“Five more days to Halloween, Halloween, Halloween... Five more days to Halloween–” ... OK, we interrupt that annoying quote to ask the question: if Martha Stewart can offer ten hours of Halloween programming this year, what can Anchorwoman In Peril! do for you? Well, I may not be able to explain how to fold a used paper crane into a delightful witch’s hat for your cat, but I sure can suggest ten hours of great Halloween viewing of my own. Or, rather, your own. After all, you’re the one who has to fork out for the DVDs.
There’s plenty of new horror films out to buy this week, most of which concentrate on the nastiest of nasty doings, ranging from the rather excellent Hostel: Part II to the so-so Captivity. But I’ve always been of the opinion that Halloween should be a time to forget the world’s real horrors (torture, murder, Eli Roth) and instead celebrate spooky, cosy ol’ horror – the kind you might find prowling around a creepy graveyard with a skeletal grin on its face and a toffee apple in its hand.
With that in mind, I’ve put together a Top 5 of funhouse horror flicks that tickle the ribs, rather than yank them out with a pair of shears. They’re by no means gentle chillers or, God forbid, comedy-horrors (there’s a Fulci film in there, for starters) but they all focus on frights rather than nastiness, and offer far more treats than tricks... Enjoy!
First up is a Halloween offering that really does prowl around creepy graveyards for much of its running time. Phantasm is a surreal, melancholy fantasy that mixes small-town gothica (empty homes, a monstrous, labyrinthine mortuary) with sci-fi techno-terror (half-glimpsed alternate dimensions, deadly flying spheres)... like Ray Bradbury and H.R. Giger arguing over cocktails. Underpinning the weirdness is a touching relationship between two orphaned brothers, whose investigation of strange goings-on at a local cemetery leads to a startling confrontation with the iconic, unforgettable “Tall Man” (Angus Scrimm). Watch it back-to-back with its three enjoyable sequels (all of which continue the same story) and you’ll have what’s truly the Lord of the Rings of the horror genre. And a sore ass.
4. Stephen King’s Riding the Bullet
Everyone knows that the best of the multitudinous Stephen King adaptations are the non-horror ones (Stand by Me, The Green Mile, Shawshank), while the rest have a tendency to, quite frankly, stink – despite the odd Misery, Shining or It. Here’s one that has its cake and eats it... It’s, y’know, spooky yet serious. It’s also quite tasty as cakes go, following the strange adventures of a young hitchhiker on his way to visit his dying mother in hospital. Along the way are more diversions, dead ends and campfire tales than you could count, all with a loose, Halloweeny feel and a few interesting things to say. Well worth a nibble.
3. He Knows You’re Alone
You’ve seen Halloween. You’ve seen it, like, a hundred times. So here’s a rip-off that’s reassuringly similar, yet well made enough to forge a quirky identity of its own. He Knows You’re Alone’s madman is on the hunt for brides-to-be rather than babysitters, and amongst the slasher clichés are such tricksy treats as an eerie scene set inside a ghost train, a young Tom Hanks espousing on the “nature of fear”, and a cinema-set opening that proved striking enough in its own right to be recreated in the opening of Scream 2. Not a classic, then, but eminently consumable, disposable, and recyclable.
I can’t really recommend the BBC’s 1992 Halloween-night offering, Ghostwatch, if you’re not (a) British and (b) old enough to remember when Sarah Greene presented everything on TV. But if you are British and old enough to remember when Sarah Greene presented everything on TV, then – by the silvery-white hair of Michael Parkinson – watch it! Now! (Or, rather, save it for Halloween, since that’s the point of this piece.) Sarah is presenting – along with Mike Smith, Craig Charles and Parky himself – a “live” broadcast from a supposedly haunted location... Not some gothic mansion, mind, but an ordinary housing estate plagued by apparently supernatural activity, involving possession, poltergeists and, when it gets to the nitty-gritty, some genuinely disturbing proceedings. That the subsequent viewer complaints about this TV movie were enough to convince the Beeb to cancel Halloween programming forever is a testament to its power. Lock the doors, switch off the lights, and prepare to be more chilled than a McDonald’s milkshake – and, by the end, a similar shade of pale.
1. City of the Living Dead
Like Phenomena, the first Dario Argento film I ever “got”, this equally deranged effort from fellow Italian Lucio Fulci will always have a particular place in my heart. And, if I were in this movie, my heart would probably come spewing out of my mouth in a torrent of gore, much like one of the victims of the zombies – no, make that ghost-zombies – in City of the Living Dead. Fog-shrouded towns, premature burials, marauding ghouls, maggoty bones, maggoty eye sockets, maggoty maggots... it’s all here (and it’s all maggoty) in this supernatural extravaganza, which plays like the Halloween novelty section of your local supermarket come to gruesome, frenzied life. Christopher George and Catriona MacColl are the mismatched adventurers battling to shut the Gates of Hell before all, er, Hell is let loose, as everything races to a nonsensical (but perfect) climax in a cobweb-cloaked netherworld populated by shambling corpses. If you survive unscathed – or at least mentally sound – cut yourself a big piece of pumpkin pie... Happy Halloween!