It’s October! It’s Fall! It’s the best season of the year!
Each year about this time, there’s always the general consensus list post of “Halloween” films – among them Halloween, Friday the 13th, the Universal Monsters movies, Hocus Pocus, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Halloweentown (and its three sequels, though that fourth film is purely awful) – and there are the staples that several generations have grown up on, i.e. It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!, which is the one film that still airs on a major network every year (or twice in the same month, some years.)
I don’t want to write one of those lists.
So, instead, I decided to pick some of my favorite spooky and/or horror-themed films that always seem to put me in the mood for Fall and its haunted delights. Join me and check this list of atypical not-exactly-Halloween films you should check out for the Fall season! Spookiness, ahoy!
“When did truth and knowledge become a horror?”
A too-brilliant-for-his-own-good medical student convinces his classmates to die, attempt to explore death, and be brought back to life. What’s more monstrous then that! [Wing: It is such a wild premise, and great.]
No, really, that is the premise. Nelson Wright (a 20-something Kiefer Sutherland, post-Young Guns and still super hot; yes, I am biased) really does want to die under ‘controlled’ circumstances to see what’s out there in the afterlife. Kevin Bacon, Julia Roberts, William Baldwin, and Oliver Platt round out the cast of classmates who join him in this not-thought-entirely-through experiment.
It doesn’t go well for the participants. Not at all. They come back from death but not alone.
It’s kind of got a Mary Shelley Frankenstein-vibe, if you hold it up and skew it to the right like a kaleidoscope. Y’know, medical students playing God and near-tragic consequences that follow. Yes, it was released in 1990, it stars a bunch of actors that then were still “unknowns” at that moment in time, and its cinematography is very graphic and visual, so it really does set the mood and that mood is DARK AS HELL.
Joel Schumacher, who had previously worked with Sutherland on a little unknown vampire film entitled The Lost Boys, directs it. Dude has a hell of an eye for visual drama and picking the Tait Building for the exteriors (as well as Chicago itself for the setting) gives the film a darker vibe then a sterile hospital would have.
Yeah, you might insist the film hasn’t aged well; yes, a lot of the medical jargon and techniques are awkward and archaic by today’s practices, and the repercussions for one of the participants isn’t harsh enough (considering what is literally happening in the news in late-2017) but you can get past all that and enjoy this dramatic cheese fest.
Here’s a fun fact: this movie does have a whole scene that takes place on Halloween! Party-goers dressed in costumes dance around a big bonfire, set to the song Party Town, by none other than Dave Stewart & the Spiritual Cowboys… okay, one half of the Eurythmics, who are well known for the song Sweet Dreams (Are Made of These) aka that song Marilyn Manson covered in 1995 and got famous off of. Y’all make me feel old having to explain all that.
Near Dark (1987)
“The night has its price.”
1987 saw a lot of vampire films released but none was more influential than The Lost Boys. In many ways, Near Dark is its spiritual twin. Both about bands of vampires, though Jesse Hooker & co. are nomadic and spend all their time traveling through the Plains states, killing at will and surviving by the oldest tricks up their sleeves. [Wing: It’s been a long time since I saw that cover. I’d forgotten how AMAZING it is.]
It’s the same basic premise: simple, small town boy falls for mysterious, beautiful stranger girl, but she’s a vampire and bites him. He turns and is forced to join her and her “family” – comprised of herself, three adult vampires, and one child-body-but-mentally-older vampire – in order to survive. Once again, the boy’s human family decides to save the day but it doesn’t happen easily.
Where The Lost Boys was rock ’n’ roll and a snapshot of big 80s hair and fashion, Near Dark is a gothic western with memorable, super shady characters and a lot more gore. The vampires aren’t “pretty”; they’re generally filthy, covered in blood a lot, and eke out their existence drifting through a southwestern landscape in stolen vehicles.
If you love Aliens (who doesn’t?) then it’s fun to see Lance Henriksen, Bill Paxton, and Jenette Goldstein reunited as villainous vampires. Jenny Wright, as Mae the young female vampire who puts Adrian Pasdar’s Caleb in the worst predicament of his life, is a strong character who wants something better then what’s she’s been reduced to.
Yeah, it drags a bit in places. The scenes not involving the vampires get kind of boring. I mean, yay, Caleb’s family wants him back and to save him, blah blah blah, give me more Severn.
Fun fact: Joshua Miller, who plays the child vampire Homer, is Jason Patric’s half brother. Homer is interesting, because much like Claudia, they never really grew up. They understand adult concepts and decision making but really they just want a companion that will never leave them.
“I shall never forget that scream as long as I live…”
Whoa, I’m going way back in time for this one. I believe it was the year I was 12, my mom rented this for me a few days before Halloween. It is one of the all-time classics and everyone should see it just once.
Starring a remarkably dashing Vincent Price, the story is thus: a scientist in Montreal is found crushed to death under a hydraulic press; his wife confesses to the murder. But why? And why is she obsessed with finding a white-headed fly? She eventually explains the circumstances to her brother-in-law through flashback…
For 1958, science was still a major hot topic. Genetics and mutations, nuclear medicine, atoms, all that stuff was NEW and EXCITING and NOT UNDERSTOOD like it is today. [Wing: … I would argue it is, unfortunately, still not all that well understood today, considering the current political environment, particularly in the USA.] Accidents, just like the one in the movie, were theoretically plausible. That’s why science-horror worked so well then. No one knew anything, at least not to the level we know now. Not to mention the idea of teleportation. How many times have you wished you could instantly be transported to another place? I know I have, countless times. But if these were the consequences, I would immediately rethink my wish.
Yeah, the movie is a B-level horror at best and the costumes/effects are cheesy (particularly when you grew up during the period of 1980s horror films and amazing science-fiction special effects) but there is something insidiously creepy about this film. Most of it is psychological; we don’t see the creature, only bits of it, and ultimately when the viewer does, it’s supposed to be hella shocking. (Spoiler: not so much, not if you’ve seen the remake of The Fly starring Jeff Goldblum. STILL HAVE NIGHTMARES!)
You’re watching a woman battle against all-knowing men who are questioning her sanity and hold her life in their hands, knowing the truth but coming up against the fact that her story is so far out there as to be unbelievable. The ending, which still screws with me mostly because of the sounds, shocked the hell out of me at 12. I still get the creeps even thinking about it.
Plus you really can’t go wrong with anything Vincent Price was involved in.
“What would you say if I told you I was a witch?”
Long before the likes of the 1990s influx of all-things witchy, there was Bell Book and Candle. These “modern day” witches roam Greenwich Village and do magic, though they live among humans. One thing, though: witches cannot fall in love, otherwise they lose their powers. [Wing: Surely there has been a film theory paper somewhere written about the metaphor here of women, sexual desire, love, and loss, right? RIGHT?]
So with that, we meet Gillian Holroyd, who along with her brother Nicky and auntie Queenie, are facing another slog through the Christmas holiday season. Gillian, who lives with her awesome Siamese cat Pyewacket, runs an African art gallery in the village. She and her small family like to hang out at the Zodiac Club (which is a freaking awesome set in its own right) and Gillian’s got a problem: she’s in love with her neighbor.
Who happens to be a MUCH OLDER Jimmy Stewart.
Yeah, you have to view this film through the lens of 1958, not 2017. Although a giant age gap today wouldn’t be as much an issue as it was then, the casting is kind of off and it’s not Kim Novack’s fault.
Anyway, the film goes through what happens to Gillian when Queenie gets involved and some spells get cast and things go awry. Jack Lemmon plays Nicky and is a total hoot. The costumes are amazing, the sets are fascinating, and though the story is one of romance, the witch / supernatural element is addressed and has some interesting concepts.
Plus you could technically watch it again during December, since it’s set at the holidays.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
“I… love you too much to condemn you. “
Yeah, the infamous OG vampire has been portrayed on film since at least 1920 (maybe earlier?) and many an actor has sunk his teeth into playing this famous literary character. Some do it better then others, some are campy, some are schlocky, there’s a count Dracula for every taste!
But then you get Coppola’s 1992 take on the tragic story of Vlad Dracula (which was based partly on the third Voivode of Wallachia and his tendency to impale enemies; fun stuff!) and his search across “oceans of time” for his long dead wife who is somehow reincarnated into Mina Murray.
The love story angle is really blatant here. We live in a time where there’s tons of girls who grew up wanting a vampire to fall in love with them, and probably turn them. So maybe that’s some of the appeal of this film?
Maybe this is because I was at an impressionable age when this was released and all the chatter about how super graphic the film was, in the gore and sex departments, that it all probably influenced my love of the film. God knows it’s really not that great in the script department. Visually it’s stunning. So many old school special effects and camera tricks used to make the images speaks to a creative part of my soul. This was one of the last really big non-CGI movies.
Plus the costumes are gorgeous, lush, and the color palette has a bunch of hidden meaning. (Lucy Westerna and Mina are almost always dressed in shades of green to speak of their youthful vitality and freshness. Take that as you will.) Really, the costumes alone make me want to watch this film. I am very much a visual person when it comes to the arts.
And then there was the “let’s cast Keanu Reeves as Jonathan Harker!” controversy. Look, it wasn’t really his fault. Whether he tried too hard, or too little, or was just swallowed by the role, it’s super cheesy. Everybody in this movie chews the damn scenery, okay? Leave poor Keanu alone!
It also has the best use of crazy Gary Oldman’s shadow. (If you have not seen Léon aka The Professional, please pause in reading and go do so. I can wait.)
Strangely, which was still kind of a thing at the time for some films, Bram Stoker’s Dracula received a song on its mostly-score soundtrack. Annie Lennox’s Love Song For a Vampire is very Annie Lennox for the time. The video is just weird. I think she’s supposed to be Mina, but it just comes off strange and I keep thinking of her as Claudia from Interview with the Vampire. Ironically, the song was a smash and hugely popular but I barely remember it.
Dark City (1998)
“First there was darkness. Then came the strangers.”
What are memories? Do we truly remember events that have happened, do they shape us? How are they defined? Does our past define us? What if our memories are altered, erased? What makes us us?
This movie is a trip.
It is very hard to say which version should be viewed first. I would say start with the original cut on DVD; there is a voice-over introduction that explains the premise. After that, when you’ve recovered your mind, you can watch the Director’s Cut, which has a smidgen more footage that fleshes some events out.
Now that I’ve completely scared you off…
John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) wakes up in a bathtub and has no idea who he is, where he is, or what’s happened. There’s a dead woman in the hotel room and he has no memory of how that happened. A stranger calls the hotel room phone and tells John to flee, which he does.
From that point on, we realize we’re just as lost as John Murdoch, only we get some answers. This place, where ever it is, is controlled by the Strangers. They manipulate time and the inhabitants as a sort of experiment, through the act of “tuning”. It is almost always midnight in this place, though who is what and their role (and station) in life is constantly changing. The Strangers alter humans’ memories.
For some reason, John Murdoch is different. And that is totally unacceptable to Mr Book (played by Richard O’Brien, of Rocky Horror fame) who is hellbent on stopping John from ruining the Stranger’s sandbox.
This is a movie I find very difficult to describe. I mean, really, the core story is describable and it’s very simple, but everything around it – the costumes, the sets, the themes, the visuals, the weird supernatural-like powers – it’s all very sci-fi fantasy but also very late-1990s. This film has been continually compared to The Matrix but that’s not just because of its aesthetic. Being in control of your own mind and what that means is a question at the heart of both films. Dark City just gets a lot weirder about answering it.
Shadow of the Vampire (2000)
“Did I kill one of your people, Murnau? I can’t remember. “
In 1922 F.W. Murnau released his silent film Nosferatu, which immediately triggered a lawsuit from the estate of Bram Stoker. Yeah, there’s nothing new under the sun (or moon, as it were) in the land of fiction. Anyway, although Dracula was changed to Count Orlock and the setting moved to Germany, the lawsuit was decided in Stoker’s favor and all existing prints of the film were destroyed.
Not so much. Unlicensed copies survived and because of those, you all know Count Orlock, aka Nosferatu, from Sponge Bob Squarepants.
The premise of Shadow of the Vampire is this: Murnau hired a real-life vampire to play Orlock and, oops, things don’t go so well for the crew but hey, we made the film!
Staring John Malkovich and Willem Dafoe, who are kind of batshit crazy to begin with, the movie is indeed the (fictional) tale of how filming a real vampire can have some nasty side consequences but damn it, art must be made! Murnau and crew traipse around the wild Czechoslovakian countryside, determined to make Nosferatu and scare 1920s audiences, which would be way easier then it is with today’s sophisticated and jaded viewers.
No, this movie isn’t perfect. It can become very slow in parts but it’s fun to watch the characters start getting suspicious of the film’s star and the lengths at which Murnau goes to get his film finished. I think people have trouble with it because it’s not remotely a comedy – the only comedy is the fact people are being killed left and right by a real vampire who’s playing a fictional vampire and even then it’s not exactly “HA HA!” funny – and the movie takes the story straight and literal. I mean, really, who would sign on to make a film if they knew they had a less than 50% chance of surviving to see the finished product?
Fun Fact: Carey Elwes (who also was in Bram Stoker’s Dracula) plays the cinematographer. It’s weird how often Elwes has shown up in films I’ve seen throughout my lifetime. “AS YOU WISH,” INDEED!
“I guess there’s no such thing as safe sex with a werewolf.”
Cursed is a movie that I came to by accident. It’s also one of those films were the backstory, the making-of story if you will, is almost way more interesting then the actual film. [Wing: I love this movie, at least the unrated version, and think it was trying to do for werewolves what The Lost Boys did for vampires, particularly in the first half hour or so, visually.]
Okay, is it really spoilerish to say, 12 years after the fact, the twist? I don’t know how not to spoil this film. Honestly, I’ll try not to. (Does it matter?)
Basically: Orphaned siblings who live and work in Hollywood end up being attacked by a creature while driving home through the Hollywood Hills one night and while Jimmy figures out and insists they have been turned into werewolves, Ellie has more trouble with accepting their situation. This complicated by matters involving Ellie’s sort-of-on-again-off-again beau, Jake.
Yeah, we’ll go with that.
The production on this film FIRED master monster maker Rick Baker! CAN YOU EVEN BELIEVE THAT?? [Wing: That right there explains so much about the worst part of this movie, which is the terrible werewolf design.] It also went through extensive rewrites, cut a large portion of its original cast (including Corey Feldman???), and basically became a massive garbage fire. What remains, what was released, is troublesome in many ways.
Why do I like it? Because the bones of the story are good. An older sister left to deal with the pressures of adulthood while trying to keep her teenage brother on the straight and narrow path, although he’s a stereotypical nerd who lives on the stone-age version of the internet and would rather stay home with his dog. There’s also the mystery of Jake, which isn’t that much of a mystery when you get down to it or have seen the film once. Also Christina Ricci is kind of my generational touchstone, as we’re of a similar age, and I grew up with her playing Wednesday Addams.
[Wing: Random fact: The trailers played up this scene a lot, and Ostrich swore it was a vampire movie. Me: Look, dude, I know my werewolves, shut the fuck up. I, clearly, was correct.]
What’s wrong with this film? So, so much. Many people have written about that aspect far better then I could. I’m not even going to try. It’s bad. Really bad. And that’s just the script. The effects are awful, between the shitty werewolf suit and the horrendous CGI. There is a never-ending list of how bad things are. Also, Jesse Eisenberg annoys the ever living shit out of me. I liked him in Zombieland but that’s about it.
Still. I like parts. Enough that I will watch it if given a choice. I think I prefer the “unrated” version more, not that it changes a lot and it probably adds more gore. [Wing: Like I said, I love the hell out of this movie, mostly because of the siblings trying to survive (and in some ways embracing their new powers).]
“The nudity is entirely optional. As you well remember!”
Based on the 1995 novel of the same name by Alice Hoffman, the film version of Practical Magic keeps the same basic story line: a pair of orphaned sisters move in with their eccentric, spinster aunts who also happen to be practicing witches. This is not a secret, in fact the whole small town knows, and deems them outcasts. The Owens witches also have a problem with love; they are cursed to never keep it, even if they get it. [Wing: Probably blasphemy in some circles, but the movie is a billion times better than the book.]
Sally, the dark-haired sister, wants a normal life. Gillian, the redhead, longs for freedom and runs from the staid, “boring” life her sister desperately desires.
Of course shit goes really wrong for Gillian and Sally has to come to her rescue.
That’s really glossing over a lot of the film, though that’s the core story. The novel gets far more into the complex realities of being a sister and the lives of Sally and Gillian, and Sally’s daughters, but the movie kind of truncates that because, movie.
There are typical witchy elements in the movie: magically lighting candles, telekinesis, spell work of all types, etc. The fact they are set in a then-contemporary setting (it’s only been 19 years but you can totally tell it’s a late-1990s movie by the clothes) and the Owens sisters facing the same harsh realities of life as everyone else while being burdened with of having powers, that’s what calls me to this movie.
Plus, Stockard Channing and Dianne Wiest as the spinster aunts are the best ever. I want to be them when I grow up.
Yeah, this is one of those girl power movies. But that doesn’t mean it’s bad or distasteful to guys. (Hell, first time I saw it was with a male friend and he loved it.) It’s going to speak more to women because of the subject; it could also (fair warning) be a bit triggery to those who have been in abusive relationships, because of what happens to Gillian and the mess she and Sally make trying to take care of the problem.
This film came out right around The Craft and the CW series Charmed, which I guess means it’s part of the witchy films from the late 1990s. (Hell, didn’t this kind of influence Charmed? I think so?) Plus, although it’s set in New England, the exteriors were filmed on an island about 5 hours away from me, so that’s a bonus for me.
So, there you have it. I’ve given you vampires, werewolves, witches, and some very questionable medical experiments! Hopefully I’ve given you something new to watch this year. Have suggestions for more atypical Halloween films? Leave a comment below with the title!
Happy Halloween, everybody!