Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Top Ten - Alternative Horror Flicks I Watch Every October

So this list is going to be a bit more personal, featuring some of my favorite spooky, creepy and scary movies that I love watching each October. Now most of you know I’m a fan of horror flicks in general, but October is when my wife and I dive headlong into the macabre and horrifying.

And yeah, I watch a lot of the more traditional horror flicks. We always make time for Halloween, Dracula, Poltergeist, Nightmare on Elm Street, Scream, The Thing and a whole host of Hitchcock thrillers. But I wanted to provide a list of flicks you may not have revisited lately, or haven’t heard of. This list is going to be all over the place, but I hope you get a nice mix of fun and freaky features to check out.

Lost Highway (1997)

I love David Lynch’s films. His ability to capture the surreal and nightmarish is really unparalleled in current cinema. While he has done a few films that have very disturbing or frightening moments, I think Lost Highway comes the closest to being a horror film.

It is a story told in three parts. Each part seems connected to the next, but some characters die and appear again. Others completely change appearance. And some appear in all three parts providing continuity and a hint that this is all part of some disturbing reality.

The movie is a slow burn in the first portion, building tension as a husband and wife played by Bill Pullman and Patricia Arquette deal with their crumbling relationship and the fact that someone may be videotaping them while they sleep. It also contains one of the most disturbing phone conversations in the history of film when Pullman places a call to a Mystery Man (played with a unsettling glee by Robert Blake).

It is at times bloody, sexy, nightmarish and confusing. The ending will either blow your mind or make you very angry. I loved the puzzle of it, and find it perfect for October viewing. It may be Lynch’s darkest film (although Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me certainly gives it a run for the money).

After discovering this movie last year, well it became an instant favorite. Seven school girls go to a haunted house. All kinds of crazy things happen and the ghosts devour the girls one by one. Simple story, but it is told in such an energetic, over the top, and explosively visual way. Every type of traditional visual effect you can imagine is pulled out and used.

It’s got a musical number (or two). It’s got an evil cat. It’s got a severed head biting a girl on the butt. It’s got some very creepy moments. Some very silly moments. It’s got a girl nicknamed Kung Fu who has her own theme song and kicks ass all over the place. It’s pretty much a wacky anime horror/comedy – except it is all live action.

I did a short review of it last year, and revisiting it this year I enjoyed it just as much. Mileage may vary for some people, but if you want a real visual treat and don’t mind some bizarre and funny visuals, check this out.

Horror anthology films are a tough type of film to get right. They are usually uneven at best, and complete misfires at worst. Well this film gets nearly everything right, and manages to be scary, funny and gross all at the same time. It is a shame that the studio got cold feet with this one (there is some violence perpetrated on kids and by kids in this). It’s got a little bit of everything going on. You want werewolves and vampires. This movie has them (in some different forms than you may expect). Want a ghost story, there’s one of those too. Want a simple tale of a crazed killer, well one makes an appearance here.

But the then there’s the little pumpkin headed spirit of Halloween drifting in and out of the stories and then taking center stage in a finale featuring Brian Cox. It’s a twisted little tale that manages to wrap up several loose story ends and does it with style. All in all a perfect mix of tricks and treats.

I love a good bad movie, and The Craft fits the bill in October. It is bizarre fusion of girl power, witchcraft, 90s style angst and Neve Campbell. The basics are all there, new girl in town becomes friends with some wannabe witches and then with the four of them joining forces – they gain power. But one of them is a just a touch unstable – so it all goes downhill.

It might have been forgettable except for one small thing. Fairuza Balk plays that unstable friend Nancy. And boy does she go COMPLETELY nuts. It is such a fun over the top performance that it just carries the movie to whole new level of entertainment. We watch this every year and end up quoting Nancy and her ranting and raving quite a bit. So while the movie itself isn’t too scary or too good in any technical way. It is still a whole lot of fun to watch, because even when Fairuza isn’t chewing scenery, it’s got a huge helping of 1990s style to satisfy any nostalgia you may crave for that decade.

The Haunting (1963)

Forget the 1999 remake of this film, please. I don’t care if Catherine Zeta Jones is in it and sexy as all hell, as a horror film it just doesn’t cut the mustard. You want a really good, creepy, atmospheric ghost story – then you can’t do much better than the 1963 original.

Directed by Robert Wise  and featuring a excellent cast, you get one of the best examples of creating dread I’ve seen in film. The stark black and white cinematography creates some wonderful shadows and an overbearing sense of oppression in the house. Julie Harris plays Elenor with a mix of fragile (and probably broken) and strong. The movie never overplays its hand, showing you enough to be chilled but not showing you enough to really figure out what the ghost is. Of course that makes it even more frightening. The first time I watched this I made the mistake of watching it on my own, in an empty house. Scared the crap out of me, and I didn’t sleep at all that night. It is a slow build type of movie, so anyone looking for quick thrills and gore will be disappointed. Instead it is the mood, atmosphere and wonderful use of sound that makes this such a classic in my book.

Ringu (1998)

The Japanese ghost/curse style film exploded in Hollywood in the 2000s. Every studio tried their hand at it, and made sequels and spin offs and just mined the whole genre to death. The thing is most of the time these remakes and sequels were missing the very element that made the originals work so well – an understanding of how to build dread and horror with atmosphere and mood. So if you’ve seen The Grudge or The Ring or any of the other Hollywood takes than you really haven’t seen the real version.

Ringu is the film that started it all, and I still find it to be the best of the bunch. It has atmosphere dripping out of every frame. It takes its time moving from mystery to mystery, building dread with each death and each piece of the puzzle. I love the sense of doom that hangs over the characters once they’ve seen the tape and know they are next to die. It becomes a palpable thing. Then there is the ghost itself, damn creepy in it’s original form, and never completely explained, which makes it scarier. Some folks will never find these films chilling in the least. But I love the way this one captures uncanny dread.

Had to throw an anime in here, you expect that from me at this point. I haven’t seen a lot of really good horror anime over the years. I think part of the reason is that it is harder to connect with animated characters in peril then it is with live actors. But there are a few gems I’ve run into, and Perfect Blue is one of them. I’ve already written a whole blog about Satoshi Kon’s first feature film and how good it is. So I won’t rehash that here.

But I will say that Mima’s plight and her attempts to keep her sanity while escaping from her stalker really pull me in each time I watch it. I’m afraid for her, not just because she has a crazed stalker chasing her. But because she may be completely insane, and the real killer is something she created to hide the fact that she has snapped and is doing the actual killing.

The Call of Cthulhu (2005)

I’m a fan of H.P. Lovecraft and his stories. But it is really hard to find a good film adaptation of his work. There have been some fine attempts over the years, some more successful than others. But no one has really captured the whole feel and concept of Lovecraft’s writing in a unchanged form. Until a group of fans got together and decided to give it a shot.

It is really a stroke of genius in my book. Take one of Lovecrafts most infamous stories, and film it as if it was made when it was written – in 1928. The result is a black and white silent film. All the actors are in period clothes, all the visual effects were done using period techniques. All the acting and makeup is very stylized, just like what you’d see in a silent horror film of the era. Anyone familiar with the style of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) or Nosferatu (1922) will be on board with what was attempted here.

And for a fan made film, they made every last bit of the budget work for them. You can tell this was a labor of love and man is it a blast to watch. It only clocks in at 47 minutes, but it tells the whole story very faithfully and completely works as a “lost” silent film. If you enjoy silent films and/or Lovecraft fiction check this one out. It is a wonderful effort.

Jeepers Creepers (2001)

Teen screams were all the rage in the 1990s. They become so popular that they pretty much killed themselves with endless riffs on the same snarky, meta, cynical thrills. It would take Saw to really put the nail in the coffin. But here and there a few movies attempted to do something a bit different, or a bit in 70s and 80s horror movie vein. Jeepers Creepers is one of those and wow does it hold up well.

For me the movie works best because of the great chemistry and casting of Gina Philips and Justin Long as brother and sister. They really seem like siblings down to the body language and dialogue they share. You really connect with them and so when the horrors start you want them to get out of this one. And lets not forget the fact that the monster in this film is one nasty creation, virtually unstoppable and showing a new and more horrible facet to itself with each appearance. A lot of folks really liked this one when it came out, but I don’t see too many people mention it these days. Check it out if you haven’t seen it in a while.

The Blair Witch Project (1999)

This movie gets a lot of hate. People seem split, and when they dislike it – they really dislike it. I loved it. I still love it. I think it does nearly everything right. It creates characters (some) people can relate to. It builds a nice atmosphere of mystery at the beginning. That mystery turns into dread and then into outright horror. Those final moments, although they've been relentless parodied now, were very chilling to me upon my first viewing. I remember having long talks about Mike in the corner and if he was floating slightly and if so, what did it mean.

I love that you never see anything concrete and that the horror is all in the eyes of the viewer – but you never see anything! It is a triumph of creating atmosphere and mood and using it great affect. This is a great one to watch at night when the wind is blowing just enough to make the dead leaves rustle. 

Special Mentions
Here are a couple newer flicks that we really enjoyed and have added to our collation. They haven’t become a tradition yet, but I think they may stick it out on the list.

The Innkeepers (2011)

Tucker and Dale vs Evil (2010)

House of the Devil (2009)

And then there’s one of my favorite creepy anime series. I can’t let an October go by without 12 episodes of Boogiepop Phantom (2000).

Sam wishes everyone a spooky trick or treat this Halloween.


  1. Personal favorites are like favorite desserts. They don't need any more justification than, "I like it."

    Lost Highway...I was lost, to be sure. 16 years after I first saw it, I still haven't decided whether I like it .. or what it was about exactly.

    I haven't seen Perfect Blue or The Call of Cthulhu, but the others certainly all have their moments. I didn't expect much from Trick'r'Treat, but it was pleasant fun. Tucker and Dale already made it to my list.

    1. I have another friend who feels the same way about "Lost Highway". She loves the visuals but didn't follow the story and that really bugs her. I mean... REALLY bugs her. She actually gets mad whenever it comes up, and then mad at me for mentioning it. Like it's this puzzle that she can't solve, but wants to solve and then again isn't sure it is worth the effort to solve. I tried explaining it to her, but she only got angrier. I told her to just chalk it up to dream logic and let it go. I feel like I traumatized her by recommending the movie.

      Anyway, it's certainly not for everyone. One of my favorite movie reviewers really dislikes it (it is one of the few movies we disagree on). But he isn't too fond of Lynch's work when the director goes off the rails a bit. But he does like "Blue Velvet", "The Elephant Man" and "Straight Story". All very good movies, but I've always enjoyed the more bizarre films a bit more.

      Now, "Eraserhead". There's a movie I've seen three times and I'm still not sure what I think of it.

      Yeah we watched "Tucker and Dale" again a couple weeks ago and had a blast. I'm pretty sure it will pop on this list, as well as a very cool gothic witch/vampire movie called "Black Sunday" that I saw over the weekend.