Our Top Picks for Spooky Season
If calendar years could trick or treat, I think we all agree this year has been all tricks and no treats.
That let’s-be-done-with-2020 sentiment has been cliché since May, but all clichés have some truth in them. Most of the writers contributing to this piece independently acknowledged the real-life horror of this year, and we all seem to agree watching our favorite Halloween movies is like soothing a scalding burn with Vaseline—it doesn’t cure it, but it sure helps.
Our Halloween favorites aren’t the ones you might expect. You won’t find Beetlejuice, The Exorcist, the original Halloween, Ghostbusters, Hocus Pocus, or even It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, though I suspect we’ve all seen (and probably would recommend) most of those titles. That said, you’ll still find ghosts, vampires, and zombies, and you’ll find Halloween staples like Frankenstein, Stephen King, and the Halloween franchise. You’ll find movies that terrified us as kids, as well as phrases like “brain-switching fun” and “shoved into a trash can by Donnie and Marie Osmond.” You’ll also find one of the most famous plot twists of all time, though it was probably ruined for you before you saw it yourself. (If you’re not sure which movie I’m referring to, consider watching Jim’s recommendation and then reading his thoughts on it.)
Nope, our list doesn’t look like most lists of film and TV Halloween recommendations. The picks are as specific and tailored as the group of people I’m proud to write with, and if you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you’re as idiosyncratic as we are—perhaps one of these will be a new favorite for you, too.
Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed
DIRECTED BY TERENCE FISHER/1969
By Robert Hornak
An absolute fixture for the Hornaks at Halloweentime. Equal parts elegant, gaudy, histrionic, and lurid – it’s the epitome of the Hammer stamp, and all the gory fun that the compliment implies. The Frankenstein of the title is, refreshingly, the doctor, not the creature, and Peter Cushing spends the entire movie proving to you just why he must be destroyed. The first five minutes alone, he’s carrying a head in a bucket while wearing what one can only assume is a face mask made from the skin of a victim. Charming, to the last. From there he wields his prim condescension as a calling card to any and all who wish to be demolished by his cold superiority.
His grim experiments are discovered in one town, so he hightails it to another, insinuating himself into the proximity of a young man, Karl, who works at the sanitarium where his estranged partner in brain-fu, Brandt, is being kept in a padded room. It’s his aim, you see, to steal back Brandt – not to coax back his ebbing facilities in hopes of rekindling a warm friendship, but to siphon his mind of all the research Frankenstein feels entitled to. This Victor is out for himself only, with a sidelong nod to the human race who, he deigns, will surely benefit from his multiple justifiable homicides.
Nobody’s counting, but this is the fifth Hammer Frankenstein story – also the fifth with Cushing as the doctor, and the fourth directed by Hammer golden boy Terence Fisher. By this point, they’d blown through a laboratory’s worth of story permutations, leaving few twists and turns to explore. (The previous entry, Frankenstein Created Woman, is self-explanatory.) Thus, as if pushing the envelope on what a Frankenstein story is definitionally, there is no creature, per se. There is perfunctory brain-switching fun, with manual skull drills that leave its subject with typically gruesome MLB-head, but the “creature” that results is really just Brandt’s gentle, curious mind carted about in another man’s body, played with mournful gravitas by seasoned actor Freddie Jones. In fact, it’s the subsequent scenes of “Brandt” visiting his grieving wife, having to convince her that he is who he is, despite the borrowed body, that ultimately make the entire movie a perennial fave. There’s some actual, intentional, and believable pathos as the two come to halting terms with this monstrous test of their vows.
Finally, the upticking hatred one feels for this most insolent of Frankensteins over the course of the movie, meeting head-on with the simple, genteel entreaties of his opposite, portends the conflagration of egos inside a Molotov mansion, all in bold and colorful Hammer style, providing the proper berth for that outsized declarative title. It’s all very much as if Douglas Sirk had been grafted piece-by-piece onto James Whale, and the result is forever my favorite ad hoc, stitched-together horror-opera.
The Paul Lynde Halloween Special
DIRECTED BY SID SMITH/1976
By David L. Gill
Paul Lynde was a household name in the 1970s with his success on Broadway and in television, notably through The Hollywood Squares. But he was known to me as a child in the late ’80s and early ’90s as the voice of Templeton the Rat in Charlotte’s Web. Having grown up with his voice and quirky sense of humor, I was delighted to find out that his 1976 Halloween Special on ABC survives and has been released to digital streaming and DVD.
This program is a 1970s variety show. Songs, dances, implausible sketches, nostalgia, and off-beat humor are sprinkled throughout. It doesn’t always make a lot of sense but as it’s “ABC’s answer to trick-or-treating” (as Paul himself will tell us in the opening monologue), I’m not convinced it must.
The program opens with a clever holiday-themed sketch which features Margaret Hamilton, who famously played the Wicked Witch of the West in MGM’s 1939 The Wizard of Oz. She later appears as this same wicked witch, which, for 2020 audiences, would be a little like Michael Keaton appearing on Saturday Night Live as the titular character from the film Mr. Mom—not completely out of the realm of possibility.
The program continues with an opening monologue where Lynde laments that he doesn’t get his own specials enough, something that seemed to be a bit of a running gag at the time as he tended to complain about this same thing on Squares quite often.
After the monologue, there’s “Kids,” a musical number based on one of the songs from Guys and Dolls (which makes sense since that was a big deal for his career on Broadway). At the end, he’s shoved into a trash can by Donnie and Marie Osmond who are uncredited elsewhere in print but whom he thanks at the end of the show.
The rest of the framing device—one hesitates to call it a proper story—is in the location of Hamilton’s character’s sister’s house, played by Billie Hayes. The witches give Lynde three wishes (because witches do what genies do, I suppose), and the shenanigans ensue, which include Lynde being a trucker and a Rudy Valentino knock-off trying to woo Florence Henderson.
The first performance of KISS in prime time is something that makes this Halloween special, well, special. Complete with all the video editing tricks available to directors/editors at ABC, one is treated to a whirling, pyrotechnic display that no doubt interested kids and worried parents when it aired.
One of my favorite moments, oddly enough, is Florence Henderson singing a very 1970s arrangement of “That Old Black Magic.” Does it have anything to set it apart from other recordings? Not particularly. It sounds like her vocal was taken in one pass, maybe two. It doesn’t have the benefit of careful rehearsal. The horn lines tend to be filled with 1970s clichés. But it’s a fun arrangement nonetheless, and everyone was probably looking more at her black sequined outfit than listening to her singing voice. But the dancing behind her in the last third of the performance is fun, and it’s interesting to hear her sing.
I should also point out Betty White makes an appearance and shuns a date with Paul Lynde. It’s an interesting exchange, especially since Lynde references White being a witch-type that goes against what many of us see her as now thanks to her role on Golden Girls. Remember that Golden Girls was still several years away, and, at this point, she was known for playing a hard-nosed character on The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
For a Halloween special which is zany and outlandish with plenty of cultural references and not a lot of plot, Paul Lynde’s 1976 special is an ideal place to look for a stress-free half hour of television. And let’s be honest—with the year we’ve all had, I think it’s just what the doctor ordered.
Available to stream on Amazon Prime.
DIRECTED BY TOBE HOOPER/1979
By Jeffrey Knight
There’s always a danger when you revisit movies that terrified you as a kid: that the movie will be lame as all get out, and you’ll feel like an idiot for being scared by it. That nagging worry was foremost in my mind as I pressed play on the DVD of Tobe Hooper’s adaptation of Salem’s Lot when I recently rewatched it. Sure, Tobe Hooper is a director who has earned his horror movie bonafides with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Poltergeist, but this is a made-for-TV film based on a Stephen King novel from long ago, and not even the best among those (It) hold up long past their sell-by date.
Happily, Salem’s Lot still retains its ability to unnerve.
And it’s the parts that creeped me out as a kid that still creep me out as an adult: Ralphie Glick floating unnaturally within a fog cloud, scraping at his brother’s bedside window; Mike Ryerson sitting in a dark corner of a room, fixing his glowing eyes on his intended victim and hissing, “Look at me!”; Barlow rising up out of the kitchen floor at the Petrie house. Hooper employs effects that are constrained by his TV level budget, but their lack of polish adds to their unsettling nature.
Likewise, the filmmaker’s decision (reportedly the producer’s) to change Barlow’s characterization from the novel proves to be the correct one. In King’s book, Barlow is a more traditional European vampire, suave and urbane in the Dracula mold. Here, they’ve made him more like the vampire from Nosferatu. His skin is greyish blue, his teeth are rat-like, his ears more like those of a bat, and he’s completely hairless—as monstrous without as he is within. His victims share his pallor and strange yellow eyes. They are clearly twisted versions of their living selves. This makes their ability to mesmerize their prey all the more unsettling. It’s fairly easy for sexy Frank Langella to convince you to let him into your bedroom, but these vampires are clearly monsters, and you still can’t help yourself giving into them.
And that’s sort of a metaphor for good horror stories, isn’t it? These are tales of monsters and madness, and terrible, often unspeakable things. But we’re still drawn to them, aren’t we? We still turn on our TV, turn off the lights, and let the monsters in. Even in a world that feels like it’s spiraling out of control, we enjoy watching these horrors. Because we know that no matter how scary the story gets, we have the power to turn it off at any time, and banish the monsters back to the dark.
Available to stream on Shudder.
Halloween III: Season of the Witch
DIRECTED BY TOMMY LEE WALLACE/1982
By Paul Hibbard
Halloween III: Season of the Witch keeps getting better with each view. John Carpenter has always had simple stories, from The Thing to the first Halloween, and that’s not a bad thing. He finds the terrifying in the simple. But this is Carpenter letting it all out with some of his most eccentric storytelling. No psycho walking around without motive. This is masks and haunting TV jingles and pieces of Stonehenge and snakes and worms coming out of faces and mass sacrifices to witch overlords and, of course, Tom Adkins oozing sex appeal.
I’ve always been a defender of this movie because it scared the heck out of me as a kid. And due to the randomness of how you’d see horror movies when you’re young, I saw this at the beginning. It may have been the first Halloween movie I saw, I can’t recall.
But even now I can see this movie was really pushing the envelope. It’s possible if Carpenter had made a more fun or pleasant movie, he would have eased the audience into the Halloween franchise being an anthology series, like intended. But what ruined that plan is also what makes this movie so great. We’re getting crushed skulls, gouged-out eyes and protruding insects from eye sockets.
The special effects, makeup work and kills are ingeniously executed. There’s so much more heart in this than the abomination of Halloween II, in the hospital where it was apparent Carpenter didn’t give a shit and was making a sequel the studio was forcing on him. But you can feel the soul of his filmmaking in Season of the Witch.
It’s brutal, challenging, with a bleak ending and was an evolution of what should have been an ongoing series that would have defined the ’80s. See it if you never have. If you misremember it being bad as a kid, or if you have never heard of it, watch it this October, if for nothing else, that Tom Adkins sweet alpha sex appeal.
The Sixth Sense
DIRECTED BY M. NIGHT SHYAMALAN/1999
By Jim Tudor
“Wait, that was supposed to be a twist?” So said our twelve-year-old daughter upon completion of M. Night Shyamalan’s 1999 out-of-nowhere zeitgeister, The Sixth Sense. Having not seen the career-making autumnal thriller in nearly two decades, the time felt right to revisit it with some of the kids who’ve lately taken to macabre tales with a twist. But, perhaps vitally, letting someone know that there’s a twist at all in this film irrevocably casts their viewing of it through a particular filter. I carefully withheld that information from the kids. In late summer of ‘99, I was not so fortunate.
I had no plans to see what, to me, looked like a run-of-the-mill semi-eerie-looking Bruce Willis vehicle. But, by Sunday morning of the film’s opening weekend, friends were telling me how I had to see this movie ASAP. “It’s sooo good…and there’s this amazing twist…!” So, I did see it, and yes, it was rather amazing. More to my specific experience, it was amazing in spite of my having figured out the twist within a minute of Bruce Willis initially being shot.
It’s too late for spoiler warnings with this one. If, within three weeks of the film’s opening, you didn’t know that Bruce Willis was actually dead for most of The Sixth Sense, you were either living under a rock or dead yourself. Twenty-one years later, however, our children have the possibility that much of the world did not have when the film was new: seeing The Sixth Sense unspoiled. This is what happened here the other night. And that was the beauty of this particular screening, which confirmed truly how masterfully made The Sixth Sense is: it worked like gangbusters (methodical, deliberate gangbusters—but gangbusters nonetheless), for both the kid who immediately figured out “the twist,” and for the one who was surprised by it.
For me, any new revelations had to do with why the film operates as well as it does. In the cold light of Shyamalan’s celebrity-director career of diminishing returns, The Sixth Sense stands out all the more as a truly, genuinely sensitive and sympathetic film. Such endeavors are not built on the foundation of the self-branding and one-upmanship that plagued all of his subsequent films (even the two great ones, Unbreakable and Signs). Though teeming with sure-handed showmanship of the most subtle variety, The Sixth Sense, more than being a ghost story, is a wish-fulfillment fantasy, a tale in which all of our burdens and things left unsaid can be resolved if we simply listen to one another and acknowledge our gifts rather than demonize and doubt. Somewhere in all of it, there lies even a critique of America itself, as the Philadelphia setting is utilized to its utmost in cultivating an atmosphere of historical brokenness that perpetuates the personal brokenness, which is epidemic.
As much as 2020 has been a blinding killer, 1999 was one of the most eye-opening movie years. But for at least the time it takes to watch The Sixth Sense, we can all say, “I see, dead people.”
Available to stream on Shudder.
DIRECTED BY JAMES WAN/2013
By Sharon Colflesh Autenrieth
The magic in the The Conjuring is in the real life back story. Of course, there are plenty of horror movies that try to pack an extra punch by telling us they were inspired by true events, from The Exorcist to The Amityville Horror. Usually the inspiration is so loose that it evokes more of an eye roll than an extra chill. In the case of The Conjuring there is, of course, plenty of dramatic license, but there are two things that are a bit closer to real life, or rather, two people: Ed and Lorraine Warren. The Warrens were paranormal investigators and demonologists—or quacks and snake oil salespeople, depending on who you believe. I am disinclined to accept many of the stories the Warrens told about their exploits, but I’ve listened to interviews with them, and they are just so matter-of-fact in their approach that I can’t help but be charmed by them. Ed, in particular, talks about demonic oppression as if describing a plumbing or electrical problem. Another road taken and Ed Warren might have been fixing HVAC systems or exterminating termites. Instead, he was the man you called when your home had an infestation of another kind.
The Conjuring is an account of one of the Warrens’ most famous cases, the haunting of a Rhode Island home occupied by Roger and Carolyn Perron and their five daughters. Lorraine Warren was involved in the making of James Wan’s The Conjuring (Ed had already passed away), and by all reports loved the movie. I do, too. It’s not a fantastically scary movie, and it’s got some weaknesses, but it is, I think, the best of the recent crop of haunted house movies. The jump scares and creepy faces are less effective than the light touches in the movie: one of the daughters feeling someone tug on her foot as she sleeps, another daughter’s hair very literally standing on end, and, above all, the clapping game. The moment when the beleaguered mother, played by Lili Taylor, crouches frightened in dark…well, if you haven’t seen The Conjuring, I won’t spoil it. It’s a great moment.
But back to the Warrens. On screen they’re played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga. Wilson bring a decent but weary everyman quality to most of his roles, and he certainly does here. Ed is a solid, loving husband and father who just happens to know useful things like that the smell of rotting meat signifies satanic activity. He can also perform an exorcism in a pinch. There is no flash in Wilson’s performance. His salesmanship consists of seeming like the sort of trustworthy guy next door that your 70-something dad would trust with his tools. Vera Farmiga’s Lorraine is a more vivid character with her dramatic (if unflattering) period wardrobe and rosary wrapped around her hand. Farmiga has a beautiful but slightly strange face: painterly, dreamy, uniquely proportioned. It seems just right for the clairvoyant Lorraine who wanders through the Perron home seeing far more than anyone else can. The work takes a toll on her emotionally, which has Ed worried. But they can’t very well abandon the Perrons to their fate when the malevolent spirits in the home are becoming more and more violent. The family matriarch becomes a target for possession leading to a doozy of a finale in the film. It’s too much, in fact, but Lili Taylor does her best with the thankless role of a selfless mother who becomes a shrieking, hideous, murderous witch (although speaking as another mother of five, some days are just like that). The children in the cast give solid performances, too, particularly a young Joey King. The only person the cast who seems lost is Ron Livingston as Roger Perron. He’s not nearly freaked out enough, considering the goings-on in his home.
When I saw The Conjuring in the theater it gave me a very satisfying scare. It can’t do that now, but I still enjoy the performances, Vera Farmiga’s maxi skirt and costume jewelry, and the notion (entirely true!) that the Warrens kept a museum of haunted objects in their home. Who would do that, and why? Do you know that you can still visit that museum, even though both Ed and Lorraine have passed away? You can even see the real life Annabelle doll, although I leave you with this final twist: it’s not the hideous porcelain monstrosity you see in the movie. It’s a Raggedy Ann!
DIRECTED BY JONATHAN LEVINE/2013
By Taylor Blake
I have a terrible confession in a piece about Halloween movies: I don’t like horror movies. I don’t like covering my eyes, I don’t like feeling their uneasy dread, and I don’t like being afraid of bumps in the night after watching one. For the sake of my sanity, scary movies remotely resembling real life have become no-nos. That means no serial killers, rapists, or torturers; occult entities like demons and witches; clowns named Pennywise or otherwise; possessed children and toys; haunted houses; and spiders. As you can see, I’m an outlier among my peers here.
But you know what genre I do love? Romantic comedies! And you know what horror trope I can watch because it’s purely fantastical? Zombies! And you know what movie combines those two things? Warm Bodies!
The 2013 zom-rom-com stars Nichola Hoult—in a performance that has made me loyal to his career since—as R, a shrugging, hoodie-clad zombie who meanders through an airport until he gets hungry. On one human-hunting outing, he and his zombie pals attack a group of survivors looking for medicine. While he does get his snack, he also gets smitten when he sights Julie (Teresa Palmer), a beautiful and B.A. zombie slayer. Instead of eating her brains, he brings her back to his private airplane filled with vinyl records and pre-Apocalypse knick-knacks. Of course, she’s not as taken with the undead, so their unconventional relationship needs time to warm up. But as you might have guessed, R(omeo) and Julie(t) are this wasteland world’s best bet at overcoming the odds, even as his fellow zombies start hunting for her and as her father (John Malkovich) hardens his resolve against the corpses.
Warm Bodies has become a comfort food movie for me, which means I return to it at least once a year, and not necessarily at Halloween; given the year of our Lord we’re living in, I’ve already watched it twice in 2020. It’s an odd choice for comfort food (especially since most of what we’re seeing eaten on screen is brains), but once you’ve watched a zombie flip through Us Weekly in an attempt to be human, I think you’ll get it, too. The zombie and romantic comedy elements complement each other nicely—the zom keeps the rom from being cliché, and the com keeps the zom from becoming too gory or caught up in its own mythology.
The biggest credit goes to Hoult, who becomes lovable even with stilted speech and an ashen face, and to Palmer, who keeps Julie believable in a heightened reality. Between their chemistry, the jokes that consistently land, and a killer soundtrack of classic rock and modern indie tunes (one of my all-time favorites, in fact), Warm Bodies is a much better movie than it had business being. In 2013 when fantasy YA adaptations were all the rage, this one could have been another chop shop factory output. But it finds something sweet and all its own, a je ne sais quoi that keeps it from becoming just a Twilight rehash.
Available to stream on StarzPlay.