By Jeff Feuerhaken
Here in sunny southern California, it can be a challenge differentiating between the different seasons. Sometimes the only way I know fall has arrived is because Starbucks starts offering pumpkin flavored drinks. We might need a little extra push to finally let go of summer and dive into fall. Fortunately, there are some great films to throw on which can instantly bring you into the right mindset to enjoy my favorite holiday, Halloween. Here, in no particular order, are 8 Halloween movies to get you into Halloween mode.
House Of 1000 Corpses (2003)
Rob Zombie is an interesting dude. He first gained attention in the music world as frontman for the metal band White Zombie, before deciding to go solo, where he achieved considerable mainstream success. One consistent thread throughout his work has been his retro-horror aesthetic, evident in the groups’ early music videos which he directed. In 2003, Rob brought his unique sensibilities to the big screen with his feature directorial debut, House Of 1000 Corpses. Let me be clear, this film was never in danger of winning any Academy Awards. The acting is sketchy, there are some odd directorial choices, and the story jumps around enough to make you feel like you’re flipping through channels rather than watching a movie.
That being said, this is a super enjoyable flick. The cult following that’s spread following its initial release is proof. The reason? Rob Zombie’s stamp is everywhere. From the bizarre Dr. Wolfenstein interstitials, to the random photo negative filters, to the campy production design and costumes, this is unquestionably a Rob Zombie joint. Although some of the acting performances are a bit on the weak side, it’s cool seeing Rainn Wilson (Dwight Schrute from the Office) and the Nerdist’s Chris Hardwick meet their fate (spoiler alert?) at the hands of the twisted Firefly family. The movie’s standout star, however, is Sid Haig, as the filthy fried chicken-grubbing clown, Captain Spaulding.
In 1985, audiences were exposed to a fresh new voice in cinema when Tim Burton directed his feature film debut, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, at the ripe old age of 25. However, it was his second film, Beetlejuice, where Burton really got to put his quirky artistic sensibilities front and center. Aided by a stellar cast, including Geena Davis, Alec Baldwin, Michael Keaton, and a fresh-faced Winona Ryder, Beetlejuice is a glimpse into Burton’s fun, unusual take on the afterlife.
Keaton’s manic performance as the title character was good enough for an Oscar nom. But perhaps more impressive is the film’s imaginative visuals, courtesy of Burton and production designer Bo Welch. The afterlife is presented as both surreal spectacle and mind-numbing bureaucracy, so it feels perfectly natural when an impromptu rendition of Harry Belafonte’s “Banana Boat Song” is used as a scare tactic. Longtime Burton collaborator Danny Elfman contributes a fantastic memorable score to drive home the Halloween vibe. If campy poltergeist vs. poltergeist action is your thing, then this movie’s for you.
Let’s face it. Silent films can be painful to endure. Often times they’re depressingly slow, and many contain ideas and themes irrelevant to even the most old-school cinema enthusiast. Plus, the few films that have survived to see the digital age have been given a beating by Father Time, resulting in a low-fi movie experience. No Bueno.
However, in the case of 1922’s Nosferatu, a retelling of Bram Stroker’s novel, Dracula (the names have been changed to protect the innocent from lawsuits) the age factor kinda works in the film’s favor. The stuttery frame rate and low image quality ups the creepiness inadvertently. Max Shreck comes across looking more like a pale alien than a bloodthirsty vampire, but somehow that makes the movie more creepy, too. So if you’re curious about how vampires rolled back in the day before they got all emo and glittery in Twilight, check out this early horror masterpiece.
Shawn Of The Dead (2004)
I remember seeing a trailer for Shawn Of The Dead when it first came out and for some reason thinking it looked stupid. I’d sporadically heard some peeps raving about it over the years, but I still for whatever reason assumed it wasn’t for me. Fast forward ten years, and I happened to catch it on late night TV. It came on after another movie and I found myself too lazy to change the channel. Laziness brings great things, people, because I freaking loved every second of this movie.
Shawn Of The Dead is funny, suspenseful, and clever throughout. There are witty callbacks, sharp satirical quips, and the two leads, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, are terrific. The pairing worked so well that they re-teamed for two more Edgar Wright-directed films: The World’s End, and one of my all-time favorite movies, Hot Fuzz. Speaking of Edgar Wright, that dude is the man. Like Tarantino, he’s clearly a filmmaker who loves films. Shawn Of The Dead pays homage to film history with references to Night Of The Living Dead, The Deer Hunter, An American Werewolf In London, and tons of other classics. Even if these references go over your head, you’re still likely to enjoy this film, even if it looked stupid at first to you, too. Just trust me.
Cabin In The Woods (2012)
If you’re like me, when you hear of a horror movie called Cabin In The Woods, you immediately think you can lay out the entire plot in five minutes. And this is without having to actually see it. Ok, so in this case, I admit it, I was wrong. Cabin In The Woods is actually a smart, self-referential entry into the horror genre. Writer and Director Drew Goddard may not be a household name at this point, but dude has written on everything from Buffy The Vampire Slayer to Cloverfield to The Martian. He also created the Netflix Daredevil series before Steven S. DeKnight took over as showrunner.
In Cabin In The Woods, the first act reads like your standard budgeted scary movie, complete with all the usual suspects of tropes and caricatures. As the movie progresses, however, things begin to get interesting. All the clichés and conventions turn out to be plot necessities which support the story, and not at all in the way you’d guess from the movie’s first half. When all hell breaks loose (literally) in the final act, there are a few eye-rolling moments that threaten to take you out of the story, but overall, this movie is a pleasant surprise and a nice Halloween treat.
You used to be able to tell Halloween was coming because there would be a new Saw movie coming out. Seriously, they were banging one of these bad boys out every year. That calls for a very tight production schedule, so with rush jobs like that it’s no wonder each new addition to the franchise brought diminishing returns. But the first one…man, that was awesome. Nail-biting suspense? Check. Gruesome death scenes? Check. Satisfying plot twist? Check. Superb Cary Elwes acting performance? Mmmm, not so much.
The film was written by Leigh Whannell, and directed by everyone’s favorite Asian Australian, James Wan. The franchise was ultimately a jumping off platform for both of these talented guys. Wan went on to direct the first two Insidious movies before helming a little indie flick called Furious 7. Whannell wrote Saws 2 and 3, before taking over the Insidious franchise from Wan for its third installment. The next few entries in the Saw series weren’t terrible by any means, but none could match the impact made by their grisly early predecessor.
Killer Klowns From Outer Space (1988)
It’s no secret that horror films and cheesiness tend to go hand in hand, so I figured I’d include my favorite cheesy Halloween horror classic (sorry, Troll 2) in this list. Maybe I have a soft spot for Killer Klowns From Outer Space because it was one of the few films shot in my hometown, and I like to see my old stomping grounds in the background. But I also have a crippling fear of clowns, and the ones in this movie are mild enough to help me in getting over my phobia (at least until I watch Stephen King’s It again). In any case, KKFOS is straight up WTF, with corny acting, a ridiculous plot, and some goofy makeup and visual FX. But when all these ingredients are mixed together, somehow it’s damn tasty.
The film was produced, written, and directed by three siblings: Steven, Charles & Edward Chiodo. Although the film may not have catapulted their producing and directing careers into the stratosphere, they have since enjoyed success as FX artists, working on such films as Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Team America: World Police, and Dinner For Shmucks. On a trivia side note, the rock band Chiodos is also said to have based the name of their band on this band of brothers. Be warned: if you’re gonna watch this one, don’t expect cinematic excellence. But if you have a craving for so-bad-it’s-good-ness, and perhaps a sweet theme song courtesy of The Dickies, then bon apetit.
The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
There is one Halloween classic that I watch every year, without fail: The Nightmare Before Christmas. When I throw it on, it only takes until the end of the first musical number, “This Is Halloween”, before I’m on board and fully immersed in the Halloween spirit. I’m sure anyone reading this article about Halloween has already seen this movie (probably several times), but if you’ve been living under an outhouse toilet and somehow missed it, y’all need to remedy that situation right quick. This technical marvel is filled with an imagination and originality rarely seen in popular cinema.
Many would argue that The Nightmare Before Christmas represents the apex of Tim Burton’s career, but interestingly, he isn’t credited as the film’s director. That honor belongs to Henry Selick, who would go on to direct other stop-motion classics as James And The Giant Peach and Coraline. Also often overlooked is the contribution of composer Danny Elfman, who not only wrote all the songs in this film, but also played Jack Skellington’s singing voice during the musical numbers. Character actor Chris Sarandon voices all of Jack’s non-singing dialogue to complete the tag team. Others such as Home Alone’s Catherine O’Hara and Pee-Wee himself, Paul Reubens, contribute to an awesomely diverse voice cast. But the creepy, yet accessible visuals are what has granted this film access to the pantheon of holiday classics.
So what are you waiting for? Grab your pumpkin-y latte and kick your feet up on the couch, because it’s time to get you into the Halloween spirit!