5. The Final Girls (Todd Strauss-Schulson, 2015)
When celebrating Halloween you’ll find that it’s not always easy for everyone to agree on the right film to watch; some want something scary, others funny, gory, heartfelt, intelligent. Striking a balance is key, and a great recent example of a surefire crowd-pleaser is Todd Strauss-Schulson’s The Final Girls.
The film is reminiscent and parodic of the popular slasher cycle of the eighties, serving up and poking fun at the plot-holes and characterisation of such films as the Friday the 13th franchise and Tony Maylam’s The Burning. Max (Taissa Farmiga) is persuaded into attending an anniversary screening of the classic campy horror-movie Camp Bloodbath.
Her mother – who died in a car accident a year ago – starred in the movie in the days of her youth, and she fears that going to see it will open up old wounds yet to fully heal. After a bizarre turn of events, her and her friends become trapped inside the cult-classic, having to work together to survive the deranged and iconic antagonist.
Many were surprised with how well the film turned out. It’s funny, emotional and shows a knowledgeable understanding of the cinema it serves to deconstruct, but crucially, an appreciation for it also. The characters are rather likeable, and the slasher archetypes which they encounter when inhabiting the Camp Bloodbath narrative are comedically observed. As a horror-comedy it ticks all the right boxes, and yet it strives to achieve more and succeeds.
For Max, entering the film is a chance to spend time with her mother and build upon their relationship, and the realisation that this cannot end well in any circumstance is bittersweet. Schulson executes this brilliantly, delivering a superbly shot and stylised climactic scene which stays true to the slasher sub-genre but also addresses themes of loss, grief and transition with the severity they deserve.
The Final Girls has a little something for everyone, culminating in a thrilling, poignant and smartly funny genre parody dealing with a surprisingly mature subject matter with wild imagination.
4. Night of the Demon (Jacques Tourneur, 1957)
Yes, Jacques Tourneur’s Night of the Demon (also known as Curse of the Demon) is definitely a horror-classic. However, the reason that it features on this list is that it deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as John Carpenter’s Halloween, Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Wes Craven’s Scream ; in other words, it deserves to be a Halloween-season staple, and with its upcoming deluxe re-release from Indicator Series, it may very well be.
Adapted from the 1911 M. R. James story “Casting the Runes”, the film follows American professor and psychologist John Holden (Dana Andrews) as he is tasked to travel to London and investigate the suspect behaviour of a satanic cult. Tourneur’s film achieves numerous moments that genuinely possess the abiding ability to terrorise an audience. The eerie locations which engulf the characters are host to vast darkness, demons may stalk their every move which inhabit the abyss of the frame.
The narrative is exciting and lends the film a relentless pace, never allowing the viewer’s mind to stray, instead urging it to remain on the mystery which gradually unravels over the film’s duration. The performances are all great, although it is fair to conclude that Niall MacGinnis’ Dr. Karswell steals every scene he is in, providing the film with an essential and charismatic villain with a sinister control over the events which transpire.
Perhaps most surprising to learn is that Tourneur didn’t actually want the demon to have so much screen time. He wished for it to be shown in only four frames in the final scene, wishing for the audience to question whether they had even seen a creature or not, only to achieve certainty upon rewatch. He claimed that the English producers cheapened the film once he had returned to America, and yet, the demon’s impressive design remains frightening to this day.
The director’s statements confirm that his initial expectations for the film were that it needed to be rewatched, and despite it not turning out entirely the way he wished, it is arguably rewatchable all the same. Night of the Demon is one of the greatest horror films ever made, and is a perfect choice to enjoy this Halloween.
3. Altered (Eduardo Sanchez, 2006)
From one of the key minds behind modern-classic The Blair Witch Project, 2006’s Altered is an entirely different beast. It was his first solo-effort after he stunned the world in 1999, and the reason for it’s fairly lacklustre reception may have been that fans were expecting something completely different. His debut proved that often it’s what remains off-screen which is terrifying, so it is clear from the very start that his intentions with this sci-fi horror tale were a drastic departure from audience expectations.
Four men frequently return to the location of their suffering: the woods from which they were taken away by aliens and their life-long friend murdered. After vowing revenge long ago, the group visit the same spot from which they were abducted in hopes of avenging their loss.
Much time has passed, and their regular presence there has simply become a ritualistic excuse to stay connected and have a few beers – until one night. Successfully capturing an alien life-form, they chain it down inside a remote-cabin to begin torturing it, believing that they may finally achieve closure. Sadly for them, reinforcements are incoming.
The film aimed to pay homage to Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead trilogy and Troma Entertainment works, beginning life as a horror-comedy entitled “Probed”. While there are elements of humour, the end product certainly failed to adhere to the film’s origins – fortunately, the direction it followed turned out favourably.
Eduardo Sanchez’s film is a stimulating exercise in which men are forced to reassess themselves and their friendships in the immediate wake of a moral dilemma they hadn’t anticipated. It deals with traditional themes of revenge in a narrative that deviates from what we would expect from the familiar alien movie this could easily have resembled.
Altered makes for exciting viewing, and while its last act is a little too explosive, it’s a worthwhile addition to your October line-up.
2. The Innocents (Jack Clayton, 1961)
At the time, Francois Truffaut regarded this as the greatest British film since Alfred Hitchcock had left for America – no short praise, and wholeheartedly earned. There is a subtle genius to Jack Clayton’s 1961 gothic-horror film; the supernatural entities which manifest themselves on the screen only appear when established within Miss Giddens’ (Deborah Kerr) eye-line. They never appear to the audience without her existing knowledge of their presence, never before she looks off-screen to indicate her discovery. In this sense, The Innocents is as much a psychological-drama as it is a supernatural one.
The film is based on American novelist Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, and tells the tale of a governess who travels out to a grand country estate to care for the niece and nephew of a wealthy bachelor, who were orphaned and left in his care many years ago.
Due to Giddens’ strict and religious upbringing, she is shocked by the behaviour of the children, and believes that they are somehow being manipulated by the ghostly apparitions of the former governess and valet – Miss Jessel and Peter Quint.
This may be one of the most terrifying and unsettling films ever made. The sense of dread it is able to sustain for every single scene is sincerely honourable, and some of the imagery featured is amongst the most eerie and striking in all of cinema; totally unshakeable is the image of Jessel staring out from across the water.
However, the audience is constantly questioning the legitimacy of what they’re seeing – or rather – what Miss Giddens alone is witnessing. Her upbringing and lack of experience in the occupation is already established, and we begin to debate whether the governess is clinging to wild excuses in justification for the children behaving in a way she has never encountered before; spontaneous and intimidating.
Or, perhaps it’s true that the apparitions she believes to be roaming the grounds are in fact possessing the children and influencing the treatment of their new guardian. The debate never ends, and as the film departs with a haunting final shot, Giddens’ and our own sanity is doomed to eternal doubt.
1. Braindead (Peter Jackson, 1992)
Peter Jackson’s Braindead (aka Dead Alive) is without a doubt the most exhilaratingly entertaining and bonkers horror-comedy ever made. A notorious gore film estimated to be the bloodiest ever made in terms of how much film blood was used during production; in fact, the final scene alone used a whopping three-hundred litres of fake blood.
It’s a staggeringly excessive production, and in Sweden, complimentary vomit-bags were given with the rental, a rather fitting indication of just how exaggerated every element of the New Zealand filmmaker’s third effort truly was.
The man behind the universally adored The Lord of the Rings trilogy had his roots planted deeply within the horror genre. He marked his feature-film debut in 1987 with the hilarious low-budget alien-invasion caper Bad Taste, and continued to shock audiences two years later with the envelope-burning Meet the Feebles, an exploitation film with puppets. Then in 1992 he made Braindead, by far the crowning achievement of his humble genre beginnings.
The film infuses slapstick and horror, telling the story of mild-mannered pushover Lionel, who is prevented from pursuing a relationship with the lovely Paquita by his controlling mother. However, during a day-out at the zoo she is bitten and infected by a feverish rat-monkey shipped all the way from Skull Island. In turn, she is transformed into a ravenous zombie and begins infecting others, transforming Lionel’s life into a hilariously frenzied nightmare.
It’s a remarkable film, and remains more fun today than perhaps anything else the horror-comedy genre has since offered. The physical comedy, the gore, and the sheer speed of which this absurd vision propels forward is simply marvellous. To watch this without a smile plastered on your face for its entirety is something of an impossibility, and since its initial release its cult following is yet to find something quite so remarkably daft and creative.
Braindead is a singular piece of work, a favourite of many, and it’s arguably the perfect film to enjoy this Halloween. No matter the crowd you are entertaining, they’ll have a memorable experience with this absolute gem.