Halloween is coming up, and maybe you’d like to get into the haunting spirit with some spooky films, but you’re tired of watching all the same old standbys year after year, …
Halloween is coming up, and maybe you’d like to get into the haunting spirit with some spooky films, but you’re tired of watching all the same old standbys year after year, because how can you be scared if you know what’s going to happen?
Fortunately for you, I’ve wasted my life watching obscure weirdo films, so here’s half a dozen cult classics I can almost guarantee most of you have never seen, and while they’re not necessarily great works of cinema, they should deliver some effective chills and a seasonal sense of the supernatural.
THE SCIENCE OF
“Halloween III: Season of the Witch” (1982) was what happened when John Carpenter, who co-created the “Halloween” film series with Debra Hill, agreed to come back for another sequel, on the grounds that it had nothing to do with fictional slasher Michael Myers.
If you hadn’t heard of it until now, there’s a reason for that, since it had the poorest box office performance of any film in the “Halloween” series.
And yet, for all its flaws, it’s a crackerjack little thriller, a murder mystery which reveals a millennia-old conspiracy of Celtic witches, whose practices we’re told originated the holiday of Halloween, as they plot to use Halloween’s modern commercialized form to take over the world.
Dan O’Herlihy steals every scene he’s in as Conal Cochran, head of the Silver Shamrock toy and costume company, who delivers one of the all-time greatest villain monologues ever committed to film, and is clearly having the time of his life in the role.
Carpenter enlisted British sci-fi writer Nigel Kneale, creator of the fictional scientific hero Prof. Bernard Quatermass, to write the script for “Halloween III,” and while neither of them was entirely happy with the end result, to put it mildly, Carpenter couldn’t let go of the idea of mixing science fiction with the supernatural, which led to him writing, directing and scoring “Prince of Darkness” in 1987.
“Prince of Darkness” pits an ancient evil against a team of undergraduate scientists, and their ruthlessly esoteric professor — played by Victor Wong, from Carpenter’s “Big Trouble in Little China” in 1986 — who have been commissioned by the Catholic Church to investigate what lies in the basement of a condemned church in the inner city.
A difference of five years, and less studio interference, allowed Carpenter’s second attempt at this hybrid theme to shine, as he again proved himself the spiritual heir to Alfred Hitchcock by slowly ramping up the suspense, while still managing to keep viewers poised on the edge of their seats.
So many moments from this film remain embedded in my memory, from Wong’s philosophical lectures on the nature of reality to Donald Pleasance — star of Carpenter’s other “Halloween” films — suffering a profound crisis of faith as a priest, even on down to the disturbing blink-and-you’ll-miss-it implications of Jameson Parker’s repeatedly attempted sleight-of-hand trick finally working.
Without spoiling anything, “Prince of Darkness” is the rare horror film that earns every last jump-scare, right up to its ominous ending.
THE POLITICS OF
From “A Nightmare on Elm Street” to “Scream,” Wes Craven delivered multiple critically and commercially successful horror franchises, but for my money, two of his most compelling films were both explicitly political one-offs, both ostensibly based on real-life events, and both released in 1988.
“The Serpent and the Rainbow” is based on the supposedly non-fiction book of the same name, by university ethnobotanist Wade Davis, who traveled to Haiti to investigate the claims of a real-life zombie, rendered temporarily “dead,” then brought back to life, by voodoo medicine.
While the movie takes extensive liberties with a book that was itself criticized for a number of scientific inaccuracies, Craven uses Davis’ tale to explore the real-life injustices of the Duvalier regime that ruled Haiti, with Bill Pullman’s protagonist (who’s based on Davis) even living through the 1986 overthrow of Jean-Claude Duvalier.
In case this sounds too academic, remember, this is still Wes Craven, the man who had a direct line to our collective fear-buttons, which he plays on by forcing us to experience the nightmare of being paralyzed, declared dead and buried alive, all while being able to see and hear everything.
Craven combines visceral terror and commentary on racial politics again in “The People Under the Stairs,” in which a young black boy from the Los Angeles ghetto, nicknamed “Fool” after the Tarot card, finds himself trapped in the deadly home of his wealth-hoarding landlords, the Robesons.
Craven told the press “The People Under the Stairs” was inspired by a 1978 news story, in which two burglars broke into an L.A. home, leading police to discover children who had been locked away by their parents, making them “The People Under the Stairs.”
Future “Twin Peaks” costars Everett McGill and Wendy Robie appear as “Daddy” and “Mommy” Robeson, who steal other people’s children, only to consign them to their dungeon of a basement for even the slightest infractions in behavior.
In crafting his satire of late-Eighties suburban capitalism, Wes Craven demonstrated that he knew writers who use subtext, but thought they were all cowards.
Nonetheless, there’s plenty of ghoulish jump-scares to enliven the soapboxing, which itself makes Fool’s well-earned victory, and the Robesons’ comeuppance, all the more satisfying.
THE ATMOSPHERE OF
MICHAEL MANN AND RIDLEY SCOTT
Between the guy who gave us the “In the Air Tonight” sequence in the pilot of “Miami Vice,” and the director of “Blade Runner,” Michael Mann and Ridley Scott are masters of setting a specific mood.
Their narrative skills might not always keep pace, which is the criticism that was leveled at both Mann’s “The Keep” (1983) and Scott’s “Legend” (1985), but even when their style overtakes their substance, the resultant spectacle is still a beautiful thing to behold.
“The Keep” throws a murderer’s row of acting talent — Scott Glenn! Gabriel Byrne! Jürgen Prochnow! Ian McKellen! — into a World War II period piece, as a unit of Nazis roll into a remote Romanian village, and find themselves mystified by its seemingly empty stone fortress (“The Keep” of the title).
Mann rivals Carpenter in his gradual escalation of tension, as the Keep’s elderly caretaker, played by W. Morgan Sheppard, quietly warns the soldiers of “bad dreams” if they stay, and Prochnow’s otherwise jaded Wehrmacht captain observes of the Keep that it’s “constructed … backwards. This place was not designed to keep something … out.”
The mundane evils of the Nazis are compared to the eldritch horrors contained in the Keep, and it’s hard not to root for McKellen, as the Jewish scientist who’s retrieved from a concentration camp to make sense of this mystery, when he realizes he could use the monster of the Keep to destroy the human monsters who are waging war on the world.
The lavish fantasy of “Legend” is much less cryptic than “The Keep,” which never fully shows its hand, but the fairies who populate Scott’s fairy tale, played by otherworldly actors such as David Bennent and Annabelle Lanyon, are every bit as sinister.
The template of “Legend” is the sort of straightforward swords-and-sorcery Tolkien-knockoff fable that was popular in Eighties cinema, complete with a pre-stardom Tom Cruise as the forest-dwelling Jack and Mia Sara (yes! Ferris Bueller’s girlfriend) as the innocent princess Lili, whom he seeks to rescue.
And yet, its feel is far more Grimm than Disney, with cannibalistic swamp hags, and goblins who come across as only slightly darker twins of the fickle fairies who are Jack’s only allies.
What earns “Legend” a spot on this list, though, is Tim Curry, the original Pennywise from “It,” as the demonic “Darkness,” a towering, muscular, red-skinned, cloven-hoofed, massively horned archetypal devil who deserves to be considered the platinum standard for all onscreen portrayals of Satan.
Even more than his impressive prosthetic makeup, what makes Curry’s Darkness work is simply Curry himself, who terrifies and entrances Lili by equal measures, and the true peril is not that he might kill her, but rather, that Curry and Sara make you believe that Darkness could successfully seduce even someone as pure of heart as Lili.
While I tend to recommend director’s cuts of films, “Legend” needs to be seen in its original theatrical version, because as Michael Mann understood when he made “The Keep,” nothing beats a Tangerine Dream soundtrack.