Thursday, October 28, 2010

Five Classics for a Spooky Halloween

They don’t make them like they used to.

Especially horror movies. Occasionally, I like to be frightened, but sometimes I could do without the intestinal entrails, pools of blood, and the brain-eating. I mean, sometimes I like a good brain-eating movie, but mostly, I want to watch a WELL-MADE film. And those are hard to come by.

So, this Halloween, I offer up alternatives for Halloween film fare. The following five movies are:

1) In atmospheric, moody black and white

2) Smart

3) Unsettling

Only one could be considered “violent,” mostly these are psychological, spine-tingling chillers, and they are a lot of fun. Have at 'em.

Rebecca (1940) Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, starring Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine

Rebecca is based on the novel of the same name by Daphne du Maurier.

Joan Fontaine plays a young, shy, and socially awkward is wooed by the wealthy Maxim de Winter, a dashing, wealthy widower played by Laurence Olivier. Maxim takes his new wife (whose first name is never given) home to his magnificent estate in the English countryside. The house is at the end of an interminably long driveway, and when the mansion comes into view, the new bride is astonished: Manderley, with its peaks and pinnacles and large staff is overwhelming. Unfortunately for the new Mrs. de Winter, memories of the reign of Rebecca de Winter, the former mistress of Manderley, are still prevalent throughout the house.

Mrs. Danvers, who is arguably one of the greatest cinematic villains of all time, despises the new Mrs. de Winter, and taunts her mercilessly. She constantly reminds her that Rebecca was everything the young bride is not: beautiful, elegant, sophisticated, and confident. Manderley, with its endless corridors and locked rooms, is seemingly haunted by Rebecca. Rebecca is a ghost story that doesn’t actually have a ghost, yet Hitchcock still manages to keep Rebecca very much alive within Manderley’s gothic walls.

Rebecca is one of my top five favorite Hitchcock films. I’m ashamed to say I’ve never read the book…

The Night of the Hunter (1955) Directed by Charles Laughton, starring Robert Mitchum, Shelly Winters

Robert Mitchum plays Harry Powell, a religious zealot and murderer who has major sexual repression issues. (Freud would’ve had a field day with this guy.)

The Southern gothic opens in the midst of the Great Depression: two children are happily playing in front of their home. Their father, Ben Harper, suddenly rushes toward them. He is being pursued by the authorities. It is revealed that he has stolen a large sum of money and, moments before he is arrested, he gives the money to his son, telling him to hide it and to swear never to reveal its location to anyone.

Harper ends up sharing a prison cell with Harry Powell, who soon finds out about the hidden money. Powell tries to coax the whereabouts of the stash from his cellmate, but Harper takes that information with him to the grave. After Powell is released, he pursues and marries the widow of Ben Harper, and relentlessly searches for the money. His nine year old stepson, John, refuses to tell, making his new stepfather deranged with anger.

There are a million disturbing yet beautiful details in this film. The mother whose hair floats peaceably beneath the river waters; Harry Powell’s tattooed fingers: L-O-V-E on his right four fingers and H-A-T-E on his left four fingers; Powell’s looming shadow as he stands at the top of the cellar stairs; the close up of the dewy spider web as the children tranquilly drift down the same peaceful river; the money,  hidden within a child’s doll.

This film is ultimately a child’s nightmare. The children narrowly escape from their murderous stepfather and run to safety, only to find that the man they hoped would protect them is drunk out of his mind and unable to help. Frantically, they climb aboard a skiff and, by a hair’s breath, escape again. Their stepfather reaches for him and they begin their journey down the river, and when he misses, he lets out the most horrific, animalistic scream. As they drift down the river, Powell immediately begins to stalk them on horseback, all the while singing the classic hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.” No matter how far the children go, they never seem to make any progress. As they seek refuge in a barn, John spots Powell across landscape on his horse. John mutters “Don’t he never sleep?”

Evil never sleeps, making this one of the most ingenious horror films of all time.

Village of the Damned (1960) Directed by Wolf Rilla, starring George Sanders, Barbara Shelley

The first “horror” film I ever watched- though it probably best fits under the “sci-fi” category. A strange mist envelopes the small town of Midwich, England. Months later, nearly every woman of child-bearing age gives birth to blond-haired, blue eyes babies who grow at twice the rate of normal human children. The children are an alien race of beings who can read minds and control people’s actions with their hypnotic stares.

The ringleader of the group is David, the “son” of the local scientist and the film’s protagonist, Gordon Zellaby.

A few think the film is outdated, but most agree that in spite of its flaws, it remains a frightening film.  (The story is a cautionary tale.  It is based on John Wyndham's reactionary cold war novel, Midwich Cuckoos.)

In the British version of the film, the children did NOT have creepy, glowing eyeballs. I don’t know why the Americans added this. The shots of the children staring had to be stilled in order to get this “special effect.” (Hard to have insight into the children’s minds when they are frozen in time…)

Also- the voice of David was dubbed with a girlish voice, which is distracting and unnecessary.

In spite of these flaws, this movie still scared and continues to scare me. So much of the horror is left to the imagination, in stark contrast to the bloody gore of today’s horror flicks.

The Innocents (1961) Directed by Jack Clayton, starring Deborah Kerr, Peter Wyngarde

So, I just watched this by myself and now I can’t sleep anymore. This is a terrifying film.  Based on Henry James The Turn of the Screw, Deborah Kerr plays a sheltered woman sent to the English countryside (AGAIN with the English countryside!) to be a governess to two orphaned children left in the care of their selfish uncle. The country estate appears even bigger than Manderley, and is especially creepy. Everywhere you turn, there are staring statues, concrete cherub faces, inexplicable groans, and dark, haunted rooms. The children, though adorable, are “off.” Miles and Flora whisper in secrets, speak like adults, and giggle at inopportune times. 

The new governess, Miss Giddons, replaces the children’s last governess, Miss Jessel, who the children (especially the little girl, Flora) were dedicated to. Miss Giddons learns Miss Jessel suffered an untimely death...

Over time, the story of Miss Jessel’s demise is told through the housekeeper, the sweet Mrs. Grose. Miss Jessel had been entangled with the cruel caretaker, the charismatic Peter Quint, who also died the year before. Miss Jessel came to the house an innocent, but was corrupted by the abusive Quint. Their affair was carried on in rooms all over the house, and Mrs. Grose admits that the children were witness to their sordid and sick behavior. Miss Giddons begins to suspect that the ghosts of Jessel and Quint are still alive in the house, and that they are using the children to communicate.

(Miles is played by the same actor who played David in Village of the Damned. He was one spooky kid.)

This is a psychological chiller, an intellectual wonder, and a nerve-racking film. My nerves were racked. Ghosts hanging around in broad daylight have never been so frightening.

The Haunting (1963) Directed by Robert Wise, starring Julie Harris, Claire Bloom

An old-fashioned haunted house movie. This story, based on the tale by Shirley Jackson, has been made into countless film adaptations. This one is the best. (It is also Martin’s Scorcese’s pick for scariest film of all time.)

A group of people who have had dalliances with the paranormal at some point in their lives convene at a “haunted house” to spend the night. For scientific purposes, of course. Always a good idea. The viewer knows the house is haunted going into the film. Why, then, is it still so terrifying? The entire film is made up of bumps and shudders and noises- we don’t see one apparition.

Julie Harris plays Eleanor, a socially awkward young woman whose psychological demise is at the forefront of the story.

This film convinces me that what you don’t see is ultimately more horrifying than what you do see.

It’s also on TCM Halloween night at 9:30.

Your favorite Halloween film fare? (It doesn’t have to follow my above criteria!)


hokgardner said...

I've never seen the film Rebecca, but the book is spectacular. You should definitely read it. And Jamaica Inn, also by Daphne Du Maurier. Very spooky, too.

Toaster said...

Yes, you should definitely read Rebecca! You would love it! I'd like to see the film, though.

Children of the Damned is spooky...last weekend, Bob & I saw a sort-of sequel (more like a movie that took advantage of the success of the original) called These Are the Damned--very weird. But it starred MacDonald Carey, who did the "Like sands through the hourglass..." voice for Days of Our Lives. :)

Anonymous said...

Rebecca is an awesome book and movie. One of the first movies I remembering seeing that scared me.

I was hoping to see more Hitchcock on your list :)

~ Corrie

Holly said...

I would classify most Hitchcock as suspense, and not "horror." (With the exception of Psycho and the one where the guy murders people with bowties. Frenzy? Frenzy.) But I think Rebecca is a superb ghost story. :)

And The Birds wasn't in black and white..

Elizabeth said...

I wouldn't like the terrorists to win ... so here is my comment.
We don't do Halloween here but my spookiest move is Cape Fear. I didn't sleep with the lights off for months after watching that movie. Your description of Night of the Hunter is going to give me nightmares. I hate scary movies that involve kids.
Also I could of sworn you had a chandelier!

Holly said...

Cape Fear's a good one! Chandelier- I change things around a lot. :)