Day 25 – Other Vampires!

Okay, we burned through Dracula in two days which leaves us face to face with a hungry coterie of other vampires. And a strange set of bloodthirsty creatures they are. Vampires are a Halloween necessity, and there are SO many good movies! Now, I’m partial to the sort of vampires that dress well and have that “Dead but delicious” sensuality, so even though I really liked Stakeland and 30 Days of Night we’ll be looking at the more elegant and refined types here.

And also, we want them scary, so the fanged fops of Interview With a Vampire and its ilk are out for the Halloween master list. I was loathe to dig back into the consecrated earth of Hammer yet again, so I was really considering The Lost Boys or Fright Night, both delightful examples of the fun/scary horror of the 1980s. But…

I couldn’t help myself. Hammer is the best for sexy, scary vampires, and so here they are again. It was a toss-up between The Vampire Lovers, Kiss of the Vampire and Brides of Dracula, but I went with Brides because it has both a great (non-Dracula) head vampire AND an iconic vampire-hunter, none other than Van Helsing himself, played by the one and only Peter Cushing. Add in Yvonne Monlaur as a sympathetic heroine who remains likable despite taking all the actions that lead to the vampiric antics and a nice action-filled climax (and subtract some dodgy bat FX) and you have the best sort of Halloween vampite flick!

Day 24 – Hammer Dracula!

Like Frankenstein, most of the really good dracula movies were either made by Universal or Hammer. The Frank Langella, Gary Oldman, and even the Jack Palance versions have their pluses (and there are other good ones too – hell, I even liked the recent NBC TV series) but Dracula still comes down to Beal and Christopher Lee. The series of Dracula that Hammer did for Hammer are an uneven lot, even taking the odd move of setting them in “modern day” (ie, the groovy early 70s) for the last two. But they’re all cool in their own way. And Lee’s Dracula is the definitive scary Dracula. He’s not lovelorn, or conflicted – he’s an arrogant, vengeful, aristocratic monster who likes to kill and also likes to play with his food.

Any of the Lee Draculas is a worthy Halloween watch, but for the most appropriate of the bunch I’m going to go with 1968’s Dracula Has Risen From the Grave which wins points for Best Title. It moves fast, looks beautiful (director Freddie Francis was an award-winning cinematographer, and the lighting in this movie is cool as hell), has a nice theme of religion-versus-atheism, and has a typically fine cast of familiar Hammer faces, especially Veronica Carlson who was one of the greatest of the Hammer Glamour Queens. Great fun, and a good film to use to introduce a neophyte horror fan into the world of Hammer. All it’s missing is Peter Cushing.

 

Day 23 – 1931 Dracula!

Okay, I’m giving 1931’s Dracula it’s own page because it is an amazing Halloween movie and actually may be a bit underappreciated. Many critics and reviewers snoot at it a bit – “boring”, “stagy”, “static”. Instead I would counter with “Dreamlike”, “Eerie”, “Hypnotic”.

The movie features a wealth of weird imagery, like the lurking opossums (!) and the bee with its own little coffin (!). The non-motion of the camera is often remarked upon, but I find that in these days when we’re so used to active and even hyper-active cameras (is that bumblebee or megatron? or jason bourne? WTF is going on here?) the very staid placement of the camera makes the film seem otherworldly by itself.

And let’s talk about Bela Lugosi. He owns the screen in this. There’s a reason every human being on the planet doing a Dracula impression sounds like him. Sure, his performance is weird, his speech oddly inflected – but he shows the definition of screen presence here. If you need to see this defined for you compare Bela’s performance to that of Carlos Villar in the spanish-language version shot at the same time. In a way the Spanish version is a better film; the camerawork and staging are better, the pacing more energetic, and Lupita Tovar (still alive as of this posting!) knocks it out of the park as Mina, but it lacks the hypnotic quality of the English language version – and Carlos Villar, who is clearly a strong actor, is overshadowed by his surroundings.

Carlos Villar, or maybe Steve Carrell

As you see above, there are several versions of this classic film to enjoy. The Spanish version should definitely be seen, and there’s a version with a modern soundtrack by Phillip Glass that works really well (the original was scored with whatever classical music recordings Universal had lying around at the time – hey, sound movies were a new thing at the time, they were still figuring it out).

Day 22 – Frankenstein!

Frankenstein is one of those tales that a LOT of people have taken a whack at it but really only Hammer and Universal did it right. Sure, there have been lots of Frankenstein movies and some of them are okay, but the only ones I’ll watch a second time are the classics by horrors big two studios.

Universal’s series started out as high-goth and quite classy, with big budgets and strong scripts. By the end of the series (coincidentally, after there were no more Drs. Frankenstein, just the monster) they’d become monsterpaloozas with Dracula and the Wolfman getting in on the fun – and fun they were, though by now they were only “classy” by comparison with other horror from the era.

Hammer took a different approach; in Hammer’s classy-but-gruesome take on the Frankenstein story, it was Dr. Frankenstein himself who travelled on through all the sequels, aptly played by Peter Cushing as a human monster himself, arrogant, caddish (at best), often murderous. His creations were often pitiable. The Hammer series kept the quality level high straight through until its final installment, Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell, and any of these is a good Halloween watch.

So which one did I pick?

Ha ha, curve ball! Frankenstein’s Army is a 2013 found-footage movie about a squad of Russian soldiers behind German lines who discover an odd human-metal hybrid dead in the woods. Investigating, they stumble into an extensive underground bunker where a descendant of Dr Frankenstein has been making creatures for the Nazis. I choose this film for Halloween because it’s the nearest thing on film to one of those walk-through haunted houses where things keep popping up to scare you, and you stumble into horrific tableaux, each more horrible than the next. Very gruesome, very imaginative, and extremely fun!

 

Day 21 – Werewolves!

For what is possibly the most awesome of horror movie monsters, the werewolf doesn’t get much respect. Almost every day I see an article that asks “why aren’t there any really good werewolf movies?” and I’m all “Whaaaa?” Because there are SO many really good werewolf movies. Certainly when compared to MUMMY movies!

And they’re all good Halloween watches too, for the most part. Bad Moon, Silver Bullet, The Howling, Ginger Snaps, Late Phases, Howl, Dog Soldiers and especially An American Werewolf In London are all lots of fun. I even like Cursed (despite it’s awful digi-wolves)! Sure, there are some dogs out in the werewolf genre, of course there are. But there are so many good ones that it’s tough to pick the best Halloween werewolf movie so I’m going with

The Wolfman, because it’s so iconic and atmospheric. Lon Chaney Jr has his greatest role here, and he is very good, not to mention you get Claude Rains as his dad, Bela Lugosi as a fellow wolfster, and, most essentially, Maria Ouspenskaya in her iconic role as The Gypsy Woman. If you picture a wise gypsy woman in your head, you are picturing Ms. Ouspenskaya. In fact, most of the werewolf lore we “know” as “fact” comes from this movie, including the “ancient gypsy rhyme”, you know the one… “Even a man who is pure at heart…” What, you don’t know it? See the damn movie!

Day 20 – Mummies!

As we creep into the final stretch toward Halloween we’re going to take a look at the most Halloween-y movie featuring each of the villainous forces that powers the petrification. First up is Mummies, which, um, are not the most respected of movie monsters.

With good reason, I suppose, as some of the worst movies by the great horror studios have been mummy movies – some of Universal’s Mummuy sequels seem to have been phoned in from Egypt, and Hammer’s The Mummy’s Shroud is notorious for the clearly visible zipper on the mummy costume (also for being dumb and dull). However, there are a lot of good Mummy films despite that.

Karloff’s 1932 The Mummy is a classic; it’s a classy production and a solid spooker, one of the best of the Universal horrors. The sequels can be fun, too; the shambling Lon Chaney in bandages is the iconic look of the monster. I recommend The Mummy’s Ghost. Bubba-ho-tep is a lot of fun, of course, as are the Brendan Fraser Mummy movies. But one mummy towers above them all (because the actor playing him is so damn tall).

Hammer’s The Mummy was their third re-imagining of a classic movie monster (following their Frankenstein and their Dracula) and at this point they were on fire (they also did a Sherlock Holmes movie and the first Frankenstein sequel, all classics). The Mummy was another winner, giving us the irreplacable combination of Peter Cushing (adventuring Egyptologist) and Christopher Lee (monstrous Mummy). What makes this the best of all Mummy movies is Lee’s performance as the title monster; he moves with power and determined rage – he is one scary damn mummy. Lee brings a terrific physicality to the role, as well as a pained humanity, often acting with just his eyes. Add in the sumptuous Hammer production values, and you have a Halloween “must”. (Get it? Because he’s a mummy he’s covered in dust and must. Wow, I am getting good at this!)

Day 19 – TV Terrors!

Well, we a made-for-TV project yesterday (and a big one-finger shoutout to ABC for cutting the Schroeder and Snoopy WWI-songs bit which is both ICONIC and NECESSARY TO THE SHOW’S PACING) so let’s take a deeper dive into the tube for today’s Halloween film/episode. We have a lot of choices here. Do we pick a TV-movie? There are some great ones like Duel and Dark Night of the Scarecrow. Or maybe an episode of a regular TV series that went all-out for Halloween? Most shows have one, even the original Star Trek. There’s even a DVD collection of all the Rosanne halloween episodes (and that show owned Halloween).

On the other hand we could just pick an episode of a spooky show like Night Gallery or The Twilight Zone or X-Files(or the Munsters or Addams Family). But I think there’s one show that really epitomizes the Halloween spirit.

Kolchak The Night Stalker ran for one season in the 70’s (after the character was introduced in two very good TV-movies) and featured a wiseass newspaper reporter who kept encountering the supernatural. The show was goofy and the monsters sometimes dumb but the episodes had wit and good atmosphere (and usually featured familiar faces from vintage movies in small roles – Margaret Hamilton, Keenan Wynn, Don “Red” Barry”, etc.) and Kolchak was a great character, perfectly embodied by Darren McGavin. The episode we’re going to watch is called The Zombie and it is atypical for the series in that it’s actually pretty scary (this isn’t the show’s fault, the network forced them to tone things down).  Guest stars include Antonio “Huggy Bear” Vargas and Scatman Crothers. Kolchak goes up against an old-school voodoo priestess who is killing mobsters with a voodoo-style zombie (no brain-eating here). Great stuff! Here’s the whole thing:

Day 18 – Kids Stuff!

Halloween is a fun day for kids, and lots of vintage horror movies are appropriate for kids. However, in the 60’s there was a rise in entertainment specifically marketed toward kids, and naturally some of it had to do with horror and/or Halloween.

Now, as is usual with kids films for every Nightmare Before Christmas there are a hundred Spooky Buddies or worse. And watch out, I’m including some of your favorites in the the latter column – Hocus Pocus is bad, you’d agree if you didn’t grow up with it (dodges hexes). But let’s focus on the good.

The aforementioned Nightmare is a classic, but it feels more like a Christmas movie to me. Mad Monster Party is fun, though never quite as good as the best of the Rankin/Bass productions (and a scene where the hero whacks the heroine in the face is ugly and disturbingly out-of-place, I thought so then and I think so now). The Monster Squad is very good, sort of a horror-movie version of The Goonies (only actually good). Corpse Bride, Coraline, Harry Potter even, all fine. Disney’s Legend of Sleepy Hollow is spectacularly eerie and features one of the best Halloween standards, crooned by none other than Bing Crosby himself. And on TV, you can’t go wrong with the first two seasons of Scooby Doo Where are You or its best modern iteration Mystery Incorporated. All fine Halloween entertainment. But one short cartoon towers over them all.

Hard to believe that It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown has been a treat for kids and grown-up kids for a half a century (I’ve seen it every.single.year.) – but on the other hand, no it’s not. So much greatness in this little package – some of Charles Schulz’ best gags from the comic strips, the autumnal jazz score by Vince Guaraldi, the evocative water-color backgrounds, the use of real kids as the voices (Sally’s unpolished delivery is particularly imitatable). Some bits are quite spooky, in a very fun way, especially the intro animation of the gang being pursued by phantom cats and pumpkins. And think about how much is crammed into the short running time – strong story arcs for five major characters, bood bits for several minor characters, an entire mythos is spelled out for cripes’ sake! I am posting this and then I am going to watch it again, just like I have every year for half a century! And maybe this year the sincerity of my pumpkin patch will finally be recognized! OH NO! I said “maybe”!

Here’s the original 1966 credits with Coke and Dolly Madison shout-outs:

 

Day 17 – Horror Comedies!

Arrgh, it was tough getting started on this one, SO many choices. Because the combination of spooks and laffs is pretty much a textbook definition of Halloween (and can I take that course please?) just about every good horror comedy would be a fine choice. I am going to pick one specific choice, but first I’ll list a few favorites, any of which would serve.

First some oldies. ALong with yesterday’s Abbott and Costello romps, I wasn to single out The Old Dark House as a classic early black comedy. Also from the era, the Bob Hope films The Cat and the Canary and the Ghost Breakers have a modern feel about them, and Hope’s wiseass character isn’t that different from Joel McHale. I like Dracula comedies Love at First Bite, Dracula: Dead and Loving It, and Jim Wynorski’s underrated Transylvania Twist – none of them are great cinema, but the laughs are good. Young Frankenstein and Ghostbusters I like of course but neither are favorites (Blasphemy!). On the other hand I love Shaun of the Dead and Evil Dead II, and of course Zombieland and American Werewolf in London. And a dozen I left out. Oh! Tucker and Dale vs Evil! Things We Do in the Shadows! They keep coming to me.

But my choice for the best Halloween watch of this genre is the lesser-known Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon. It’s about a team of documentarians making a doc about a serial killer by following him around; the twist is that he’s a 80’s slasher-movie style killer, and he discusses how he prepares a kill zone so that bodies will pop up at just the right time to scare survivors and how to deal with an “Ahab” (person with a Dr. Loomis-like obsession with stopping you, played here by Robert Englund). The movie switches tone from cinema verite for the interview segments to note-perfect recreation of 80s movie lighting and color pallette for the kill sequences. It’s a really fun movie.

Day 16 – Abbott and Costello!

Tomorrow’s post will pick an all time great Halloween comedy, but the 10-foot gorilla in the room is the 7-foot Frankenstein’s monster in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. That film is such a perfect mix of atmosphere, chills, good laughs, and the Halloween spirit that it sweeps away all comers with a flick of Bela Lugosi’s cape.

So we’ll give that one a day of its own, and with it a quick appreciation of A+C’s other spooky comedies, a combination that became a sort of hallmark of theirs despite only doing a few of them over their 15-year film career (in which time they made nearly 40 movies!). The first, Hold That Ghost is widely considered a classic, though it’s ghosts are ultimately scooby-doo impostors. Even better was their second ghost movie, The Time of Their Lives, in which Lou Costello is a ghost. A bit light and whimsical to be a Halloween treat, it is neverthelss one of their best films and one of the best of the “whimsical fantasy” movies that Hollywood made a lot of during the time (Topper, I Married a Witch, The Devil and Daniel Webster – see all of these, BTW). Then, of course, they met Frankenstein and the fearsome floodgates opened.

During the later part of their career they met The Killer, Boris Karloff (in an underrated black comedy with jokes involving dead bodies and Karloff trying to induce Costello to commit suicide!), The Invisible Man (one of their funniest), Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde (Karloff again) and The Mummy. The latter two are generally dumped on as bad but I’ve rewatched them recently and disagree. There’s some great comedy in both of them and Bud and Lou continue to be in top form (their classic TV series was being shot at the same time).

They also met the Creature From the Black Lagoon on their TV show, which I’m including below!