Tag Archives: Horror

Greatest Films of Halloween #5 Dracula (1992)

“How did Lucy die? Was she in great pain? ”
“Yeah, she was in great pain! Then we cut off her head, and drove a stake through her heart, and burned it, and then she found peace. “

I would argue that of all the versions of Dracula out there this is the closest yet to the original book. Dracula by Bram Stoker is probably the 2nd best horror novel in history (the best being Stephen King’s It, but there are not good movie versions of It). As a side note there is only one correct way to read Dracula: with a group of two or more people, taking turns reading it aloud by candle light, preferably on Halloween night. But enough about the book and how this is the only film version where the screenwriter seems to have looked over more than the Cliff notes one page overview…

Why is the movie a great Halloween film?

Gary Oldman as Dracula is just creepy. As the pale and creepy old man. As the bat/wolfman thing. Even as the regenerated younger man he still has that horrifying magnetism. For the most part he revels in his debauchery and villainy. The slight problem is that the screenwriter and director did humanize him a little too much. This is not the creature of the night hell bent on world conquest and destruction–this is more a tragic figure who through loss and pain has come to hate the world and wants it to suffer if he has to suffer. And this is kind of the weakest point of the movie…they tried to humanize him, give him a actual relationship with Mina Haker, bring some human drama into the story and have a title character who wasn’t just a lecherous piece of scum and embodiment of all the dark sides of sexuality (keep in mind vampirism is in many ways a metaphor for rape, for venereal disease, for lovers who use and abuse women). Still Dracula is a villain in this film (especially his shadow which seems to have a twisted Peter Pan thing going on, creeping up on people when Dracula himself is stationary).

Oh and then there’s Keanu Reaves. Sometimes I will actually defend casting Keanu in certain movies (Much Ado, Matrix, Lake House); however, this is not one of those cases. Coppola was going for that bland emotionless look that the Victorian middle class so admired…but it doesn’t work in a story of good versus evil.

But this is made up for by Anthony Hopkins’ Abraham Van Helsing, He’s a little crazy and certainly enjoys his job as vampire hunter way too much. But he is the only one in this film without fear; he actually enjoys pitting himself against the forces of darkness. It’s good he found something he enjoys. Van Helsing in the novel had an offbeat sense of humor, but Hopkins takes it to a wonderful extreme.

But overall the movie is true to the book (at least by Hollywood standards). All the characters which Hollywood usually leaves out are there (especially Lucy’s three suitors), all the main plot points are included (even if they did add some unneeded character development for the Count) and just the general horror of Dracula is there (especially when he’s feeding small children to his vampire brides).

While I wouldn’t go as far as to say that no Halloween is complete without this movie (that only applies to the #1 movie on this list) it does come close.

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Top Ten Films of Halloween #10 Fright Night

“Apparently your generation doesn’t want to see vampire killers anymore, nor vampires either. All they want to see are slashers running around in ski masks, hacking up young virgins. “

So observes Peter Vincent, Vampire Hunter, in the great horror classic Fright Night.  If only he had known that worse movies were coming after that…

But back to Fright Night

It takes a lot to make a teenage boy ignore his girlfriend who is in his bed and willing to go all the way…but seeing your neighbors move a coffin of all things into the basement might be one of the few things strange enough to do that (although probably for most teenage boys that wouldn’t be enough)…but this is the story of Charley, who was unfortunate enough to have a vampire move next door.  And worse yet, his friends don’t believe him, the police don’t believe him and all he can rely on is the help of a washed up B-horror movie actor.  Sucks to be Charley.  Oh, and the vampire has a thing for his girlfriend.

One of the things that makes this movie so good is the vampire himself—Chris  Sarandon (who also played another one of my generation’s most hated villains) as the vampire Jerry Dandrige.  Nonchalant, bordering on arrogance, in almost every scene he is in, it just gives you chills at how comfortable he is at being a mass murderer.  He’s evil and he doesn’t really care what you think about that.  And the director does an excellent job of constantly focusing you on the fangs and blood sucking habit even when not showing them by having him constantly eating or drinking something in every scene.  And thankfully someone remembered that vampires are supposed to be a symbol of sexuality.  Not that Sarandon is the best looking actor in the history of the universe, but almost every scene shows him being the desire of the women in the room.  (And when being turned into a vampire, the girlfriend Amy, seems to also magically go under a transformation from mousy plain Jane to near professional model looks…no explanation is really given for this transformation, especially since it seems to involve a makeup and lighting choices which should have nothing to do with becoming a vampire).  And they continue the darker side of the metaphor further with several overtones of rape (as there is quite a bit of mind control and loss of willpower).

From this…

…To this. Bite of a vampire offers one hell of a makeover.

And we finally get to a vampire movie that plays by the rules.  Sunlight.  Stake through the heart.  Needing to be invited into the house.  Holy Water.  Crosses.  Can turn into fog, bats and wolves.  It’s nice to see somebody play by all the rules.

And obviously the fear felt by Peter Vincent and Charley is a central point to this film.  Vincent comes also with the fear that his whole life is nothing but a long sad joke (which may at some level be a comment on Roddy McDowall’s long career as a chimp).  This near paralyzing fear permeates the second half of the film, and leads to our admiration of our two heroes as they are able to overcome their fears and defeat the vampire.

This is a classic horror film.  Not exactly the greatest film of all time, but certainly one that couldn’t be improved.  In fact it would be sacrilege to ever even think of redoing this movie, and if anyone even thought about it I would advocate for a total boycott of…wait…what…they did what?…Colin Farrell, are you f’ing kidding me?  And that twerp who played Chekov in that other crappy remake?  This means war….

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Halloween’s Greatest Films #11 The Lost Boys

“You never grow old. You never die. But you must feed.”

A true horror classic is an appellation that can be applied to just about every movie in the the Top 9 of this list, so I it could be argued I don’t need to say it with this one, but I will. The Lost Boys is a classic film of Halloween.

Again is this was from a day when vampires would rip your throat out as soon as look at you. And they have fun doing it. No qualms, no remorse, no brooding…just vicious destruction. This is the movie that originally introduced us to Kiefer Sutherland being a badass (although I think we’ll all agree Bauer was far more deadly).

We know the story. Biker teenage vampires lure an unsuspecting teenager into their lair and begin to turn him in an opening gambit to turn his entire family. Meanwhile his younger brother teams up with two socially dysfunctional wannabe vampire hunters who don’t know that you never invite a vampire into your house (which is one of those rules that everyone is supposed to know).

The movie plays, somewhat poorly I’ll admit, with a comparison between vampirism and teenage rebellion (the problem is that one is a phase and the other is by definition eternal), but the destructive, self-centered at the costs of others, you don’t know what I’m going through angles do hold. And it does hold the teenage desire and delusion to be young forever and never responsible for your actions.

It had been a few years since I had last seen this movie, so I had forgotten how bloody (very bloody) killing vampires was in this films, but it works.

As with a lot of the other movies I’ve discussed on this list we see the immortals heightened fear of death, and the overcoming of fear by our heroes…but this also offers us the fear of character Michael as he changes into the vampire and desperately tries to hold onto his humanity. It is this fear that the movie focuses on the most, and arguably tries to tie to that vampire/teenage rebellion theme.

The movie is unsteady at times but makes up for it with the fact that it keeps you guessing as to where the real power of the villains lies. Red herrings, subtle clues, and distractions all leading up to the final reveal by the vampire works for a nice surprise. Of course that leads into its own problems. If this movie has a single great flaw, it’s the random deus ex machina save at the end. If you’ve seen the movie, you know what I’m talking about, if not no need to spoil the ending. It was just a little too convenient.

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Best Films of Halloween #14 The Frighteners

Give it up, Frank! Death ain’t no way to make a living!

Even a New Ager like me who believes in psychic powers, I will admit most of them are charlatans and con artists. However the story of a real psychic who makes his living off of being a charlatan psychic is, as far as I know, original…yes I’ve seen quite a few stories about charlatans developing powers but never the other way around. (Of course having Michael J. Fox as a misanthropic asshole was also a new idea.)

And the supporting cast is simply hilarious. Jack Busey as the villain is possibly one of the few actors on this planet who can look crazier than his father Gary.  R. Lee Emery as a ghostly version of his usual hardnosed drill sergeant.  And the ever underappreciated Jeffrey Combs as a mentally unstable FBI agent who is obsessed with the paranormal (yeah that may make you think Fox Mulder, but this guy makes Mulder’s most bizarre habits look mundane and rational.

Battles with the Grim Reaper himself, other worldly serial killers, psycho Feds, and a crazy lady with a very big gun. Mystery as to who is good and bad. Tension throughout most of the movie. And a good dose of humor. This movie is unknown most likely because it had a very poor showing at the box office when it first came out. This probably had something to do with the fact that the studio tried to hype the movie by pointing out that it was produced by Robert Zemeckis (whom we had all forgotten even back in the 1990’s) and completely ignored the director Peter Jackson (I can’t quite put my finger on it, but I seem to remember him going on to do something else, the name just has a certain ring to it). Again, not the greatest film ever made but it is far too underappreciated than its quality actually merits. (If nothing else this is what gave Jackson a huge amount of experience in dealing with CGI, without which we wouldn’t have our favorite Hobbits).

Here we see not the typical fear of death that is so common of horror films (although it is here) but more the fear of life. You have ghost by the bushel who are afraid to move on with their “life” (I use the term loosely), a hero so focused on what has gone wrong with his life that he is unable to move on, and a trio of villains who all seem to be radically antithetical to living life. In both your life, and afterlife, it is shown that not moving on, living life, but rather holding on to the past (in Fox’s character focusing on his wife’s death, with the killers their focus is on breaking records set by others) to the point that it is a paralytic even worse than the fear that the characters tend to inspire in others.

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Best Movies of Halloween #16 Se7en

Ernest Hemingway once wrote, “The world is a fine place and worth fighting for.” I agree with the second part.

Why this movie? It’s not a slasher (like Sweeney Todd and Scream), it has nothing supernatural or otherworldly; it’s more a thriller or crime drama. So why exactly this movie? Because it has the worst monster of all—the worst parts of human nature unchecked by reason or compassion. People are theoretically capable of some truly horrific things. Luckily most people have reason and compassion in enough amounts to keep them from becoming evil, maybe not enough to become paragons of virtue, but certainly enough to keep them from doing terrible things. (Although I won’t deny history is filled with otherwise reasonable people giving into their worst fears and inclinations to commit terrible atrocities…and always in the name of virtue, of progress, of the state). But this movie shows what happens when it’s not a whole group justifying their viciousness through some kind of utilitarian excuse; this is an individual who has reached this viciousness on his own.

And the problem is that the writers put some fairly seductive half truths in what he says (because the devil wouldn’t be the devil if he didn’t know how to make a lie sound like the truth):

Only in a world this shitty could you even try to say these were innocent people and keep a straight face. But that’s the point. We see a deadly sin on every street corner, in every home, and we tolerate it. We tolerate it because it’s common, it’s trivial. We tolerate it morning, noon, and night.

And what makes this even more seductive is that it parallels what the character of Somerset, played by Morgan Freeman, feels throughout the entire film. That the world is getting worse. That humanity is leaving the human race and all that is left is a degenerate filth that passes as human beings. The fact that the city, in every scene, is poorly lit, it’s constantly raining, and the walls of every building falling apart behind the chipping paint. It almost seems that the world isn’t going to Hell, it’s already there. (I don’t necessarily agree with this view of the world, I actually think it’s getting better, but that’s not exactly here or there for this film).

So if we’re already in Hell, doesn’t there seem to be some kind of perverted justice in the act of the killer? No. Let me be clear, I’m saying the writers clearly wanted it to have the tone of seduction, but they have no illusions about what is right and what is wrong. Because while the killer and Somerset complain about the same things, Somerset works throughout the movie to make the world better, to try and educate others, to try and enlighten. He is a man of reason and compassion. He recognizes the problem, but chooses to respond by trying to make the world better.

The killer on the other hand just destroys. Yes there are times in life where violence is called for and there are times when we feel that treating the scum around us with said violence might be a great stress relief, but most of us don’t give into that. We vent and move on. The killer of Seven took it upon himself to meet out punishment to those who were not harming him directly (and the only two who were harming others were the drug dealer guilty of sloth and the lawyer guilty of greed, and in both cases their crimes would have warranted prison, not death). The killer in this movie wanted to say his sin was envy for the normal life of Brad Pitt’s character, it wasn’t, it was something that doesn’t even make the list of the seven deadly sins, it was an obsession with vice instead of virtue, with cursing the darkness instead of lighting a candle. That and he was batshit insane.

As a horror film it works because it shows what our darkest inclination might look like if stripped of all that is good in us.

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Best Films for Halloween #19 Tremors

“I vote for outer space. No way these are local boys.”

The story of two men who just want to leave the worst town in Arizona (no I don’t mean Phoenix) and the giant flesh eating worms that wouldn’t let them.

Tremors is probably the first movie on this list that I would actually place on a legitimate best movie list (not just a Halloween list, and I’m talking a top 500, not a top 100 movies). (On a side note, given that Beetlejuice, with its giant sand worms, came out about the same time, does anyone think that these movies were trying to make fun of that terrible adaptation of Dune that came out a few years before, you know the one with Sting that made no sense even to people who had read the book? Just thinking out loud here).

Fear isn’t much of a factor in this film, but a series clever one- liners is.

“Look these creatures are absolutely unprecedented.”
“Yeah, but where do they come from?”

We have a wonderful comic team of Val and Earl (Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward, two actors who have never been fully appreciated). The relationship between these two is what makes this movie so enjoyable. (And it’s the lack of this relationship, among other things, that makes the sequels such abhorrent disappointments). Although the two gun nuts are also wonderful additional comic relief.

Yeah, this is more a comedy than a horror film.

But there are still the elements of the horror film in here. And of course this comes from the monsters in the movie. Like all good horror movies, as I have already discussed, the less you see of the monster the creepier it is. Thus here we got the slow building up before seeing one of the creatures, a full third of the way into the movie. And while we see the creature a lot, they’re at their most dangerous and most frightening when we can’t see them. The anticipation of an enemy you can’t see is far worse than being able to see and anticipate what is going to happen. Being right under the ground really helps for this invisibility factor. The fun parts of the movie are often when you can see the creature—“Broke in the wrong goddamn rec-room didn’t you bastard”—the most tense scenes are of people standing around like statues. Doing nothing, just trying not move. You have to admit that seldom is doing nothing so suspenseful an image.

(God bless the 2nd Amendment)
Honestly this movie could be watched at any point in the year and enjoyed without thinking, I really should wait until October to watch this, but it seemed to fit in that it did offer a great sequence of tense scenes and monsters that were horrifying the first time around (even if the sequels should all be hunted down and burned).

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The Best Movies for Halloween #20 Pitch Black

“All you people are so scared of me. Most days I’d take that as a compliment. But it ain’t me you gotta worry about now.”


I debated on whether or not to include this one. After all it’s always a bit of a debate with some movies where sci-fi ends and horror begins. (same problem with thrillers and fantasy). But in the end this movie is about fear and monsters.

It’s a movie which presents all kinds of monsters. First you have what would become our anti-hero, Vin Diesel’s Riddick, a sociopath who enjoys playing with people (and one assumes killing people although we don’t quite see that in this film). The second act gives you the tension of impending doom from the real monsters that are coming and villainy of an unethical bounty hunter who is willing to kill anyone to get what he wants. And finally, of course, we have the monsters themselves. The movie does a good job of keeping what they look like hidden in shadow for much of the film, which always heightens the evil and fear of anything that goes bump in the night.

But it’s not just the fear of the unknown. Or the fear of death. Or the fear of the dark. Or the fear of others. Or the fear of pain. Or the fear of the future. Or the fear of making the wrong choice. Or the fear of being alone. It’s all of them. In many ways this movie is a study in fear and how it affects people, or as Riddick put it, “I truly don’t know what’s gonna happen when the lights go out Carolyn but I do know, once the dying starts, this little psycho fuck family of ours is gonna rip itself apart.” And you do see some of the characters at their worst because they give into their fears.

But our two main characters Riddick (the anti-hero) and Caroline (the hero) don’t seem to fully give into these at any point, they’re afraid but they don’t let it control them. As just a movie it has a lot of things going for it, but most of all it has realistic characters, Riddick isn’t just evil for the sake of evil and Caroline has more than a few moments of weakness…but they both come out as admirable in their own way. The movie also shows that you don’t need to have a massive budget to make a good movie (after all, the sequel had a much larger budget and wasn’t nearly as good a film). Not that the director doesn’t have some odd editing choices (especially the rapid firing cutting he seems enamored with) but it is still an example of an overall well done (not great, but well done) horror film.

Then of course there are the creatures. We never really got a great look at them. Yeah we saw them from a lot of different angles in brief bursts of light and their heads were very visible, but a good look at them was never given. We always fear what we can’t see. And there is that eyeless (things without eyes are just more frightening) head that looks like a bunch of horns and teeth. Overall the creatures have a very demonic look to them.

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The Best Films of Halloween #21 Scream

scream1Rule Number one: you can never have sex. Sex equals death, okay? Number two: you can never drink or do drugs. the sin factor! It’s a sin. It’s an extension of number one. And number three: never, ever, ever under any circumstances say, “I’ll be right back.” Because you won’t be back.

The last of this set of three homage films. This movie has all the (few) good qualities of your every day slasher, and mercilessly ridicules the flaws.

There are all the self deprecating little insults. There is nothing more hilarious than the scene where Jamie Kennedy is screaming at the movie he is watching to turn around when he himself has a murderer right behind him.

The movie makes it clear that slasher films have always been trite morality plays without falling prey to the same rules (the four survivors are our heroes, but they’re far from saints…well maybe Dewey).  That the behavior of most people in slasher films in beyond stupid, “What’s the point? They’re all the same. Some stupid killer stalking some big-breasted girl who can’t act who is always running up the stairs when she should be running out the front door. It’s insulting.”… of course running out the door doesn’t seem to work too well in Scream, but you get the point.    And instead of being the terrible cardboard cutouts of most slasher film characters, there was actually some depth and characterization, not volumes mind you, but some (which mysteriously disappeared in all the sequels…although for a lot of these actors this was the acting highlight of their careers, sad as that might be).

The other advantage to this movie is that it didn’t go overboard. Yes there was a lot of blood. But where other slasher films try to gross you out with the amount of gore, this one used it only to heighten the tension.

Clearly we see the fear of death throughout this movie, motivating pretty much all of our characters.  But it’s nice to see that it is not so traumatizing that it incapacitates them.  Most of the victims do put up a valiant fight and of course our hero gets the great one liner “Not in my movie” at the very end.  Certainly not giving into the fear of death.

The problem is, of course, that while this film was witty and somewhat original in it’s willingness to critique its own genre so brutally, the sequels were all disappointments.  Each one worse than the last.  But that doesn’t change the fact that the first one still remains an entertaining Halloween view.

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The Best Halloween Movies #22 The Monster Squad

“Perfect, monsters hate religious stuff”

It’s insights like that that show these kids truly know what they’re talking about when it comes to monsters.

In this case it’s a who’s who of classic film. Dracula. His three brides. Frankenstein’s monster. The Wolfman. The Creature from the Black Lagoon. The Mummy. The gang’s all here in their traditional laconic demeanor (except for Dracula, that guy loves to hear himself talk…and come up with little witty quips like “Meeting adjourned.”) I can’t sing this movie’s praises for too long, it’s just too silly to do so, but it gets this high on the list because it does understand the nature and style of all the classic horror movies, wraps them into one, and adds a touch of the innocence of childhood.

This movie is also a fun trip back to the 80’s. There is the power ballad montage as the squad prepares for battle. There is the truly awful fashion. Drive-in movies are still around. Parents still smoke right in front of their kids unaware that it’s a class A felony and crime against humanity. The language is so radically not P.C. that even I was a little stunned when I heard it (yeah it’s been a few years…a decade…since the last time I saw this.)

In some ways this is better than any of the classic horror films because it both embraces them and shows how terrible they were.

Also…
There have been complaints about some of the movies I don’t seem to have included…so let me run down the list of why some other movies and TV shows didn’t make the list

Twilight Zone: Too hopeful. Yeah there were some scary scenes but overall Rod Serling wasn’t so much taken with the fear of death but with the miracle of life…just look at the episode where Redford plays death, it’s a very uplifting tale.

Outer Limits: Not well done. In either the old or the new version its quality was always inconsistent at best…and laughable at worst. The poor man’s Twilight Zone.

Gremlins: Horror movies cannot have cute furballs…and Christmas movies can’t have stories of people’s dads dying in a chimney, so it won’t be making that list either.

The Exorcist: I have comedies on this list, but they were trying to be funny, The Exorcist is funny because it’s so poorly done. I can’t help but laugh the whole way through. Honestly, how is anyone frightened by this farce?

The Ninth Gate: I’ve actually heard good things about this…and the minute director and child rapist Roman Polanski dies I’ll give it a try, but not a minute before.

House II: Several people from my generation mentioned this movie to me…we all seem to remember it fondly. How can you not? The movie actually includes the following line from an electrician called to deal with an old house’s electricity problem: “What you’ve got here is your standard transdimensional portal. I’ve dealt with this before.” But aside from a few witty (albeit bizarre) lines, it really didn’t hold up when I went back to watch it.

Evolution: I think it’s funnier than some of the comedies on this list…but I just see it as more sci-fi than horror.

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Halloween Movies #23 Little Shop of Horrors

Seymour: No! I don’t know anybody who deserves to get chopped up and fed to a hungry plant!

Audrey II: Mmmmmm, sure you do!

Little Shop of HorrosWhen I started this list I said I wasn’t going to include any of the really old horror films, because, and no offense to Lugosi, Karloff, and Chaney, but those movies are too cheesy. If it wasn’t for the fame of these movies they would have been first round picks at Mystery Science Theater 3000. Yes they were groundbreaking in their genre…but ground breaking and great are not necessarily the same thing. However there are a couple of films that not only do a good job of recognizing the camp of the early works in the genre and doing a good job of using that same camp for clever parody. Today and tomorrow’s pick do that quite well.

Little Shop of Horrors is based on an older and much campier movie of the same name. It’s the story of a giant flesh eating, smartass, plant from outer space hell bent on world domination. And it’s a musical. I can only image how the pitch session went and what the writer actually said to get the thing green lit.

It also makes fun of the late 50’s/early 60’s culture that gave us so so many terrible monster movies that would eventually conquer the world. Yeah I find the critique of crass consumerism a little heavy handed but just because I’m a capitalist doesn’t mean I will defend what businesses do to the death.

Why is this a horror movie? Well it’s not only the blood sucking mean green mother from outer space that constantly demands “Feed me!” It’s a horror movie because it has something far, far more horrifying. Something we have all encountered in our lives. The thing of nightmares. A demon straight from the bowels of Hell itself. A dentist who enjoys causing pain (as if there is any other kind of dentist).

And it stars Rick Moranis. Yes him, he was never a great actor but we miss him all the same. Moranis plays awkward down and out nerd Seymour who is offered a Faustian bargain to gain wealth, fame, and the woman he loves all for the low price of killing people. Admittedly he gives in a little quickly to be a true hero, but hey, as the movie says “A lot of people deserve to die.”*


All the bad stereotypes of a movie you see the three commentators from Mystery Science Theater making fun of are here…but since the movie is already making fun of them, there was no need to put it on that show.

*Not really, but I’m going with the line. I wouldn’t usually need to point out that this was sarcasm but I’ve had some problems with people not being able to sense sarcasm in writing lately.

Up next a movie that directly makes fun of all the classic horror movies.

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Best Things to watch for Halloween #24 The X-files

This was kind of a no brainer that it would make it on the list.  You have such a wide range of horrific monsters to choose from.  Flukeman, Cigarette Smoking Man, Tombs, the fat sucking guy from “2shy”, Donnie Pfaster, the black oil, the entire cast of “Bad Blood”. (Okay that last one wasn’t that scary…although Mulder singing “Shaft” was disturbing on many levels).    The list can go on for some time.  For 9 years they creeped us out, not every week, but consistently they had the hairs on the back of our neck standing up.

So let’s take a look at the most horrifying episodes in no particular order.

Eve. There is just something about sociopathic children that is frightening.  When they’re in stereo it’s even worse.

Psychopaths now come in pairs…how the complete opposite of cute.

Die Hand Die Verletzt.  Satanists.  Ritual murder.  The evil substitute is really a demon out to kill just about everyone.  What’s not to get a creep factor from?

Irresistible.  There was nothing supernatural or mystical about this episode.  Just a serial killer who takes a liking to Scully.  (Yes it’s implied he might be something more demonic and less human, but that is never really delved into…besides it’s human behavior that frightens us the most.)  This was more frightening because for so much of the episode we don’t have any X-file to blame, any supernatural cause to have as an excuse for the evil and the terror…just a man who likes to hurt people.

War of the Coprophages.   With the exception of spiders there is probably no bug creepier than cockroaches…and a whole episode of them, even if it’s humorous, just leaves you feeling uncomfortable.  Especially in that part where the cockroaches crawl across the screen.

Chinga.  Yeah we’ve seen the evil doll theme before.  But this one was written by Stephen King.  And it was bloody.

And you thought your coworkers were bad…

Folie a Deux.  Bug like monsters creating zombies no one can see.  Do I need to explain why that’s creepy?

Scary Monster.  It had the feel of that Twilight Zone episode where the kid might send you out to the cornfield…only far more horrifying tortures.

And finally Roadrunners.  Most people missed this episode because it was after Duchovny left the show…but that’s part of why it’s terrifying.  If Mulder isn’t there to save Scully, then who will? (Not to suggest that Scully didn’t save Mulder’s ass a lot).  And the idea of a giant worm that burrows into you and takes you over in “Puppet Master” fashion equally disturbing.  But what was worse was that we spent half the episode watching it burrow into Scully.  I don’t get frightened by movies or TV often, I’m usually too busy analyzing how everything works and probably working on something else at the same time…but I remember this episode had me actually worried about what would happen the first time it aired.

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Best movies for Halloween #25 Flatliners

Flatliners“Philosophy failed. Religion failed. Now it’s up to the physical sciences.”

Like most scientists in horror films the characters of Flatliners think that science can reveal everything, damn the consequences…
…and be it a sci fi or horror movie that always works really well.

The movie posters had the rather cheesy catch phrase “Some lines shouldn’t be crossed.” (Terrible pun). But this goes to the heart of an the issue of should science have boundaries. And as so many horror stories came out of the Romantic era it will always be tied to the Romantic’s distrust of the arrogance of science to find all answers. And they’re not entirely wrong. The history of science, while a great story of the progress and advancement of the human race, has these dark side notes of human experimentation and only considering the consequence of one’s actions only after the fact (Oppenheimer…”I am become death…”). We see it in Frankenstein. We saw it in The Island of Dr. Moreau. We saw it throughout the X-files, Fringe, Outer Limits, Fringe, and the Twilight Zone and a dozen other stories, movies and TV shows. They’re cautionary tales to remind people that science has always been and always will be a double edged sword that when misused or misunderstood can do far more damage than good. And the idea of killing yourself to scientifically see what’s on the other side of death does seem to be one of those lines science shouldn’t be so eager to go past.

In this case how would you like all of your worst sins and things your regret come back not just as memories but as tangible, physical things to torment and torture. I assume for many of us this would be a nightmare…more so for the highly flawed characters of this movie.

Now, somewhere between being a cool vampire and being the most deadly force in the history of counter-terrorism, Kieffer Sutherland played the rather arrogant and guilt-ridden character of Nelson. This character was the driving force behind these experiments of Flatliners, Nelson, is also the one most tied to death. He claims he has no fear of what is on the other side and it is just pure curiosity on his part, but he is also suffering from the buried guilt of having killed someone in his youth. In fact you find that the only other character so interested in the experiments is Julia Robert’s character, who also lost someone to death, shows that their desire to know about death isn’t curiosity, it is very much the fear of not knowing what death it.

The fear of death is often tied to the fear of being judged for your actions (it’s sad people have such a limited view of God they think he is so willing to damn you). And that is what ties each of the characters of Flatliners together. Whether what happened was their fault or not, whether it was major or minor, they felt guilty about it and in this film their guilt became a physical manifestation. Now I don’t know if the writers were intentionally going for this or it’s just an interesting parallel, but this does partially match up to the idea that when you die you review your life and you the parts that you review in most detail are the ones that you are most emotionally tied to…and there are few emotions stronger than guilt. It also seems to parallel the Buddhist idea that in the afterlife one of the things you will face is the karmic consequences of your actions and if you can’t move past these (move past the guilt) then you will be forced to live through the karmic consequences of those actions in your next life (but this may be reading too much into the screenwriter’s intent).

Whatever the actual purpose the writer and director were attempting to bring out about the nature of the afterlife, they do have a fairly clear point that the way out is not death but forgiveness.

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Best Halloween Movies #27 Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

“And life is for the alive my dear, so let’s keep living it.”

This movie can best be described as delightfully macabre. One could also call it a goddamn Greek tragedy. The obscene amount of blood in this film, even in that cartoonish shade of red, easily qualifies this as a Halloween film. Add the cannibalism, and how bad the meat pies were before the secret ingredient, the ick factor alone qualifies this movie for a place on this list.

Since this movie is a little more recent (and most people aren’t familiar with Broadway shows) a little plot summary won’t hurt. Spoiler Warning! Benjamin Barker framed for a crime by Judge Turpin so that the judge could make advances on Barker’s wife, returns after many years in prison under the name Sweeney Todd. Todd, mentally unhinged by from his suffering, comes back with revenge in his heart against Turpin and his henchman the Beadle Bamford. Taking up residence once again over Mrs. Lovett’s Meat Pie shop he plans his vengeance. Todd takes up his old profession as a barber, and after he blows his first chance to kill Turpin he decides to take his rage out on all of humanity. Worse, Mrs. Lovett, possibly the worst character in the story, comes up with the most revolting way imaginable to dispose of the corpses that will soon be piling up—use the corpses as the main ingredient in her meat pie shop. Quiet revoltingly, long pig appears to be quite popular. The whole thing ends with Todd killing Lovett, Bamford, Turpin…and at the time unknowingly his wife whom he thought dead. This last point is what makes it a tragedy. Had he had but one piece of knowledge at the beginning, that his wife was alive, he might have found her and just killed Turpin, he does deserve it, saved his daughter (one of the few characters to make it out alive, also one of the few main characters innocent in the whole story). And finally realizing the level of his sin, Todd himself is killed.

It is a story only of victims and only of villains.

And yet, being a musical it has a strangely delightful quality. Especially in how the characters revel in their atrocities…and since it’s taken to the point of farce you can enjoy their evil without being morally revolted. The offbeat performance of Depp and Bonham Carter help to a great deal as well.

Halloween is a time to reflect on our darker side, and this movie only looks at that side of human nature. The jealous, the envious, the vengeful, the avaricious (we’ll hold off on discussion of the whole septet for a later film…yeah that one). Someone told me once that it was ironic that I should like Sweeney Todd as the film clearly advocated a communist philosophy. And they were partly right, Todd and Lovett do seem to have a very Marxist view of society, they use as justification for their villainy the statement “How gratifying for once to know that those above will serve those down below.“ However since they’re the villains and receive their all too just rewards in the end, I don’t see this film endorsing communism…if anything, (and I really don’t think Burton or Sondheim and Wheeler meant this) this would show that communists are vicious people who justify their viciousness with their petty ideas.

But for all of its gore and focus on the villains, like almost all horror, it is a morality tale where all the evil are struck down.

We’re still not into the realm of movies that are great in and of themselves outside a Halloween list, but it is a delightfully macabre movie.

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Best Halloween Cinema #30: Buffy the Vampire Slayer

So begins the list of the #30 best things to watch for Halloween (I by no means claim this is a definitive list and the ordering is rather arbitrary).

We start this month of horror films off with a TV show. But not just any TV show, the single greatest TV show in the history of human civilization (at least up to this point…Whedon could easily come out with something new that would surpass it in a few years). That show is of course Buffy The Vampire Slayer. High tragedy, high comedy, deep understanding of the human condition, skill in writing, acting and directing, and of course a hopeful view of humanity that forgiveness is possible and that people can grow and improve themselves. There is simply no show in the history of television that has dealt such profound philosophical themes without being heavy handed and with characters who were human and never just two dimensional cutouts who were allowed to followed a predictable pattern.

The reason such a great work of art gets put last in this list is that it’s really not a horror story. Yes there are vampires and werewolves and monsters of all stripes. But even though it has all the tropes of horror, it is not focused on death as any good horror story is, rather Buffy is focused on life, specifically the growing up part of life. And in this respect it works as a good counterbalance to everything that’s going to come after, but that does not mean it does not have its horrifying moments.

So let’s do a quick rundown of some of the more terrifying episodes.

The Gentlemen from “Hush”

“Hush”: Possibly the most horrifying episode of Buffy. Corpse like emaciated men dressed in 1920’s style suits come to town, steal everyone’s voice and rip out their hearts. It’s frightening for several reasons. The first is the villains, The Gentlemen. The scariest monsters are always the ones that look human but are just a slight bit off, the fact that they were so concerned with manners and courtesy in their actions toward one another just adds to the horror because it is so out of place when you’re about to cut out a live and awake person’s heart. The other reason that it’s such a terrifying episode is that it takes away from the characters something they take for granted: their voice. The idea of not having something we have been so dependent on that we take it for granted, like our ability to communicate brings up the simple question in our minds: “what would I do in that situation?” It’s not a pleasant question. We use our voice for so many things and the idea that we should have to live without it–not a pleasant thought. And of course there is the fear of death. Few episodes have shown people so helpless as this episode when being killed, they’re restrained almost immediately so they can’t run away; they have no voice so they can’t scream for help and then they feel everything as their heart is cut out. One of the things that frighten people so much about death is that they think it is something out of their control, that it will come in the night without warning or rhyme or reason and there is nothing they can do about it, and they are utterly powerless in the face of the unknown. It’s powerlessness against it that frightens them (it’s why waiting for the diagnosis of cancer is worse than the diagnosis itself, when you know what it is, you have a name, an MRI, an idea you can fight against or give into, it’s your choice—but when you’re waiting you still have no choice about anything). It is this powerlessness that the scenes of death in this episode capture so well, and remind most of us of our own fears of death.
Helpless: People run a lot in Buffy. But either they’re one episode’s extras whom we’re not really all that invested in, or they’re main characters and we know Buffy will save them. But when it’s Buffy who is doing the running because she has had all her powers taken away, that adds a lot more terror. The safety net of “Buffy will save the day” is gone, and being Joss Whedon, we never had any reassurance that he isn’t willing to kill main characters, so there’s not that usual safety net either.

“Restless”: There is something terrifying about the unknown and the bizarre to most people. If they can’t understand and make sense of it, it frightens them. So putting our four main characters in a rather symbolic and random dreamscape with an unknown assailant killing them, is quite terrifying. Oh and there’s cheese (if you’ve seen the episode you’ll get that).

“Fear Itself”: Finally my favorite Halloween episode in Buffy. The Scooby Gang faces off against a demon who makes them live out their worst fears and then face the fear demon itself. Roosevelt said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” This episode shows how foolish that is. Why? Because the fear demon is three inches tall, which is possibly the most insightful and genius representation of fear I have ever seen in of all of literature. Fear is something small, something insignificant, and something if you use reason isn’t worth worrying about…yet we let it control us because we refuse to look at it. If we did confront it head on we would probably find that most of our fears are so small and so insignificant that they can just easily be squashed and ignored.

Xander: Who’s the little fear demon? Come on, who’s the little fear demon? Giles: Don’t taunt the fear demon.Xander: Why? Can he hurt me?Giles: No, it’s just… tacky

Honorable Mentions:

None these are exactly great films (not that the top 30 are all Oscar Winners) but they get trotted out every Halloween and I would say they do meet my criteria of an unhealthy obsession with death.

Constantine: An epic battle between good and evil with a poorly executed story of redemption.  Fun but ultimately pointless.

Stigmata: It’s not exactly a horror film, (and I’ll probably deal with it later in my blogs about movies for New Agers) but with all the blood and suffering it has many of the tropes of a horror film.

Bless the Child: Certainly not as dense and preachy as the novel it’s based on, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t still just a little preachy.  And then there is just the rather low quality direction.

The Shinning (TV movie 1997): You know the Nicholson/Kubric version of the film is actually well done, the problem is that it seems to completely ignore that there is actually a great book that it’s supposed to be based on. The TV movie, while not without its flaws was more true to theme and characters of the book and thus I prefer it to the older version.

Fringe: Again it’s not really about the fear of death, but there are some truly horrifying moments.  Like in the first episode where everyone’s skin is melting off, that’s frightening at levels I can’t begin to describe.  And that 3rd season episode where they guy is playing with a corpse and through levers and pulleys make it dance ballet, that’s disturbing at a level I seldom see.

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Halloween, Movies, and Death

HalloweenIt’s October and that means Halloween. And Halloween means I pull out all of my favorite horror movies, which means I am suddenly surrounded by vampire movies (well I am surrounded by vampires all year long, but Buffy is hardly pure horror). But this brings up why is society so overly inundated by the undead lately. Vampires and Zombies are everywhere. Walking Dead, True Blood, Vampire Diaries, Twilight, another Dracula, American Horror Story, World War Z, yet another Paranormal Activity, Resident Evil Part 8000: (subtitled: Jovovich really hopes someone will think she can act and give her a real job), Pride and Prejudice and Zombies…do I really need to continue? Be it TV, books, movies we are literally surrounded by the undead. And it seems like there are a lot more of the nosferatu now than there ever has been. I remember growing up with the Lost Boys, Fright Night, that Dracula with Gary Oldman, Interview with the Vampire, and of course who can ignore Buffy (and of course there were a lot of other films and books that were ignored) but you can’t deny there does seem to be a lot more vampires and zombies now than ever before…and they’re certainly making obscene amounts of money. Now it could be that Hollywood just has found a formula that makes money and are running it into the ground like they do with anything…but it still just seems like it’s more than just that. So the question becomes why are people so enthralled with the undead?

I think I may know what it is. Society’s obsession with death. Now I know I’ve brought this up before, but I feel it needs reiterating. More and more people seem to have a bizarre, infantile obsession with death and as Stephen King once pointed out horror is the genre that deals with the fear of death. They fear it more and more. And I don’t mean in a rational, life is certainly better than death, sort of way. I mean in a way where death becomes an obsession. You see it everywhere else. You see people grieving over the departed far longer than can possibly be healthy. You see them clamoring for healthcare as if it’s a right like they were dying of a terrible disease this minute. It’s irrational. And it’s being manifested in this obsession with the undead, those who have eluded death, no matter what the cost. It’s not a conscious desire to cheat death in such a fashion, but it the subconscious association with the idea of not dying….

So rather than go into my usual rant against the preposterous fear of death (do you know there is Buddhist meditation that asks you to daily imagine a new way you could die in as much depth as possible so you will be able to handle the transition without a shock?). Instead I’m going to take my love of film and go over my 30 favorite Halloween pieces of cinema (I say cinema because some of these will be TV shows) and discuss how they aren’t the usual vicious obsession with death that most horror does.

Why 30 because I did want to save one day in which I deal with why some of the movies that won’t be making the list.

Zombie movies: Philosophically possibly the worst thing I’ve ever seen (even worse when you consider that there has never been a zombie movie with even a half decent plot.) Zombies are more or less a metaphor for what people are like at our most basic level, an expression of pure violence and eating. (When actually if you want to see what people act like when their souls aren’t in control and just letting the body work on autopilot I would suggest you look at pop culture and OccupyWallStreet and certain political parties known for groupthink, yeah that one.). This is part of a large belief that we are all base animals at our core and I do not subscribe to that. On a side note, the only time I have ever seen the character of a zombie used well was in the TV shows Firefly and Dollhouse and the movie (Serenity) where the zombies (called Reavers and Butchers) were not the traditional zombies but described accurately as a perversion of humanity, not the thing we are all trying to keep at bay.

Old horror movies: They’re just too campy for me to respect. Yes, Lugosi and Karloff have their rightful place in history, but I just can’t take them seriously. (Especially since I know the books they’re based on and those movies butcher their source material).

Movies where vampires sparkle: Vampires have always been and are supposed to be metaphors for sexuality. There is just nothing sexy about a vampire who has been playing with glitter.

Slasher films: At their best they’re cheap morality plays which were best summarized by Seth Green in Scream. There is not much more to them than that. At their worst they’re just an obsession with gore and the worst in humanity. (There will be some notable exceptions to the list in the 30 movie countdown).

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