So, with the Halloween season upon us, I'm taking the opportunity to map out a month of my recommendations for anyone who's looking for some creepy entertainment. Mind you, these choices don't constitute my personal alpha and omega of the best ever in the genre; I'm not looking to start or end any arguments here. Rather, this is a list of movies that I find myself coming back to as the nights grow longer, the shadows grow deeper, and the chill of the season settles in. I've tried to mix it up a little, and I'm adding tags so you can see how I would classify my picks.
You can follow along and try to watch everything I'm recommending - come on, what else do you have to do this month?? - or you can grab a category or two and put together a fun double or triple feature. Think about a "Wicked 80s/vampire" night with "The Lost Boys", "Fright Night", and "Near Dark", or a John Carpenter double-feature with "The Thing" and "In the Mouth of Madness". Impress your friends with your knowledge of the classics by screening "Rosemary's Baby" and "The Shining", or stage a gross-out challenge by seeing who can stick with you through all of "Grindhouse", with a "Cabin Fever" chaser. Bonus: getting through both of these will supply you with Eli Roth talking points well into 2013.
So without further ado, let's begin:
Monday, October 1: Session 9
I'm jumping right in with a movie that I have been championing consistently since I stumbled across it on cable almost a decade ago. An early effort from director Brad Anderson, "Session 9" takes full advantage of its setting, the crumbling Danvers State Hospital outside of Boston. The plot concerns a team of asbestos-removal techs who are woefully outmatched in their task of cleaning out the hulking, labyrinthine remains of the onetime asylum on a ridiculously short schedule. As they battle the stress of working overtime against an impossible deadline, they may also be falling prey to the madness still living within the abandoned hospital's gothic brick walls.
The inherent creepiness of Danvers provides perfect backdrop for the story of fraying tempers and unraveling sanity, and Mr. Anderson, a Connecticut native, is canny enough to pepper the script with bits of lore regarding the old state hospitals that still dot the New England landscape. Anyone who grew up near one of these places - and that probably includes about 50% of the population of Massachusetts, as the state at one time boasted ten or more of the massive "lunatic hospitals" - will appreciate the upclose look inside the gates that "Session 9" provides. In addition to being an urban explorer's dream and a paean to the forbiddingly beautiful architecture of the now defunct hospital, "Session 9" provides a neat little mystery, a surprisingly sympathetic lead performance from Peter Mullan, some creepy voice work, and a haunting last line that just might get under your skin. (Tag: Sleeper)
Tuesday, October 2: The Thing
The staff of a remote Antarctic research station run afoul of a murderous shape-shifting alien with the ability to mimic virtually any life form. The alien starts picking off team members and assuming their identities; rampant paranoia ensues.
The twists and turns in this John Carpenter thrill ride are oppressively effective. However, what really gives "The Thing" staying power is the excruciating tension that rachets up as the station's increasingly combative inhabitants, including scruffy everyman Kurt Russell, become fully aware of their perilous isolation and the horror of what they're up against. There's lots of yelling, agonizingly tense standoffs, major flamethrower action, and, despite effects that seem clunky by today's standards, some truly classic grossout moments. I don't want to give anything away, so just look for the head...and the legs... 'nuff said. I'd recommend watching this one with friends who won't mind you yelling at the screen, because you're going to need an outlet for the stress. This one's a workout. (Tags: Auteur, Wicked 80s)
Wednesday, October 3: The Exorcism of Emily Rose
I'm tagging this one a "harbinger" because it was on the front-end of a resurgence of exorcism themes in modern horror, and because it introduced actress Jennifer Carpenter, who has since made solid genre contributions in the film "Quarantine", and as Debra Morgan in Showtime's long-running serial killer drama, "Dexter". Ms. Carpenter holds the center of "EoER" as Emily, with as natural a performance as one could imagine given that she is playing a college student who may or may not be possessed.
The story is framed as a courtroom drama - a priest, played by Tom Wilkinson, is on trial as a result of the outcome of the title exorcism - and told in flashbacks, so the pacing here is somewhat more sedate than a straightforward horror movie. But that doesn't preclude shocks; the scenes of Emily undergoing torment from her inner demons are made creepier by the fact that the actress accomplished the seemingly-impossible contortions without the use of special effects. Beautifully pensive scene-setting cinematography and a typically strong performance from Laura Linney as a lawyer are a couple of additional elements that make this "Exorcism" worth the investment of a couple of hours of your time. (Tag: Harbinger)
Thursday, October 4: Kalifornia
Unpleasant story, unpleasant characters, unpleasant denoument; "Kalifornia" is a movie that you probably won't find comfortable, but it's smart, and compulsively watchable for a variety of reasons. Director Dominic Sena corrals David Duchovny, Brad Pitt, Michelle Forbes, and Juliette Lewis as four roadtrippers thrown together on a cross-country tour of notorious murder sites. Mr. Duchovny's character is a journalist researching a book about serial murder. His academic approach implodes as he realizes that one of his driving companions, Mr. Pitt's Earley Grace, is as ruthless a killer as any of those that he is planning to write about.
"Kalifornia" is an interesting milestone in Mr. Pitt's career, as it marks the first indication that he was willing to step outside - in this case, way outside - the attractive leading man roles that had marked his path up to that point. Earley Grace is a brave acting accomplishment, and the character serves as the focal point for all of the issues - morality, social class, economic pressure, and gender relations - that are explored as "Kalifornia"'s road trip turned crime spree hurtles toward its unpredictable conclusion. Nobody gets out of this movie unscathed, and you probably won't either. (Tag: Challenge)
Friday, October 5: Grindhouse
This collaboration between directors Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez famously consists of two full-length features - "Planet Terror" and "Death Proof" - packaged together with a number of authentic-feeling "fake trailers" contributed by genre directors Eli Roth, Edgar Wright, and Rob Zombie.
The project developed as an homage to the extremely low-budget offerings that churned through cheap theaters in the 60s and 70s and served as a primer for Rodriguez and Tarantino as young film enthusiasts. The three-hour-plus running time of the original proved a deterrent for the average theatergoer, so subsequent releases chopped up the features into two separate segments and restored some cut scenes in an effort to provide a more palatable product.
It's worth experiencing "Grindhouse" as it was originally intended; the ideal would be to find a theater that's showing it as a callback for the Halloween season. But barring that opportunity, try watching it at home without breaks to get a sense of the impressively orchestrated chaos of Rodriguez's segment about a military-grade virus that turns people into murderous zombies, and the staggering verbosity of Tarantino's tale of a serial killer's comeuppance at the hands of a trio of stuntwomen.
There are many great moments in "Grindhouse" that balance out the project's flaws - yes, it's really long, and sure, you have to buy into the concept of exploitation films to know what you're getting into, and yeah, Mr. Tarantino's characters could talk you to death if you're not careful. But if you skip "Grindhouse" you'll miss a genuinely fun viewing experience with excellent dual performances from Rose McGowan as both a feisty heroine with a machine gun for a leg (yes!), and the unwitting victim of a very unusual killer, played with creepy charisma by Kurt Russell. There's also a perfect turn by Freddie Rodriguez as a reluctant hero hiding the genre-requisite dark secret, and a full slate of other actors – Josh Brolin, Jeff Fahey and Rosario Dawson, to name a few – whose go-for-broke performances show that they're clearly having a blast.
Be warned, there are some breathtakingly disgusting moments in "Planet Terror" but Mr. Rodriguez keeps everything on point. And when Mr. Tarantino's "Death Proof" puts aside the chatter and gets down to business, you'll be treated to a car chase sequence that simply has to be seen to be believed. One more word about "Grindhouse": Don't neglect those trailers. Edgar Wright's "Don't" is a hilarious send up of overwroght horror movie promos, while "Thanksgiving" may be the weirdest thing that Eli Roth has produced yet. And given Mr. Roth's output thus far, that's really saying something. (Tag: Auteur, Challenge)
Saturday, October 6: A Nightmare on Elm Street
Let's just forget that "A Nightmare on Elm Street" was ever remade and focus on the 1984 original. In the wake of all of the sequels and crossovers that diluted uber-villain Freddy Kruger into a goofy punchline it's easy to forget how genuinely unique and menacing "ANoES" was when it first came out. It was grungy; major parts of the action took place in a basement boiler room and concerned a creepy school janitor who committed crimes against children. It was threatening; taking full advantage of the weird geography and upended physics that can make bad dreams such a terrifying experience. And it foregrounded major themes of adolescent struggle: being at war with one's own body and with the world of adults and their sense of authority.
Just in case you haven't seen "ANoES" or any of its secondary material (where have you been?), it tells the story of a group of teenagers who are being killed in their sleep. Brave Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) fights back and learns who the murderer is and why he's targeting this particular group of kids. It sounds pretty basic, but there's a lot at stake in this story about a villain who can invade dreams; what's your defense against an attacker who has no boundries? Things grow increasingly creepy as Nancy's exhaustion catches up with her and the lines between dreams and reality are dangerously blurred. If you've never seen "ANoES", or if it's been a long time, it's definitely worth revisiting it for a reminder of just how unsettling the original idea was, and why you might want to think twice before falling asleep. (Tag: Auteur, Wicked 80s)
So concludes Week 1. Check back next week for your next installment. And be afraid... be very afraid. (If you don't know what that's a quote from, wait for Week 4!)