All the elements of reality have once again pulled a train on me this month. I only mention this because I feel terribly guilty for avoiding this blog during one of its most relevant months. Halloween is without a doubt my favorite holiday, mostly because television programming takes a vacation from sucking shit. Even if AMC does decide to show the crappiest “Friday the 13th” sequel on repeat, I still appreciate the fact that they're trying. But there's a lot more to my affinity toward the holiday than morbid TV.
A good friend of mine recently vocalized his excitement over the approaching Christmas holiday, an awareness which seems to shift closer inward every year, like a goddamn polar ice cap. Stores seem to bring out the fake trees and lights a little earlier than they did previously. I don't mind Christmas. I admit to my inherently materialistic nature, and I certainly don't mind celebrating it. I like “things” and “stuff.”
I come from a scattered family, and every member keeps their distance from behind Berlin-style walls of violent dysfunction. But over the years, various charitable souls have invited me into their Christmas gatherings out of pity, providing me with up-close observations of how somewhat normal families operate during the holiday. My general experience has been that most people are absolutely miserable during the Christmas holiday.
So many people drive themselves to the brink of breakdown trying to color inside the lines in order to live up to some Rockwellian standard of what that holiday is supposed to be about. It's a bunch of assholes forced together by the thinnest of all bonds – blood – who can't stand each other the rest of the year. The company of family is a hollow token you're forced to insult your so-called loved ones with out of tradition. Genetics is a poor basis for a bond. Most anyone given the option of hanging out with friends versus family will go with their buddies without a second thought. Phoniness is a pivotal ingredient in making Christmas SEEM great. It is a holiday which requires costumes of its own, only these facades are transparent and therefore far less interesting than what you see during Halloween.
I always thought Halloween belonged to people who had nothing, because it requires little more than ingenuity to celebrate. It doesn't matter who you are or what you look like because everyone is hidden beneath some gruesome mantle and, regardless of nationality or relation, we're all roving the streets together in a gleeful mass while strangers actually hand out gratuities.
Christmas, on the other hand, forces people to cloister themselves away from their real friendships and relationships to spend time with people they're bound to by genetics. Then you have a suicide rate bolstered by poor work-a-day saps who can't provide the extravagant holiday image that media outlets mash everyone's face into. It is a tooth-nashing reminder to the have-nots as to who exactly they are and what they don't have. And then there's the music. Fuck, that ear-gougingly awful fucking music that could turn any poor retail clerk into a Manchurian Candidate-style maniac. You can write the most mediocre gobbledegook ever, and insert something about the three wise men or Santa Clause fucking your mom, and it will be transformed into a sacred cow . Who doesn't want to dawn a Santa suit, grab a fucking fire axe, and head on down to the orphanage after hearing some fat bitch sing about how she wants Santa to bring her a boyfriend for the holiday for the three-hundreth-and-sixty-eighth fucking time. The only people who sing during Halloween are hatchet-faced pagan broads with shitty Celtic tattoos and saggy nudity, and they usually do that out in the woods, far away from me.
I enjoyed Halloween during childhood and adolescence, but as adulthood has crept in, there have been fewer opportunities to indulge in holiday activities. In fact, I've worked every Hallow's Eve for the last eight years. Most people don't want to work on Halloween, and so I'm the guy who shells the grenade so to speak. It will probably stay that way until I have a child to live vicariously through. In fact, one of my main ambitions in life is to sire a child whom I can take trick or treating. I can come off as gruff, sure, but I romanticize as much as I hate. After recently writing a review for the 1986 film “The Quest,” I kept thinking ahead to a time when I might have a kid, and what I would expose them to during this season. While I might have been watching shit like “Caligula” and “The Beyond” at age ten, I certainly wouldn't subject my child to that stuff. In fact, I arrived upon the conclusion that I'd probably guard what my kid saw like any real parent should.
So, several times over the past few weeks, I've found myself pouring over my shelves, looking for titles that I thought might be appropriate viewing for kids, and I've compiled a list of family-safe Halloween features. None of these films contains moments that might be mutually awkward for child and parent to sit through together. They're also not child-proofed, either. There's a lot of entertainment geared toward children which relies on in-your-face bells and whistles designed only to engage by virtue of distraction. These films are actually smart enough to engage not only a kid, but also keep the parent entertained. I'm sure some parent out there might actually appreciate this effort. These follow in no particular order of value, and some of them also have nostalgic value to them. And if you have any titles you think ought to be included, feel free mention them in the comment section.
THE 'BURBS (1988)
Most would probably argue against me when I say that this is easily Joe Dante's finest film. For me, "Gremlins" can't touch this movie's hem. This is one of those films where nearly every element of production clicks into place to assemble what I personally feel is a paramount success in terms of cinema.
This is basically a story about the mental illness complacency begets. Over the course of Ray Petersen's (Tom Hanks) stay-at-home vacation, he slowly begins to buy into his neighbors' paranoia that new arrivals The Klopeks are up to something sinister in that basement of theirs. He struggles to rationalize the things he sees and hears, but ultimately winds up joining a crusade to expose the new neighbors as bomb building commie ghouls. The movie culminates in frantic finale worthy of Peter Sellers.
Right off the bat, this film automatically benefits from being shot on Universal Studios' back lot. The houses and streets you see in this film have been utilized so frequently over the years, from "The Munsters" to "Psycho," that they're almost always instantly recognizable. The location smacks of nostalgic vibe. Other than that, Dante takes ample opportunity to pay tribute to the horror genre and some of his favorite directors. Sergio Leone is paid a heavy homage, as Dante reenacts famous shots from "Once Upon A Time In The West," which are compounded by a Morricone-themed score.
The chemistry between the cast, particularly between Dern, Ducommun, Hanks, and Carrie Fisher crackles pretty viciously any time a combination of the four is on screen. Ultimately, the timing and flow of their interactions is what really sells this movie.
THE GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN (1966)
In full-on Fife mode, Don Knotts plays Luther Heggs, an overly ambitious low-man on the totem pole of a local news paper office. Eager to get into the reporting game, Heggs reluctantly accepts an assignment to spend the night in the old Simmins mansion, where twenty years before a gruesome murder occurred. Rumor has it that the joint is haunted, and it quickly lives up to its reputation once Luther sets up camp. Naturally hilarity ensues, and Knotts is absolutely amazing to watch as he reacts like a flesh cartoon to bleeding paintings and phantom organ playing.
Heggs emerges a hero to the local town's people, but when he's sued for libel by the owners of the estate, he can't quite seem to get the ghosts he saw earlier to show up on command. With a little tenacity and romantic motivation, Luther digs deeper and unravels the mysteries of the Simmins mansion.
Knotts is obviously king here, but you'll also find more rich atmosphere courtesy once again of the Universal Studios backlot.
ANNA TO THE INFINITE POWER (1983)
This well-done eighties thriller has probably gone unsung due to the fact that it's subject was ahead of its time. Anna Hart struggles against her nasty nature while never questioning her talents until an uncanny doppelganger pops up on a news report about a plane crash. Soon, Anna and her brother, played by Mark Patton, begin to question Anna's exact origins, which leads them to uncover a clone experiment, which also involves a new mysterious neighbor, with whom Anna has friction. The basic feel is along the lines of Disney's “Watcher In The Woods,” but it's basically “The Boys From Brazil” for teenage girls. This flick is packed with a creepy, tense atmosphere which is only heightened by a current of incestuous energy between the sibling characters, which was probably unintentional.
I could only find some crappy fan made trailer for the film online, so instead I'm just gonna post the odd-ball opening credits to the film featuring the wonderful "Anna's Reverie."
THE CHANGELING (1980)
A fantastic accomplishment in the realm of horror cinema, “The Changeling,” stars George C. Scott, who dominate any "mentally anguished father" roles that at this point with all the ferocity of the Normandy invasion. This film manages to achieve an unnerving atmosphere without ever giving you much more than noise. Following freakish tragedy, composer John Russell (Scott) rents an isolated, palatial mansion where he is to accomplish some work. He soon finds that he is not the sole occupant, though. Compelled by the seemingly supernatural circumstances of his new living situation, Russell pries into the history of the house, and unearths skeletons which threaten to shatter the reality of the estate's politically prominent owner. Truly one of the greatest supernatural thrillers of all time, accomplishing strides in terms of atmosphere with little more than simple sound and excellent camera work.
MAD MONSTER PARTY? (1967)
Three words: fuck Tim Burton. This is an awesome family-oriented stop motion feature, "starring" a bevy of the familiar Universal Studios monsters. Dr. Frankenstein is ready to retire and intends on naming his successor, which prompts infamous associates to converge on his island, each with the hope that they'll be the lucky one. However, the doctor has a replacement in mind: a distant and mediocre relative, Felix Flankin. This, of course, creates an animosity between the Nerdtacular Felix and the other monsters, which leads to a finale of catastrophic proportion. Fabulous voice performances from the likes of Boris Karloff and Phyllis Diller put this thing over the top. This thing DRIPS total vibe.
THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (1959)
Some people will tell you that this movie was never not considered high camp, but I know for a fact that a few theater seats were completely soaked in urine after the ground's keeper's wife makes her initial on-screen appearance. I'm not saying this is a legitimately frightening film by any means. In fact, it comes off as rather innocent, but it's still completely lovable and entertaining.
Vincent Price stars as Frederick Loren, a wealthy business man who gathers a handful of desperate individuals together for a ghost party lock-in. Anyone who manages to survive what the night brings will be ten thousand dollars richer by morning. Once locked in, Mr. Loren's money grubbing harlot wife is found hanged, and the fun really begins as unseen forces menace the party goers.
Directed by master of movie house gimmickry William Castle, this is probably not the best example of what he was capable of achieving as a film maker, but strangely it's still one of his best films because it's a shit ton of fun. This is also the first Castle movie I ever saw, so it has a prominent lot on my memory lane. As for personal favorites, it's a random toss-up between “Straight-Jacket,” “Homicidal,” “Macabre.” You really can't go wrong with a William Castle flick.
DON'T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK (1973)
The next victim in the remake trend, this made for TV film is easily one of my most prized tapes. We're talking the big box USA Home Video release, here. The story is basic: young hot-shot couple inherit a Victorian mansion, move in, and start moving shit around, which naturally unearths some things best left covered up. The wife, who is often left her own designs by her workaholic husband, comes off as an attention starved nut when she starts seeing small demonic creatures scurrying throughout the house like common vermin. The ending is without a doubt one of the most memorable I have ever seen. Strangely, the seventies period of TV films yielded a series of highly effective horror outings which easily compete with what was showing on big screens at the time. In many instances, television horror was startlingly inventive and therefore refreshing.
"Gargoyles" is yet another badass TV movie with some great makeup and a genuinely eerie vibe. Cornel Wilde appears in this one, but really, Bernie Casey, who plays the chief gargoyle in this movie, is the true star here. Basically, more assholes start digging up shit they shouldn't be. In this case, a family of paleontologists are called into investigate some bizarre remains, and upon disturbing its resting place seem to invite the wrath of a hive of gargoyles.
I couldn't find a trailer, but you can watch the entire film on YouTube. Here's the first part of the film, which I'm sure should hold most anyone's interest.
LADY IN WHITE (1988)
I have a vague recollection of meeting director Frank LaLoggia at a Los Angeles Fangoria horror convention the year this film came out. He was promoting the film and signing posters at a table while a trailer for “Lady In White” looped on a nearby television. Even at ten, I KNEW who he was, as I was familiar with his coming of age Anti-Christ flick, “Fear No Evil.” He acknowledged me, but I remained shy. He signed a poster for me, and I learned there was a screening going on that night. And so I went. The film almost immediately became a favorite, and I would eagerly hoist it upon friends once it became available on tape.
In what is purported to be a somewhat autobiographical tale, “Lady In White” is a passionate celebration of childhood preoccupations, urban mythology, and home. It's obviously something that was shot from the heart, and LaLoggia did a fantastic job of creating a nostalgic atmosphere on a extremely low budget. This is a testament to a truly talented man, and the fact that he never found prominence as a mainstream director is just one of the scarlet letters on Hollywood's petticoat which ultimately helps spell out “condemned.”
Set amidst the 1960s climate of racial tension, the story follows young Frankie Scarlotti (Lukas Haas) as he attempts to free the spirit of a little girl who was murdered in the cloak room of the old school house years earlier.
After being locked in the cloak room overnight by a pair of precocious pranksters, Frankie witnesses the ghostly reenactment of a murder, and soon finds himself faced with the living killer. The murderer thrusts Frankie into the ether, where he once again meets the ghostly victim, who pleads with Frankie to help her find her mother. Frankie is revived from this near-death experience by his father, and soon finds himself bound to the spirit of the victim. Shortly after, a media blitz ensues when the school's black janitor is accused of attacking Frankie and for all the murders which have occurred at the school over the years. This suspect, however, is obviously an easy out for a stumped police department. As tensions boil, Frankie sets out to help the spirit he encountered in the cloak room, which not only leads him to the legendary lady in white, who haunts the town's cliffs, but also toward unmasking the killer's true identity.
The film does have a few flaws. It does borrow heavily, both cinematically and thematically from “To Kill A Mocking Bird,” and there are some painfully ill choices in terms of the film's score. However, LaLoggia weaves such an overpowerfing atmosphere that these things can easily be forgiven. Performances by a fantastic cast, a miraculous production design which captures the very essence of Normal Rockwell's Americana, and beautiful photography smother any other minor afflictions.