31 Spooky Movies in October: 2012 Edition, Part 1

by kdlough

A lot of folks around the internet like to do a horror-movie-a-day challenge in October, the gist being that you watch a scary movie you’ve never seen before everyday for a month.  Why did I, with a full-time job, girlfriend, and just generally a lot going on (not trying to brag) decide to undertake this kind of exhausting-sounding feat?

Well, I didn’t.  Not exactly, anyway.  Over the course of October I’ll be watching a total of 31 movies of varying levels of spookiness and posting a brief write-up.  Some will be rewatches and others I’ll be seeing for the first time.  I’m not putting any more requirements on myself than that, with the provision that I HAVE to reach the 31 mark before midnight on October 31st.  So let’s get cracking.

1. The Forbidden Photos of a Woman Above Suspicion (Luciano Ercoli, 1970)

A housewife is tormented by a sex maniac (who looks like John Cassavetes) who claims her husband (who looks like Françios Truffaut) is a killer. Thankfully not as sleazy and rape-y as I was afraid but more of a simple yet satisfying mystery/thriller. Cheese-tastic score by Ennio Morricone featuring a very weird theme song.

SCORE: 6 plaster hands tied to a support beam out of 10

2. It! The Terror from Beyond Space (Edward L. Cahn, 1958)

Dan O’Bannon owes his career to this proto-Alien; it has almost the exact same plot as Ridley Scott’s more famous semi-remake. Despite the very wooden acting, It! builds up an effective atmosphere of dread while still hitting all the Saturday matinee sweet spots (shoddy rubber suit, regressive female stereotypes, bland dialogue, etc). The story moves along so quickly and the monster attacks are frequent enough to make it a lot of fun.

My favorite part about the movie is the truly ridiculous amount of firepower the space explorers are packing, especially for what was supposed to be a rescue mission. Shotguns, pistols, nuclear radiation, hand grenades (!), and poison gas (!!) are all used against the alien, with the heroes never once stopping to think about the fact that they’re on a tiny spaceship.

SCORE: 8 firing handguns on a spaceship out of 10

3. The Omen (Richard Donner, 1976)

The bulky Satan, unfortunately, is not in the film.Gregory Peck gets increasingly agitated as he begins to suspect that his adopted heir might be a son of a bitch – LITERALLY. Can Damien be stopped before he sets the world on the path to the apocalypse (or at least kills some people in a mildly Rube Goldberg manner)?

When it was released, The Omen was widely mocked by critics, who saw it as a stupid, overly violent cash-in on the earlier success of The Exorcist. But time has been fairly kind to the film, and it’s now recognized as a classic in the Spooky Kid With Christian Overtones subgenre. The death scenes are still shocking and the film leaves you with a lot of disturbing images: a hanging nanny, the room lined with Bible pages, and that broken goldfish bowl. The graveyard sequence in particular is nerve-wracking, but all of the movie’s big set-pieces remain effective.

Watching it for the first time in years, I can see what the critics were talking about. The script is sometimes lazy, with most of the passages from the Book of Revelations being simply made up, and no serious theologian would agree with the film’s interpretation of what little scripture is real (no matter what the characters claim). And especially if you’re not Christian or religious yourself, the whole thing can get to seem kinda silly. Still, I have to admit: this movie scared the shit out of me as a kid.

SCORE: 7 holy crucifix daggers out of 10

4. The Curse of Frankenstein (Terence Fisher, 1957)

A very naughty Peter Cushing stitches together dead flesh to create Christopher Lee, who goes on a (very brief) rampage. Shockingly bloody for its time and still pretty gruesome (especially the scene where the monster is shot in the face!), this fast-paced telling of the Frankenstein story is mainly confined to the interior of the Frankenstein manor. Despite the small cast and cramped locations, the movie is energetic and entertaining. Personally it’s not one of my favorite Hammer horrors, but objectively one of the best.

SCORE: 8 disfiguring facial scars out of 10

5. I Walked with a Zombie (Jacques Tourneur, 1943)

The more Val Lewton horror movies I see, the more I love them. The default mode is atmospheric, smart, and ultimately tragic; it’s great that these very serious movies were made on demand for no money purely to have a product to attach to a pre-sold trashy title. Rich with allusion and mystery, the characters in this film aren’t the victims of voodoo so much as their own humanity. Obviously if you’re looking for brain-eating action you should stay away from this one.

SCORE: 10 arrows in Saint Sebastian out of 10

6. Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (Benjamin Christensen, 1922)

This actually is in the movie.Benjamin Christensen writes, directs, and stars as Satan in this loopy “documentary” about the persecution of witches in the Middle Ages. I was expecting a lot from this movie’s high reputation, so I was a bit disappointed that it wasn’t as far-out as I hoped (though don’t get me wrong, it’s pretty far-out). But I was pleasantly surprised by the conversational, first-person tone and the staging is, of course, beautiful.

One of the difficulties of watching Häxan today is that part of its power comes from the way it plays with the documentary form, going from slides to reconstructions to straight ahead fiction. It’s now very common to see documentaries with lots of artfully staged re-enactments (think Errol Morris). It’s a testament to the film’s timelessness that what seemed surreal and revolutionary when it was released is now taken as a given.

SCORE: 7 turns of a thumbscrew out of 10

7. House of Dracula (Erle C. Kenton, 1945)

A scientist and his beautiful hunchbacked assistant attempt to cure Dracula and the Wolf Man of their monstrosity. Also, Frankenstein’s monster is there for some reason. Well folks, here’s my first stinker of the month. There are some enjoyable moments for fans of Universal horror, and there’s a lot to bite into if you enjoy looking for queer subtext in everything (which, believe me, I do). But that doesn’t make it actually any GOOD.

SCORE: 5 possibilities for Gender Studies papers out of 10

8. The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980)

Jack Nicholson stars as himself in one of the very few Stephen King movies really worth watching. Kubrick directs the hell out of this one, working just about every type of horror movie “scare” into the mix: long build-ups, shock cuts, creepy acting, surreal interludes, etc. The great soundtrack and sound design help make it a cut above the rest as well. This one is just about perfect and there’s not much original I can think to say about it, except that I felt like a dummy for never noticing the motif about Native American genocide until it was pointed out to me a few years ago.

SCORE: 10 twee little kid sweaters out of 10

Still ahead on my list: the Coffin Joe series, Teen Witch, and the films of Andy Milligan!