirely-slain prehistoric serpent god. It’s a strange mix of real horror, eroticism, button-pushing blasphemy, bawdy Scottish revelry and dry British gallows humor; but damned if it doesn’t deliver whenever it needs to.
The Sentinel (1977)
Here’s a great scary-as-all-hell haunted house movie that no one seems to remember, mostly because it came out amid more popular late-70s occult horror flicks like “Exorcist,” “Rosemary’s Baby,” and “The Omen.” Even still, it can stand on its own as a great, unsung example of the genre. The actual story – a model discovers that her surprisingly-affordable New York apartment is a gateway to Hell – is as old as they come, but here the execution makes the difference: The ghostly manifestations mostly take the form of seemingly flesh-and-blood people who appear dangerously confused and frightened themselves (definite shades of “The Sixth Sense”); and the effect is genuinely unsettling… until, of course, it becomes simply terrifying.
As a nice bonus, you get one of those great “only in the 70s” casts – a mix of aging legends (Ava Gardner, Martin Balsam, Burgess Meredith) and not-yet-famous faces (Jeff Goldblum, Jerry Orbach, Christopher Walken) in cameos. The film actually caused some minor controversy in its original release because a good deal of the “freakish” ghouls in the “all Hell breaks loose” finale were played by folks with actual physical deformities, something I don’t think anyone could get away with today.
The Pit (1981)
Okay, okay… Before anyone who’s actually seen this gets mad at me, let me stress: “The Pit” is by no means a good movie, but along with being partially Halloween-centric it’s bad in both a genuinely unique and genuinely entertaining way. Those of you who are fans of Mystery Science Theater will understand, those of you are not fans of MST3K should become fans. This is another weird combo movie: Primarily, it’s about a mentally unstable (possibly meant to be autistic) young boy whose sociopathic (to say nothing of murderous) tendencies are awakened along with the early pangs of puberty.
He’s sexually obsessed with his new babysitter in a very ahead-of-his-years stalkerish way, he’s a peeping tom, and he has a habit of feeding those who rebuff his advances (or just plain piss him off) to a family of ravenous prehistoric troll-monsters living at the bottom of a giant hole he found in the woods. Since a demonic talking teddy bear also figures into things, it’s possible that the monsters are supposed to be imaginary, a projection of the kid’s psychosis, but the film never really makes up its mind either way, which only increases the unintended comedy factor. Even still, I can’t deny that it’s got a hell of an ending.
Well, that’s what I’ve got for now, though give me an hour or two and I’m sure I’ll come up with a dozen or so more… but that’ll be for another day. Until then, Happy Halloween!
Bob Chipman is a film critic and independent filmmaker. If you’ve heard of him before, you have officially been spending way too much time on the internet.