Thursday, October 29, 2009

The best films that go bump in the night!

I'll always have a soft spot for Ray Bradbury.

Last Saturday, at the Aero in Santa Monica, I was fortunate enough to catch a screening of one of my favorite scary movies of all time--Something Wicked This Way Comes. What made the night truly special was that Bradbury introduced the screening himself. As he was helped in a few minutes before the film began (he's 88 now, and is wheelchair bound), the crowd immediately began applauding. His intro was pure bliss--he told the story of how, originally, he wrote the screenplay for his friend Gene Kelly, who tried to secure financing but failed. Disney soon picked it up, and, without telling Bradbury, hired someone to retool the script. The film tested miserably, and they came back to him to fix it. He rewrote, refilmed, and recut it, serving as the second director of the picture (though the original guy, Jack Clayton received sole credit). He's incredibly proud of the film, and rightly so. He then proceeded to watch the entire film with us, perched next to the front row, and when the movie ended, received a much deserved, long standing ovation. "God bless you all" he said, and with that, a barrage of pictures and greetings began.

After seeing the film, it got me thinking about all of my favorite scary movies--the kind that rely more on creativity, story and psychological scare tactics then the shock and over-the-top gore that seem to bleed through the multiplexes as of late (thankfully, I think we might have seen the end of the "torture porn" genre). So here is a list of some of the films that work for--that I like to pop in the DVD player in October, or when I want to be on the edge of my seat.
It seems like a natural to start with the film I saw not a week ago...

Let's face it--carney folk are creepy. Just witness the parade in the third act of Bradbury's classic, as the demented Mr. Dark (Jonathan Pryce, in a career performance) slowly turns from the city librarian (Jason Robards) and wickedly moves his barrage of oddities through town. Plus, it's got a scary little redhead kid that would give Chucky a run for his money. It's got some of your basic scares (lots and lots of tarantulas!), but it's the mood of the piece and the imagination behind it that make it enthralling.

THE THING (1982)
John Carpenter's masterful paranoia monster movie is one of the few cases where the remake is better than the original (no offense to Howard Hawks' 1951 version, a very good movie in it's own right). Kurt Russell stars as MacReady, one of a band of researchers at an Arctic outpost. As an alien virus spreads through them, former friends are pitted against one another as they try to find out who is still human, and who...well, who doesn't have much more screen time. The excellent cast also features David Clennan, Donald Moffat, TK Carter, Richard Masur, and Wilford Brimley, who does crazy oh-so-right here. Adding to the barren landscape is Ennio Morricone's thumping electronic score, which hits all the right eerie notes.

Based on John Wyndham's classic sci-fi novel "The Midwich Cuckoos," this moody film adaptation is beautifully directed and acted. After an unexplained town-wide sudden sleep, all of the women of child-bearing age are suddenly pregnant. They all give birth to blond-haired, fast growing children with penetrating eyes and a shared conscious--and the ability to force people to do whatever they want...and to punish them as well. It's up to George Sanders to find a way to stop them, before it's too late. A super-smart, well-drawn out piece of sci-fi dread, it's sadly overlooked by many. Give it (and it's excellent sequel, Children of the Damned) a shot.

Ah, William Castle's supremely silly and incredibly funny flick is filmed in--wait for it--SCREAMORAMA! Vincent Price plays a scientist who discovers that we all have a creature that lives inside us, attached to our backbones that feeds off our fear. When we scream, it is rendered harmless. But if we can't...look out! Those in the original auditoriums got to experience Percepto--which literally sent a shock through your seat.

TREMORS (1990)
A funny, scary homage to the creature features of the '50s, it stars Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward as two handymen who can't wait to get out of their small town--particularly on the day the "graboids" come to town. These giant, carnivorous, blind worms live underground and find their human prey through vibrations in the ground. Featuring Family Ties pop Michael Gross and country superstar Reba McEntire as the best kind of gun-totin' rednecks, the film manages to keep you on the edge of your seat, with your tongue firmly in cheek.

Director Robert Wise has an amazingly deep resume--The Sound of Music, Star Trek, West Side Story, and this spooky film based on Shirley Jackson's novel. Take a journey into Hill House with a group of young folks who intend to debunk the rumors of a haunting--only to find themselves oh-so-not alone. A fine cast guide us through lots of jump moments in a classic of the genre. Skip the crap remake.

How could I possibly leave Stanley Kubrick's bar-setting trippy horror movie off of my list? Moody, slow-starting but incredibly terrifying, all that needs to be said is: creepy twin girls and that tricycle sound. All blog and no play makes Cole a dull boy...

Tim Burton's imaginative stop-motion animated feature has become a holiday classic, especially around Disneyland, where the park transforms in the fall to reflect it. Jack Skellington, the mischievous brains behind Halloween, has grown tired of the same old thing (as expressed through song, thanks to Danny Elfman), and, after stumbling upon Christmastown, wants it for his own. A great voice cast (Chris Sarandon, Paul Reubens, Catherine O'Hara, William Hickey) bring these sharply drawn characters to life--plus, I love quoting the wolfman ("364!!!!!!")

The film that defiantly answered the question that was on everyone's mind--Does Wolfman have nards? (The answer--OH YEAH). Scripted by Shane Black (yes, that Shane Black, of Lethal Weapon and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang fame), the film follows a group of pre-teens who find themselves up against a veritable army of classic horror staples like Dracula, The Creature, The Mummy, and the Wolfman. A fat kid with a shotgun ("MY NAME IS HORACE!"), a young Andre Gower, and an ultra-cool, shades tippin' teen named Rudy make up the core of the group in this fun, goofy genre skewer.

Man, The Monster Squad AND The Lost Boys in the same year? We were spoiled. Joel Schumacher's horror comedy is really the first teen vampire film (and no, they don't sparkle when in the sunlight), and features lots of great characters and a top-notch young cast. When Lucy (Dianne Wiest) moves her family to Santa Carla (aka Santa Cruz), her sons Michael (Jason Patric) and Sam (Corey "Mouth Agape" Haim) have a hard time fitting in. Michael quickly becomes infatuated with the mysterious Star (Jami Gertz) and falls in with her weird gang, led by David (Kiefer Sutherland) who may or may not be vampires. When Michael finds himself craving blood and floating outside his brother's window, it's time to bring in help--Sam enlists the Frog Brothers (Jamison Newlander and Corey Feldman), self-professed comic book and vamp experts, to battle David's crew. Lots of humor and violence in equal doses, and a super 80's soundtrack.
MAGIC (1978)
One of the downright creepiest movies ever made, with an amazing pedigree of talent behind it. Directed by Richard Attenborough from a script by William Goldman, it follows Magician's assistant Corky (Anthony Hopkins, chillingly good) who finds success with a ventriloquism act. But when his dummy Fats starts controlling his life, terrible things start to happen. Let's face it--ventriloquist dummies are frightening by nature (remember the one in that 80s sci-fi film Making Contact? Creeptastic!), and this psychological horror movie hits all the right disturbing notes.

Henry James' novel The Turn of the Screw has been filmed several times, but none better than this version starring Deborah Kerr. (Footnote: I starred in an oh-so-horrible indie version of the book made in 2000--I played Miles, who is supposed to be like 10 in the book, but they made him high school aged--and it starred Elaine Corral Kendall, former anchor of the FOX affiliate in San Francisco). Shot in stark black and white, this tale of murderous children and their spooked nanny is top-notch.

SECONDS (1966)
One of my cinematic gems from early blog posts, this incredibly bizarre and chilling commentary on second chances is just as shocking as it was when it was released. Directed by John Frankenheimer, it features Rock Hudson's best and most complex performance ever as the new body for depressed Arthur Hamilton, who pays for a second chance at life. But with that trade comes a terrible, terrible consequence. Breathtaking cinematography from James Wong Howe, who utilized extreme close-ups and fish-eye lenses to startling effect.

Steven Spielberg produced Tobe Hopper's incredibly terrifying look at a family whose home is taken over by spirits (never buy a house built on an Indian burial ground!). Featuring a freaky clown (are there any other kinds?) and little Heather O'Rourke, this is one of the scariest PG movies ever made. Unsettling, to say the least.

Speaking of clowns, this silly and disgusting horror comedy follows an alien invasion of the goofiest kind--these Klowns kill with pies and other circus-y methods. It's the best kind of '80s cheese--and has a theme song by The Dickies.

Not a horror movie per se, but an intensely terrifying thriller with some of the scariest jump moments ever captured on film. Based on the play by Frederick Knott, Audrey Hepburn plays a blind woman terrified by thugs who believe she has a heroin-stuffed doll in her possession that they'll stop at nothing to get. Alan Arkin is especially frightening as psychopath Rote, and the film's breathtaking climax will have you grasping the arm rest.

JAWS (1975)
We're gonna need a bigger boat! One of the most successful creature features of all time, it relies heavily on cool film tricks since the mechanical shark, Bruce, sunk more often than it worked. This fucked up many-a-kid my age, and definitely didn't do beaches any favors. The shark only chews slightly less scenery than Robert Shaw does.

More psychological than gruesome (the remake went the opposite direction), C. Thomas Howell stars as a young man who picks up a hitchhiker (Rutger Hauer, Creepy with a capital C) named John Ryder, who terrorizes Howell and his girlfriend Nash (Jennifer Jason Leigh). It becomes more and more nightmarish as it goes along.

An incredibly silly follow-up to the surprise smash hit of the '80s, this time the mischeivous critters take over New York and run rampant over a giant business building, including a television studio. Cameos from Hulk Hogan, Dick Butkus, Henry Gibson, Bubba Smith highlight this enjoyably slight film--and don't miss Tony Randall as the voice of a hyper-evolved Gremlin.

Kevin McCarthy's original could have easily been on the list too, but I'm partial to Philip Kaufman's 78 version, featuring Donald Sutherland, Leonard Nimoy, Jeff Goldblum and Brooke Adams. The mood is dreadfully eerie, and the ending is the satisfyingly bleak.

This Disney production scarred the bejeezus out of me as a kid! A family moves to a secluded English house and strange, paranormal occurances start happening, including visions of a teenage girl who disappeared long ago. Bette Davis headlines this dark, "family" thriller.

A misunderstood but highly enjoyable horror comedy hybrid from Peter Jackson, who takes a break from low-budget gore like Bad Taste to helm this studio picture. Michael J. Fox plays Frank Bannister, who, after a terrible accident that kills his wife, gains psychic abilities that let him communicate with ghosts. He works as a freelance exorcist, with most people believing him to be a conman. When a reaper-esque ghost starts killing people, he finds himself trying to stop the undead killer. I find this one more and more intriguing with every viewing.

Any movie where a kid in a blue hoody beats the crap out of Kiefer Sutherland is good in my book! Joel Schumacher's stylish mind-trip follows a band of medical students, who induce death to get a glimpse of the afterlife, only to pull themselves back at the last minute. Only they aren't coming back alone. An excellent cast and dramatic cinematography are highlights.

One of the most terrifying alien abduction movies ever made--period. There are a handful of sequences in this film that are nightmare inducing--including one where Travis (D.B. Sweeney) is dragged down an alien corridor and experimented upon. The pic also stars James Garner, Robert Patrick, Henry Thomas, Craig Sheffer and Peter Berg.

Sam Raimi's bravura hyperkinetic splatterfest is an exhiliratingly fun film experience. It doesn't get any cooler than Bruce Campbell, who plays demon-battling Ash, who has a bad run in with the Necronomicon, the book of the dead. The sequel, Army of Darkness, is also a lot of fun. "I'll swallow your soul!" "Swallow this!"

Aaaaaaah! Snake man! That guy lost me SO much sleep as a kid. Dennis Quaid stars in this look at psychics who can enter people's of which is killing people. Did I mention a snake man? On a train? *shiver*

I like the sequel just as much, but this original tale of nasty little killer furballs from space and the small town they terrorize is B-movie magic. A young Scott Grimes stars as Brad Brown, who fights with his family (including mom Dee Wallace Stone and sister's boyfriend Billy Zane) against the creatures, with the help of town drunk Charlie (Don Opper), two shapeshifting bounty hunters (including Broadway vet Terrence Mann), and sherrif Harv (M. Emmett Walsh). A nice mixture of humor and sci-fi thrills, it was directed by Stephen "Mighty Ducks" Herek.

Tim Burton's triumphant ghost comedy gave Michael Keaton his best role to date as the hyper title trickster, who is unleashed by the recently dead Maitlands (Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin) to help spook the new living owners out of their dreamhouse. The rest of the cast is great, too, including Winona Ryder, Catherine O'Hara, Jeffrey Jones, Glenn Shadix and Robert Goulet. The film holds up marvelously and is just as fun now as the day it came out.

Little Lukas Haas plays Frankie, a troubled kid who gets locked in a school closet and sees the ghost of a young girl who was murdered years ago. He soon finds himself stalked by her killer, who is closer than he thinks. Some truly chilling moments here in this superior supernatural thriller.

Stephen King's novel is brought to shimmering life in this exciting story of Castle Rock, Maine, where a new resident is stirring up trouble in the peaceful hamlet. That resident--the devil himself, as played with wicked malice by the great Max Von Sydow. Ed Harris plays the local sherrif, who does his best to take on Beelzebub and protect his love (Bonnie Bedelia). Amanda Plummer is at her kookiest here as Nettie, and the late great JT Walsh at his slimiest. It all comes to a chaotic boil as the town nearly burns. It received mixed reviews when it opened, but I really think it works.

Directorial debut of accomplished screenwriter David Koepp is a genuinely scary ghost tale with an undead gal that likes to pop up at the worst times and a kid who can talk to ghosts. This one had me from the first frame all the way to the end.

13 GHOSTS (1960)
Nope, not the so-so remake, but the so-so original! Another wacky William Castle flick, in ILLUSION-O! You need a ghost-viewer to see, well, the ghosts in this gimmicky fun film. Be sure to put on your special glasses to fully enjoy this campy hoot.

Whatever you watch, have a great HALLOWEEN!

**Oh, and here's Scott Baio, as a costume! Woo-hoo!**


  1. The scariest film ever is To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything! Julie Newmar. Wesley Snipes and Patrick Swayze in drag? Fright-en-ing!!!

    Oh, and Forrest Gump.

  2. I like how you included Wait Until Dark. For not-a-horror movie, it's VERY scary!

  3. Nice picks! Kaufman's Body Snatchers? ... (I'm pointing 2 fingers at my eyes now, and then turning them toward where your eyes might be, and then back and forth again. Actually now I'm thinking that might be a threat... or some military signal. I'm out of touch with contemporary gestures of agreement. There's some motion that means we're seeing eye to eye, just pretend I'm doing that.)