This blog is devoted to all those pieces of 20th century culture too often pooh-pooh'ed by the so called 'high brow' crowd. The stuff that conjoures words like 'vibrant', 'garish' and 'lurid'. Cheap paperbacks, b-movies, exploitation, fantasy, horror and hokey sci-fi - all have a place on this blog where the trash of yesterday is recognised as the classics of today.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Greatest Halloween Movies

This might not seem like a particularly original post, but most 'Top Ten' Halloween movie lists are just an excuse to slap up ten favorite horror flicks. But is that all Halloween is about? Since its arrival on the shores of the US in the hands of Irish immigrants, All Hallows' Eve has metamorphosed into a holiday that embraces all things gruesome and terrifying with a plethora of newer traditions that are almost solely confined to the US. While that's all well and good, what about the roots of the festival? And what movies can we find that are associated with these oldest traditions?

Originating in the Celtic parts of Europe (i.e. Britain, Ireland and Gaul) Halloween (or 'Samhain' as it was called in Ireland back then) heralded the beginning of the dark half of the year and was a night when the spirits of the dead (presumably both good and bad) could return from the Otherworld to visit the places and people they knew in life. When Christianity grew in strength under the rule of the late Romans, the newly formed church naturally frowned on such pagan beliefs, connecting them with devil worship and other un-godly things (which must have been news to the Romanised Celts). In an effort to replace these heathen customs with their own mythology of saints, the festival was renamed 'All Saints' Eve' or more commonly 'All Hallows' Eve'. Also, the church's seemingly innate fear of women with spiritual power (or any kind of power in society) led to the concept of witchcraft (after all, if these priestesses and healers were not Christians, they had to be using their mystical powers for evil, right?)

And so there we have it; a pagan seasonal festival connected with spirits returning from the realm of the dead and doorways into other worlds layered with a Christian mythology of demons, witchcraft and the big, bad man downstairs. In these more secular times, the fusion of cultures and beliefs has become inseparably entwined. But what present day movies reflect this strange witch's brew of mythologies?

Well, for over a century horror movies have fed on the gothic, the supernatural and the demonic. But not all of them. Some rely on the psychological or the problems of society and others are just in it for the gore. So for a list to properly represent the true spirit of Halloween (in my opinion), some parameters need to be defined.

1. A Halloween movie must deal with the supernatural (except in a very few cases which will be discussed further). So, while the likes of 'Psycho', 'Jaws', and the various slasher franchises may be considered great movies, they don't fit the bill in this case.

2. Halloween is all about the dead returning to the realm of the living. So no werewolves, aliens or monsters of earthly creation. On the other hand ghosts, vampires and zombies (the gothic rather than the scientific kind) are in.

3. The 'doorways into other worlds' concept is a much used one and really ties in with what the Celts believed in and their traditions surrounding Samhain. While this could potentially cover a huge amount of ground, other worlds such as Hell and the realm(s) of the dead etc are perfect territory.

4. Arguably, Halloween is as much a Christian concept as a pagan one and as the early church made connections between Satan and heathen happenings, why not represent this too? Demonic possession, devil worship and satanic cults are hardly in short order in the world of movies.

5. Oh, and as this blog deals with 20th century pop culture, all films must be pre-2000.

After much thought, I have assembled the following list. All films are in alphabetical order (saves me having to pic a favorite, see?)

The Blair Witch Project (1999)

Remember the hype surrounding this one? Many people thought it was the real deal and as this 'missing footage found in the woods' gimmick was ultra cheap to film, it remains one of the most profitable movies of all time.

I'll go ahead and admit that I wasn't scared into convulsions by this, but it remains damn well eerie to this day. The invented mythology surrounding the alleged witch of the nearby woods is effectively done and the gradually deteriorating friendship of the three protagonists as they get more and more lost really portrays the feeling of hopelessness which is terrifying in itself. And then they find that old house in the woods...

The Crow (1994)

Top marks for spotting the one film on my list that isn't a horror movie. Nevertheless, The Crow is a fantastic tale of a spirit brought back from the land of the dead to right the wrongs on Devil's Night (aka Halloween). The fact that a crow acts as the guiding link between the living and the dead is a real nod to Celtic mythology, displaced as it is in the hellish urban landscape of 1990's Detroit.

What could have been a simple action/revenge flick typical of its decade was really elevated by the gloriously noirish production design. Steamy, rain-slicked streets reflect the fires of anarchy as the resurrected Eric Draven chases down the hoods who raped and murdered his bride to be, caked up in goth trappings and following the titular bird all the way to the top of the criminal ladder.

Dracula (1931)

I said vampires were fair game in my intro, so I'll go ahead and add the most influential vampire flick of all time. We can argue which of the countless cinematic versions of Stoker's classic is the best until the cows come home, but you can't deny the cultural impact of Bela Legosi's opera-cloaked count who has influenced everything from breakfast cereal to Sesame Street.

Eerie and atmospheric (check out the superbly gothic crypt scene complete with rats and insects in which the stench of decay can practically be smelled), the film was the first in a long line of Universal Studios monster movies which remain popular subjects for Halloween costumes to this day.

The Exorcist (1973)

Widely regarded as the most terrifying movie of all time, The Exorcist (along with Rosemary's Baby - 1968) was largely responsible for the shift in horror movies from gothic crypts and haunted houses to the demonic terrors of the modern world. Telling the tale of a young girl possessed by a demon and the plight of the elderly priest to expel the evil entity is the ultimate in the glut of satanically themed movies of the 1970s.

Essays have been written as to why this is so effective as a horror movie, so I won't over analyse here. All I'll say is that it is the corruption of innocence along with the hideous, puppet-like contortions of a young girl that makes this film just as horrific today.

Halloween (1978)
You knew this was coming, right? I said that I would explain the inclusion of any films with non-supernatural themes, and well, the clue is in the title. The atmosphere and festivities of Halloween in American suburbia are the backdrop here as an escaped psychopath returns to his home town and begins offing teenagers with the aid of a large kitchen knife. Why? We shall never know, but the concept kickstarted a trend in the horror genre that would dominate the next couple of decades.

Surprisingly bloodless, John Carpenter's classic film was an exercise in suspense and the terror of not knowing what is lurking in the shadows. Slasher films before this had been set out in the sticks (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) and in sorority houses (Black Christmas) - both 1974, but Halloween put the masked killer right in the backyards of American suburbia.

The Haunting (1963)

It took me a long time to choose this over The Innocents (1961) as the greatest haunted house movie of all time and I'm still not sure I made the right decision. This was back when atmosphere and eeriness made a horror film rather than blood and cheap shocks. Based on Shirley Jackson's novel, the film follows a nervous young woman who is invited along with three other guests to stay at the forboding Hill House by a psychologist interested in the paranormal.

The fact that it was filmed in black and white only adds to the chilling sensation I get when watching this; the shadows are deeper, the faces more expressive. And that scene with the face in the wallpaper really gets me.

Hellraiser (1987)

Based on director Clive Barker's own novel (The Hellbound Heart), Hellraiser tells of a man who acquires a mysterious puzzle box which opens a gateway into another dimension. His earthly flesh taken by the Cenobites who dwell there, the man's ex-lover (his brother's wife) learns what has happened and begins a chain of murders that will bring her lover back from beyond the grave.

At a time when the horror market was saturated with slasher sequels from the US, Barker brought the British touch back and created a horror character (Pinhead) just as iconic as the Freddies and Jasons of the genre.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Radiation from a downed space probe causes the dead to rise up from the grave. A group of vastly different people find themselves under siege in an abandoned farmhouse and must use their wits to stay alive.

What, on the surface, might look like a science fiction movie fuelled by Cold War fears of atomic technology (and mind control) is in fact one of the most influential examples of the 'dead back to life' theme ever. George A. Romero's gritty and cheap independent movie started a trend of low budget zombie gore fests that has continued to this day. Archetype-bending concepts (the hero is black) and a brutally abrupt ending make this film a cut above the slew of imitators that followed.

Sleepy Hollow (1999)

Washington Irving's American classic gets the Hollywood treatment in this wonderfully atmospheric version. Police Inspector, Ichabod Crane visits a small Dutch settlement where the legendary Headless Horseman is relieving the townsfolk of their heads, one by one. Piecing the mystery together, Crane notices a pattern in the killings and begins to suspect that there may be some human involvement.

If I had to choose a favorite Halloween movie, I would go for Sleepy Hollow. Tim Burton's gloriously gothic take on Irving's classic reeks atmosphere and perfectly sets the mood for the season. Eerie mist cloaks skeletal trees, the blood is as bright and as lurid as in any Hammer Horror (a comparison increased by appearances from Christopher Lee and Michael Gough) and the pumpkin head motif is used to full effect.

The Wicker Man (1973)

Investigating the disappearance of a little girl on a remote Scottish island, a deeply Christian police officer uncovers a heathen community with some very sinister traditions.

This is the second film to feature on my list that has absolutely no supernatural goings on in it at all. And with good reason. Few films have portrayed the age-old head on collision between pagan practices and Christian arrogance as perfectly as this one. It has been said that the things people do to one another and the things they do in the name of religion can be more horrifying than any monsters or ghouls the mind can imagine and that is the message that lies at the heart of The Wicker Man. Although set during the spring festival of Beltain rather than Samhain (despite being filmed in November), the film depicts a culture not too far removed from the Celtic practices that lie at the heart of Halloween.

1 comment:

Will Errickson said...

Great list; love your parameters for "Halloween movies."