Editor’s note: We’re posting Erich “Mr. Acidemic” Kuersten’s viewing guide a couple of days before Halloween to give our readers a chance to locate these “cool and strange” suggestions spanning cinema’s history for a fearless binge-watch or, for less hardy souls, a nervous dip in and out.
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If nothing else remains of the Halloween experience once you’re too old for trick-or-treating or costumes, there are still the movies, and lists of what to watch abound. Well, no list is quite as eclectic as this one, which stretches back to 1929 and ahead to 2008, making stops for over-the-top Exorcist rips, ‘70s paneling, Mexican legends, abandoned Norwegian ski lodges, Irish mansions, and California malls, and avoiding all the usual stops. It’s the list of weird and worthy lesser-seen treats for those game enough to seek them out. They are rich with meta refraction, strong female leads, little-to-no misogyny or sexual violence, and are cage-free, except for the cages we build for ourselves, she said, as the shape drew closer . . . the cage we use to keep things out . . . – Erich Kuersten
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- Sole Survivor (1983) Dir: Thom Eberhardt
Decades before Final Destination there was this unjustly forgotten little masterpiece, the perfect thing for fans of It Follows as it taps into that same hushed ’70s suburban nightfall atmospheric detail accumulation. Denise Skinner is Dee-Dee, a commercial TV director who inexplicably survives a plane crash only to find recently deceased harbingers rising up to try and reclaim her like a lost package. What makes it work is the eerie synth score and little details of empty rooms, as if death is pausing to admire itself in the reflection of a dripping faucet before resuming its slow stalk up the winding brown-carpeted stairs, tracking through the very ’70s faux exposed brick and paneling and deep red walls (all the better to offset her red hair). As with the original Halloween, there’s plenty of time getting to know and like these characters, to root for the blossoming Hawksian/Carpenterian romance between Dee-Dee and the hospital physician who releases her. There might be Xmas trees lurking in the corners of rooms, but hey – it’s California, so it doesn’t matter. There’s an autumnal vibe that makes each formed or renewed bond, each drink and playful touch feel precious with fading warmth, fires all the warmer and brighter for the encroaching darkness.
- The Antichrist (1974) Dir: Alberto De Martino
Not to be confused with the Lars von Trier sex movie, this is a ’74 balls of brass on the wall Exorcist rip that is, in the best Italian tradition, startlingly original and shamelessly derivative at the same time. Actress Carla Gravina goes for broke in a bravura turn as a 45-year-old virgin who’s been paralyzed from the waist down since a car accident as a child (that killed her mother). With her manly face, raspy voice, androgynous body, and Rosemary buzz cut, she’s ripe for a sexual violation/possession that occurs, brilliantly, in two different times and dimensions at once. And when she’s possessed, she can walk and flaunts her comfort in her own body and talks in the (dubbed) voice of a dirty old Italian man, laughing at everyone else’s discomfort while ruling the dinner conversation like a drunken patriarch. The ancient Roman architecture is all gorgeous and weird, and naturally stuff flies around the room and lovely young German tourist boys wind up molested and dead in her wake. Arthur Kennedy plays the local bishop, paralyzed with doubt over what his eyes tell him is true. Mel Ferrer is her father, who just wants her to be happy so he can ride off into the sunset with leggy Anita Strindberg. Alida Valli plays a maid and practices her witchy look for the upcoming Suspiria.
- The Eternal (1998) Dir: Michael Almereyda
Michael Almereyda’s loose hipster adaptation of Bram Stoker’s mummy novella Jewel of the Seven Stars follows his loose remake of Dracula’s Daughter, Nadja, and is one of the great underappreciated horror gems of the ’90s. Jared Harris and Allison Elliot are a boozy NYC couple who return to her Irish homestead for R&R (“Ireland is a terrible place to dry out,” her doctor cautions). As with his other films, Almereyda makes great thematic use of contrasting film stocks: faded Super 8mm and 16mm to depict the distant past of heroine Elliot’s Celtic druid relative and her own beautiful mother who died under mysterious alcoholic circumstances. The elaborate interiors of the ancestral Irish homestead are lit like archaeological digs, and have a ghostly Egyptian luster (the mummy herself is actually exhumed from the bog by Christopher Walken. Yeah, you heard me, and he gets off a great rap about the fluid morality of the Celtic era before his mummy wakes up and the killing begins). Anyone who loves both Hammer films and Abel Ferrara, Boris Karloff and Jameson’s whiskey, will swoon with a royal flush of red, purple, and gold. I can only guess why it gets such bad marks on sites like IMDB; they can’t see past the second-guess hack poster art (which makes it look like a direct-to-cable softcore Prophecy sequel), and the meaningless title, to find the hipster heart of gold-plated Iron Age malevolence within (the Cat Power song in the beginning should be a tip-off).
- Bad Dreams (1988) Dir: Andrew Davis
In 1967, high on way too much LSD, a promising method actor named Richard Lynch walked into Central Park with a can of gas and set himself on fire, leaving his entire body and face permanently scarred with third-degree burns. It’s important to bear this in mind as it makes his role here, as a ’70s cult leader who urges his flock to set themselves on fire to join him in the “unified field” all the braver and creepier, making him a cross between Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond and Rondo Hatton. One girl isn’t having it, though, and tries to escape before the whole house goes up. She doesn’t get out in time but keeps her hair and winds up in a ten-year coma. When she comes out, it seems like Richard Lynch is following her around and absorbing her fellow ward patients and hospital staff into his unified field (no one believes her that they’re not suicides and/or freak accidents). The plot follows the approximate blueprint of Nightmare on Elm Street 3, even casting the same actress in the lead (Jennifer Rubin), but that doesn’t mean it’s not done with care, some good acting even in little parts, and full of weird surprises that never rely on dumb punch lines, cheap shocks, or torture. Re-Animator’s Jeffrey Combs is in the handsome counselor role. Watch it while surrounded by lit candles and old newspapers and wonder over the kind of balls Richard Lynch had to make this movie, surrounded as he is by fire almost all the way through. Director Andrew Davis went on to make The Craft.
- The Creeping Flesh (1972) Dir. Freddie Francis
Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing star as rival Victorian-era scientists competing over a prehistoric humanoid fossil that just needs some water to come back to life and start dominating people through telepathy, telekinesis, and other pre-Cambrian maneuverings. Its blood ripe with undiluted evil, the fossil is a marvelous reflection of the ’70s vogue for ancient alien theory, and because of the Jules Verne-style liberation of the scientific era, is utterly freed of all the usual dismissive hampering of close-minded PMs (such as in Five Million Years to Earth) or witch-burning Christians. Yet in flesh, there are those whom Lee and Cushing would sandbag mighty low, including Cushing’s nympho-schizo daughter, her homicidal nymphomaniac rampage through the gaslight district at dawn so evocatively filmed by director Freddie Francis you can taste the rainwater reflection. Hammer didn’t make it, but it bears all the earmarks (so much is going on, though, you can imagine Hammer spreading it over three separate movies).
- The Legacy (1978) Dir. Richard Marquand
Here’s a very uniquely late ’70s old dark house film, with a reading of a weird Tolkien-esque will involving rings of power and black magic. Katharine Ross is one of the heirs, and brings along boyfriend Sam Elliott for moral support. As all the other heirs start dropping dead in suspicious ways, Ross reads about the old witch she resembles in portraits. The mansion setting is great; these are the sorts of people we only saw with their masks on in Eyes Wide Shut, a roster of British and German eccentrics, libertines, war criminals, and rock stars (including Charles Gray and Roger Daltrey). Far from the dreary 10 Little Indians x Omen English drawing room + gore slog it’s been painted as, this turns out to be a treat for anyone who loves James Whale’s Old Dark House, Hammer’s The Devil Rides Out, and Rosemary’s Baby, in that order. Ross rocks her great long straight chestnut hair and ’70s fall wardrobe but also looks mature (she was 38) and intelligent, swept along in this weird tide with her man. There’s no whining about wanting a baby or marriage or not having one or getting too much sex or not enough. She’s equal partners with her man, and when she inherits her legacy, her whole face seems to change shape, expanding into an uncanny extra dimension of glacial stillness which shows why she was so effective in The Stepford Wives. Poor Sam Elliott winds up having a pretty rough time; a foreigner at a strange party he can never leave, he knows his presence is superfluous and his stock is falling lower all the time. His crankiness seems to indicate he’s destined for death like everyone else, but he’s a warrior from the Iron Age of cowboys and the Kris Kristofferson/Jon Voight school, guys so cool they blazed new trails of macho while helping or at any rate not hindering the breakout of women’s lib, which was erupting all around them, tossing its myriad black hole tentacles in all directions, like a flurry of razor-brimmed Mary Tyler Moore hats.
- Stagefright: Aquarius (1987) Dir. Michel Soavi
It’s a dark rainy night, and in a remote rehearsal space they’re working on a dance revue set in dilapidated ’70s Times Square when the ingénue sprains her ankle. The infuriated director won’t let her leave, but she sneaks off into the rain to get it looked at by the only doctor around, in the receiving area of a mental institution where as she’s coming in, a crazed killer is going out. And when she comes back, the angry director locks them all in for the night. That’s just the first act of this wild, witty atmospheric gem from Michel Soavi (it’s way better than his similarly postmodern Demons or The Black Cat), which includes such delirious sights as a guy wearing an oversize owl’s head charging the terrified company with a chainsaw. See it alone in the dead of night, with big headphones and all the lights off and thrill to some of the best initial WTF moments of metatextuality since the first Jet pirouetted out of rank in West Side Story. I can imagine seeing this in a theater at night in Times Square and being afraid to turn around in my seat. When what’s on stage is so close to what’s going on around you that you can’t tell if you’re seeing a movie or are just an actor pretending he’s an extra acting like a moviegoer who’s about to get stabbed by the guy sitting behind him, then you know it’s going to be a bumpy ride and there’s no seat belt left to fasten. It’s been sliced off by a junkie’s razor, like they used to do to your pockets at the old grindhouses.
- Chopping Mall (1986) Dir. Jim Wynorski
Before Corman protégé Jim Wynorski settled down to churning out a diet of softcore camp, he still found time to deliver first-rate B-movies like this, a great mixture of a mall + robot security guards rolling amok the same time three young furniture store clerks and their dates, plus another couple, sneak in for a night of sex, drinking, and watching the great Corman classic Attack of the Crab Monsters. And like that film, this has inexorable fun single-night momentum, and the ’bots are real remote-controlled little maniacs on tank treads, with Gort laser eyes and Robocop-style platitudes, zipping through a real mall after hours in real time. More than anything, though, this mall is a horror fan in-joke mecca. To fight the attacking ’bots the teens stock up at Peckinpah’s gun store (recalling also Dawn of the Dead, naturally); and quotes from the original The Thing and The Day the Earth Stood Still. Corman encampment mainstays like Mary Woronov and Paul Bartel (as eye-rolling small-business owners) and Dick Miller (an evening-shift janitor). Best of all, all the teens may be generally horny, but are also resourceful, relatively likable, and brave. Even the designated strapping jock type Mike (John Terlesky) has a certain amount of good-natured charisma, and the blind date’s a crack shot (Kelli Maroney) and the sexy older girl (Karrie Emerson) an ace mechanic. Rather than sobbing and whining, the girls make bombs with cans of gas and protect each other, like Marines! Sultry scream queen Barbara Crampton makes it almost to the end, and isn’t afraid to toss a pipe bomb. Most importantly, like all too few of its ilk, it knows that great horror begins at home, not in some perfect suburban small town but in the real, normal, middle-class suburbs, the grocery store, and at the mall, and in our TV sets. Anywhere we go to feel safe, or sated, or comforted should be used against us.
- The Final Terror (1983) Dir. Andrew Davis
The first step to loving this movie is to let go of any slasher in the woods meets Deliverance expectations, and just let the vividly spooky and lush old-growth forest darkness captured by director Andrew Davis (The Fugitive) cast its ominous enigmatic spell. It’s the tale of a camping trip up in the wilds of Northern California that turns mighty violent, with the chief suspect being a religiously uptight local boy played with the usual zest by Joe Pantoliano. But is that just red herring? The campers include eerily familiar faces like Lewis Smith, Rachel Ward, Daryl Hannah, and Mark Metcalf. But the real notable is John Friedrich as a guy who winds up kind of in between the good and the bad once he avails himself of too many shrooms, and the result is the campers stick together, and a few of them have been in the military. I don’t want to give too much away, but you know that queasy feminist that I am, if I love a film in this genre it’s because there’s no sexual assaults, torture porn, or shitty dialogue. And this does not have those things in spades. The killer looks great in a camouflage leaf jacket and long gray hair, blending so well into the surrounding vegetation it’s startling, and Susan Justin’s weird piano and synth score hits the right notes every time.
- Sh! The Octopus (1937) Dir. William C. McGann
This might be the Duck Soup of horror movies, an ideal choice for fans of the old dark house genre – here the old dark house genre for reprobate stoner film fans who don’t mind a little overbearing business from Hugh Herbert and Allen Jenkins as drunk cops forced to check out a mysterious lighthouse en route to the baby hospital. What’s most interesting is the art design, which allows viewers to find – on their own – tentacle subliminals in nearly every shot, mixed with actual slithering tentacles and strange character actors scuttling in and out at all moments. If the shrooms are still lingering from The Final Terror and you can stand some lame bits, it’s great for the last film of the night when you’re too drunk to be scared. (It’s good for kids too.) The verticality of the lighthouse as a setting is also really unusual, as is the octopus, which seems to be a real octopus, a mechanical device operated by a saboteur pirate, and a master criminal who can change appearance in one of the most jaw-dropping transformation scenes in horror movies ever, it all the more so for being, like the rest of this film, so uniquely weird yet feeling as tossed off as a mere ad lib.
- The Unholy Night (1929) Dir. Lionel Barrymore
This MGM old dark house thriller gets a bad rap for being, like most early sound films, awash in crackles and hisses, but if you’re like me that’s actually a plus, for it gives the impression the air of the ’20s was something we could hear, so free of pollutants and bad vibes was it; these old black-and-white images seem to be unfolding underwater in some magical hauntologic submarine window, or – in this case – thick London fog. A killer is strangling unwary ex-British military officers who served together in India. They almost get Roland Young, but he manages to get rescued and at Scotland Yard proceeds to pour the whiskey and sodas, and doesn’t stop ’til the whole mystery’s wrapped up. So you can bet it was written by Ben Hecht, and should have been directed by Howard Hawks, but Barrymore does a decent job, and there are so many creepy séances, ghosts, mass murder tableaux, walking corpses, and army buddies singing drinking songs that it becomes the perfect film to watch as the sun comes up feeling rosy with the blood of whatever, in the bed of whomever; Boris Karloff is even in it, with a turban and a most guilty expression.
- Cold Prey (2006) / Cold Prey 2 (2008) Dir. Roar Uthaug
Some gorgeous young Norwegians decide to go snowboarding way off the map out in the frozen vastness of their mountainous country, but when one of them breaks his leg they seek shelter at an abandoned ski lodge and – hey, it’s not totally abandoned, so it seems, and the generator still works, and there are dusty half-full liquor bottles left in the cozy lounge. Proud of its generic slasher roots, Uthaug’s film builds up from the premise (a deformed giant Viking-esque killer hides there, killing all who come near) with measured quality, wit, and inexorable tick-tock momentum, studiously avoiding the usual dripping industrial torture basement Rob Zombie video look of so many similar “wayfarers stranded in a remote killer’s lair” horrors. Instead, the vibe is all the more unnerving for being so cozy, with just certain things “off” that begin to mount up, leading to a battle near a yawning chasm.
The solid sequel picks up at an understaffed mountain hospital (in the midst of closing now that the ski season is ending) where the final girl recuperates, and the monster from the first film is brought in in a coma; those of us who have misgivings about the medical community’s insistence on saving the lives of mortally wounded psychopathic killers will be very pleased at the comeuppance rewarded this “heroic” practice (they indignantly stop the previous film’s final girl pulling his plug), and the crazy loner sociopath murderer figure is a nice representation of the region’s bloody Viking past rising up from the ice to smite the sophisticated, socially educated, racially uniform, and far-too-trusting youths, and one comes away from the experience staggered by the eerily alien Norwegian mountain locations. (In Norwegian with English subtitles.)
- Curse of the Crying Woman (1961) Dir. Rafael Baledón
This fun, lurid, trashy film is based on a popular Mexican legend of “la Llorna” – the crying woman; there’s something kind of terrifying about her weepy black eyes (clearly she just has her eyes closed and her eyelids painted black, but the effect is still nightmarish), especially when she waves her fingernails around like she’s in an Ed Wood movie and releases her attack dogs and knife-throwing henchmen on unlucky passersby. Unfolding as it does over a single night – la Llorna’s virginal niece arrives by carriage and by midnight must be sacrificed to appease the evil mirror! Or something! – we’re free of drab daytime pastoral mornings full of bumbling gardeners in sombreros and all that Mexican art cinema jazz. We’re free from day’s tedious shackles! There are tons of cobwebs and a chained-up mutant ghoul straight out of Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural, with which this would make a fine double bill. With the grand old mansion bathed in creepy cobwebs and splintered staircases up and up, it’s like an ADD-challenged 12-year-old art director’s attic nightmare after watching too many Universal ’30s horror classics, if there is such a thing.