Friday, October 31, 2014

Alternative Halloween Movies

“Believe only half of what you see and nothing that you hear." - Edgar Allen Poe


Are you sick of the same horror movies on Halloween year after year? If you're anything like me, you no longer have any interest in the played out, "been done" crap that usually plagues the Devil's favorite holiday season. If you are just unable to deal with another passing October filled with carbon copy sequels from once interesting horror franchises like Saw or Paranormal Activity - I have compiled a list of 10 "alternative" horror films that may add some spice, or screams, to your popcorn filled Halloween night. 

#10. In the Mouth of Madness (Carpenter. 1995)

I want to make it clear that this is a list of "alternative" Halloween movies, and though the list will get more obscure as we go - this is not a very obscure horror movie. It is written, scored, and directed by horror legend John Carpenter and plays out like a classic Lovecraftian horror flick. Insanity, fear of the darkness, and a seemingly campy interest in the unknown help this film stand out from anything else made by Carpenter. Charlton Heston plays a man who is sent from a publishing company to track down a missing horror writer. The rest of the action unfolds in a very surreal, Twilight-Zone-hooks-up-with-your-nightmares kind of way, and that only adds to the lore of the movie. I You might not be able to exactly pin-point a real plot, but this is a film that is meant to be experienced as opposed to just watched. Surreal, unforgiving, and stocked to the brim with references from H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos  - if you like horror lore, you will love this movie. My Grade: B+

#9. A Chinese Ghost Story (Siu-tung. 1987)

I fully understand that some people do not want to watch something as disorienting as Carpenter's In the Mouth of Madness, so next on the list we have a Chinese romantic comedy, horror from the late 1980s. To be fair, I'm trying to reach all audiences. A Chinese Ghost Story is exactly what you think, but dialed up to 10. The film follows a debt collector who falls in love with a ghost after spending a night in a haunted temple. It is revealed that the ghost he loves is being forced to spend eternity at the temple because she is buried in a specific place that binds her soul to the eternal service of a sinister Tree Demoness. I know, it really is awesome. The man enlists the help of a Taoist Priest with extraordinary sword fighting skills, and the rest is just pure fun. The movie was a breakaway hit in many Asian countries, and has spawned a cartoon series, 2 sequels, and a [bad] 2011 remake. If you want something different for your Halloween, this would be the right movie for you. I personally love it. My Grade: B+ 

#8. Equinox (Muren. 1970)

A group of friends travel to the canyons of California in order to enjoy a nice picnic. They stumble upon a strange book that reveals details of a monster world that exists alongside the human world. After reading from the book, the friends accidentally unleash a slew of monsters. Sound like something you have maybe seen before? Equinox was released thirteen years before Sam Rami's Evil Dead franchise, and though the plots are very similar, the campiness in Dennis Muren's (a future 9 time Academy Award winner for visual effects) independent directorial debut cannot be matched. The film was shot on an unbelievable budget of $6,500 and is too much fun to pass up. Not to mention, a lot of the monsters featured in the film would make great Halloween costume inspiration. My Grade: C

#7. Eyes Without a Face (Franju. 1960)

Eyes Without a Face is an Italian-French horror film from the 1960s with seriously impressive visual effects and a story that stands the test of time. This is a far cry from the movie featured directly before or after on this list. In fact, this movie is just different. It centers around a young lady who has been disfigured in an accident, and her surgeon father who abducts girls in an attempt to remove their faces and graph them onto his daughter. The title is a reference to the mask that the daughter wears during her time of disfigurement. What makes a movie like this scary is the idea that the surgeon initially had decent intentions, and was ultimately driven by his failures to abduction, murder, and insanity. The path to Hell is paved with good intentions, they say - and Eyes Without a Face (like Dr. Jekyll before) proves that desperation combined with science and insanity equals nothing short of absolute terror. My Grade A-

#6. Jigoku (Nakagawa. 1960) 

If we are all being forced to admit that gore-horror is a legitimate sub-genre in the horror movie world, then we may as well do what we can to make it interesting. Jigoku is a movie that was not well known upon official release, but its discovery really put American audiences on their heads. A precursor to a now common genre, this film redefined the history of Asian horror. Is it campy? No. It is surreal, and it contains buckets of gore. An obvious influence on CW's hit show Supernatural, Jigoku features a Hell with inhabitants being constantly tortured in a variety of ways until death, only to reappear on the torture table to experience it all over again. This goes on for eternity. This is a bloody, scary, and mind-boggling piece of J-horror history, and I have been amazed for years by the fact that is has not "gotten over" with Halloween audiences in the United States. Check this one out. You can find it on Hulu Plus. My Grade: A-

#5. Suspiria (Argento. 1977)

Long story short, Italian horror is probably my favorite. Nobody encapsulates the absurdity of Italian horror like Dario Argento. The only director to appear on this list twice, Argento has one of the most distinct and identifiable styles in all of movie-making. He is the pinnacle of the saying "great at nothing, but good at everything".  Nothing specifically stands out as genius in Suspiria (maybe other than the haunting score), but everything about the film remains vibrant, fresh, and fun. Set in a French ballet school, Suspiria features a wide range of colors, along with a twisting and memorable set design. When I see the winding staircases and walkways throughout the school, I am instantly reminded of the monumental sets featured in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. That is a pretty cool style to use as a reference. Though this may be the most inadvertently dated film featured on this list, Suspiria has become a massive cult favorite for a reason. After watching the film, be on the lookout for countless references in pop culture from AHS: Coven all the way to The Simpsons. It is a lesser-known movie that made a major impact. My Grade: A

#4. Fiend Without a Face (Crabtree. 1958)

Fiend Without a Face is tons of fun. It is a classic 1950s B-horror film with a premise [literally] straight out of a pulp comic book. To quote everybody's favorite SNL character - this movie has everything: a monster that eats your brain and spinal cord, barefoot townspeople, a surprisingly bloody climax, and a scientist trying to master some sort of psychic power. The premise is utterly ridiculous, sure, but the understated horror combined with overstated comedy makes this film a camp classic. You have to watch Fiend with the same mindset that you would have when watching a movie like Rocky Horror. It may be the goriest film of its time, and it is widely considered one of the best B-movies ever made. Don't just watch this film because you crave something different this Halloween - watch this film because it is incredibly uneasy, funny, goofy, serious, scary, and memorable. My Grade: A 

#3. Carnival of Souls (Harvey. 1962)

Herk Harvey only directed one feature film in his entire career, and it was not well received when it was first released as a B-movie in the 1960s. In fact, it took artists like David Lynch and George Romero siting Carnival of Souls as a major influence before the film started to be taken seriously by cult audiences. The film has now garnered a variety of praise for its ability to use suspense rather than action to strike fear into an audience. For me, this is an almost perfectly crafted horror film. It has some campy moments, it was shot on a very low budget, and it has the feel of a classic episode of The Twilight Zone. The story simply follows a young lady who somehow survived a horrible accident. Sometimes simplicity is the scariest factor of them all. She is alone, and that feeling is not only palpable, but understandable. Intrigue and empathy are as effective as screenplay and directorial style when it comes to helping this film graduate from cult movie to horror masterpiece. Carnival of Souls could possibly be the most underrated horror film ever made. Not bad for a guy who only made one movie. My Grade: A

#2. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (Argento. 1970)

Okay, this one may be an example of me cheating a little bit. I wouldn't necessarily call The Bird with the Crystal Plumage a "horror" film, but rather it is more of a psychological thriller. Either way, it is a really damn good movie. And it is scary. Maybe not scary like The Exorcist, but  it is definitely comparable to the most intense episode of Criminal Minds that you've seen - without the basic cable limitations. Like many films by Dario Argento, this film is constantly twisting and turning. Each character is relevant to the story, and there is a shocking climax to the action. And like I mentioned before, nobody can beat this Italian director's style. Crystal Plumage has style, wit, thrills, and genuine scares. This is a perfect Halloween movie if you aren't the monster type. My Grade: A

#1. House (Obayashi. 1977)

Now we're talkin'. House is easily one of the weirdest, most visceral, dreadful, funny, and haunting movies I have ever seen. If any movie exemplifies the perfect alt-Halloween experience, it is this 1970s Japanese masterpiece. A young girl is upset by the fact that her father has remarried without telling her, so she and a group of friends go to an Aunt's house for the summer. At the house they encounter a variety of awesome, hilarious, scary, and disturbing things. A piano comes to life and eats a young girl. A demon cat has eye's that flash when something from the other world is about to happen. Combine that with flesh-craving, disembodied heads, and possessed light fixtures and you have the recipe for success. The film's underlying theme of nuclear war fallout is an entire different story. House is goofy enough that you cannot call it a horror film, but it is also visceral and surreal enough to leave a lasting impact on a person. If you are in an adventurous mood this Halloween, I strongly recommend checking this one out. And guess what? You can find it on Hulu Plus. Thank me later. My Grade: A+

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