Vernor’s Halloween Spook-a-thon: Favorite movie chillers

Vernorsticket note: Ten years ago I composed this little piece in honor of Halloween. I am offering it again, with one little change, adding a new movie to this listing.

Vernor’s Halloween Spook-a-thon

Having advanced well beyond the age of legitimate trick-or-treating, I turn to alternative ways to celebrate Halloween. I do not care much for donning costumes, and the most recent Halloween parties I have attended have been mega-blowouts like apartment complex hullabaloos featuring massively plastered people I barely know, if at all.
But the last few years I have carried on a tradition that has gradually lengthened in time as I expand it. Simply, I watch horror films. Because my collection has grown, I now must start viewing them, since I average three per week, in early September so I can wrap up the spook-a-thon by Oct. 31.
Here are some of my favorite chillers of all time.

“Frankenstein.” The original 1931 version. This is the classic. Although not as gory as other Frankenstein ventures, it is still the best. Other Frankenstein movies have been more faithful to Mary Shelley’s novel, but this one set the pace and gave us the most recognized, square-headed monster. Colin Clive and Mae Clarke ham it up as the Dr. Henry Frankenstein and his beloved Elizabeth. And Boris Karloff etched his name forever into the annals of horror moviedom with his portrayal of a creature constructed from the parts of dead people, and who is basically misunderstood. Dwight Frye, also a horror movie regular, was the good doctor’s hunchbacked, bumbling assistant, Fritz.
Yes, this movie wouldn’t scare anybody over age four, but for us aging boomers, it brings back memories of watching these old Universal monster movies on Saturday afternoon, and collecting the monster action figures and models.

“Dracula.” Also the original. Decades later, Bela Lugosi still reigns as the ultimate Count Dracula. His lusty, blood-thirsty leer still can send chills up the spine, and he delivered one of the great movie lines: “I never drink … wine.” Dwight Frye has his shining moment as the doomed Renfeld, allowing him a chance to unleash his crazed laugh. Edward Van Sloan, who appeared as a mentor to Dr. Frankenstein in “Frankenstein,” again plays a doctor here, Van Helsing, who correctly believes the classy count is really just a blood-sucking maniac. The eerie mood of this movie has rarely been matched in later vampire flicks.

“Psycho.” This was the original slasher film. It made taking a shower a dangerous experience and propelled Norman Bates and The Bates Motel into worldwide prominence. Not only that, it was directed by the master of suspense thrillers, Alfred Hitchcock.
This movie broke ground in several ways when it hit the theaters in 1960. It killed off a major star — Janet Leigh as Marion Crane — early in the movie. It was one of the first films that forced movie theater owners to agree not to let anyone into the theater after the film had started. It also paved the way with rapid-cut editing in the shower scene to imply a brutal stabbing without ever showing the knife actually penetrate flesh.
The late Anthony Perkins, like Lugosi and Karloff, would go to his grave known primarily for his portrayal in this film despite other movies. He WAS Norman Bates.

“Halloween.” While “Psycho” is the patriarch of slasher movies, “Halloween” stands as the film that ushered in the era of graphically violent horror films. Sure, Hammer Productions in England had been cranking out bloody vampire/monster flicks featuring Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing for years, but these were not in the mainstream USA. “Halloween” became one of the first buckets-of-blood films to zoom to box-office heights.
A nice touch was Jamie Lee Curtis, daughter of the first slice-n-dice victim Janet Leigh, as the star of “Halloween.” Curtis became the first “virginal” survivor in a spate of cut-’em-ups in which teenagers are dispatched by indestructible madmen. As the good girl, dedicated student and baby sitter Laurie Strode, Curtis finds herself in a deadly match-up with Michael Meyers, a young man who 15 years earlier chopped up his big sister Judith after she romped in bed with a boyfriend. Now escaped from the asylum, and pursued by Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasence), Meyers begins building a body count that grows to enormous proportions as this movie series spins out of control with several ludicrous sequels.
Stick with this one and forget “Halloweens” 2 through whatever. Those films destroyed what was one of the creepiest endings — after supposedly fatally shooting Meyers — who then falls from a second-story balcony — Dr. Loomis peers down from the second floor and sees the body has disappeared. Subsequent “Halloween” stab extravaganzas have spoiled that ending.

“The Bride of Frankenstein.” This was a rarity — a sequel that worked. James Whale, who directed the original “Frankenstein,” helmed this film, which provided a funny performance by Ernest Thesiger as Dr. Pretorius.
Picking up where “Frankenstein” left off, the seriously injured Dr. Frankenstein (Clive reprising his role), who was tossed from the windmill by the monster, is carted back home while the windmill is torched. Naturally, the monster survives (as he does in later films).
Dr. Frankenstein wants to put the ugly business of monster-making behind him and marry Elizabeth (who is played by 17-year-old Valerie Hobson here). But Dr. Pretorius has other ideas. In what were pretty impressive special effects for 1935, Pretorius shows Frankenstein miniature people he has created, including a tiny king so enamored of a queen residing in a neighboring jar, he keeps trying to escape and climb into her diminutive domain.
When Frankenstein hesitates to join in on the Pretorius project of creating a woman (“That should be really interesting,” Pretorius zestfully predicts), the monster kidnaps Elizabeth, thus forcing the tormented doctor to help build a “friend” for the monster.
Karloff offers some touching scenes as the monster, who now has a rudimentary vocabulary. This movie contains the scene so hilariously lampooned in Mel Brooks’ “Young Frankenstein” wherein the monster is befriended by the violin-playing blind man living alone in the forest. In this scene we learn the monster is calmed by music. He’s lonely for companionship and soon develops a taste for wine.
Yes, Dwight Frye is here too, as a scummy guy contracted by Pretorius to rustle up body parts. In one funny scene, a guilt-ridden Frankenstein rationalizes the scavenging of anatomy bits and pieces by saying, “There are always accidents.”
“Always,” Pretorius chimes in with a smirk.

“The Lost Boys.” A variation on the vampire theme, with a band of teenage blood-suckers who take up residence in Northern California caves close to the fictional town of Santa Carla. Kiefer Sutherland is David, the leader the band of young vampires, who are seemingly just a group of bikers. Jason Patric and Corey Haim are teenage sons of a recently divorced mom, Lucy (Dianne Wiest). They move to Santa Carla to live with her father (Barnard Hughes, who steals the movie as the crusty grandfather).
Michael (Patric) is drawn to the vampires via his attraction to Star (Jami Gertz) and before long he’s sleeping by day, very sensitive to light and floating around. Meanwhile, the kid brother Sam (Haim) hooks up with a couple of other kids (Corey Feldman is one of them) who run a comic book shop but also know the deep dark secret of the town — vampires lurk.
Weird, funny and gory, this movie also has a wonderful soundtrack featuring Echo and the Bunnymen’s rendition of The Doors’ “People Are Strange” and Gerard McMann’s haunting “Cry Little Sister.”
This movie also has one of the great final lines, as Hughes, amid the gore and chaos of his once peaceful home, calmly fetches a soft drink from the refrigerator, takes a long swig and says, “One thing about living in Santa Carla I never could stomach. All the damn vampires.”

“The Monster Club.” Not to be confused with “The Monster Squad,” this is a buried treasure that I finally found on DVD. Originally I recorded it from an “Elvira, Mistress of the Dark” program in the mid-’80s. Elvira (Cassandra Peterson) was the last of the ghoulish hosts-hostesses who introduced scary movies then made cutting remarks about the usually cheesy films as a lead-in to commercial breaks. These shows pre-dated “Mystery Science Theater.”
Occasionally, Elvira would feature a halfway decent movie, and “The Monster Club” was one of them. Based on the novel by horror writer R. Chetwynd-Hayes, this little flick features a couple of horror hall-of-famers, John Carradine and Vincent Price. Carradine plays Chetwynd-Hayes, who one night encounters a famished vampire, Eramus (Price), who feeds upon the author. But lightly so, thus not inflicting any lasting damage. Eramus then recognizes the writer, and in a gesture of gratitude, invites Chetwynd-Hayes to The Monster Club.
Inside the club, which is packed with various ghoulish creatures, the two older men take a seat at a coffin-shaped table. Displayed next to the table is a monster genealogical chart that Eramus explains. It goes like this (pay attention; there might be a quiz later): There are three basic monster primates — vampires, werewolves and ghouls. Now, mating of a vampire and a werewolf produces a werevamp; a werewolf and a ghoul produce a weregoo; a vampire and a ghoul produce a vamgoo.
Continuing: A weregoo mating a werevamp produces a shaddy; a weregoo and a vamgoo produce a maddy; and a werevamp and a vamgoo produce a vaddy. Now, if a shaddy, maddy or vaddy mate, they produce a mock (a nice word for a mongrel, Eramus explains.)
Basic rules of monsterdom: vampires suck, werewolves hunt and ghouls tear; shaddies lick and mocks blow. But a shadmock (when a mock breeds with any other monster hybrid) whistles, and the results of the whistling can be horrifying.
Thus this leads us into three vignettes that make up most of the movie, the first about a shadmock spurned by a beautiful woman and compelled to whistle.
The other two stories are about 1) a vampire, featuring Britt Eklund as the count’s faithful wife and Donald Pleasence as a vampire hunter-killer; and 2) a story about a humgoo (breeding of a human and a ghoul), starring Stuart Whitman as a movie director scouting for locations who finds a perfect secluded town, that he learns too late is inhabited by flesh-eating ghouls. He tries to escape, aided by the humgoo (Leslie Dunlap) but of course is doomed.
So, thanks to Eramus and The Monster Club, Chetwynd-Hayes has material for another book.

“Night of the Living Dead.” The original zombie movie. Yes this is the ultimate B-movie. Dreadful acting, pedestrian special effects. But chilling nevertheless. A cast of unknowns (Judith O’Dea, Russell Streiner and Dwayne Jones) fight off a seemingly endless army of dead people risen from the graves and craving living flesh. They are holed up in a secluded house as the relentless zombies try to break into the home and have a feast.
It’s a cult classic, and as John Carradine noted in an intro of one of the video versions, the most successful movie made in Pittsburgh.

“Wes Craven’s New Nightmare.” I give a nod of approval to Craven’s “Nightmare on Elm Street,” the story of Freddie Krueger, a child-killer torched by a lynch mob who has become able to seek revenge and death through the dreams of children living on Elm Street. Krueger by far is the most colorful maniac in horror films, with his bladed-glove, gory complexion and sarcastic wit. “Nightmare,” like “Halloween” and “Friday the 13th,” drove itself into the ground with way too many sequels. Just more ways for Freddie to kill people.
That’s why I found “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare” so refreshing. Craven plays himself in this movie. Also playing themselves are original “Nightmare” stars Heather Langencamp and John Saxon, and of course Robert (Freddie Krueger) Englund.
It seems these entertainers are experiencing nightmares that reveal Freddie might be real after all, not just a fictional movie character. Heather’s blissful life with her husband, a special effects man, and her son, goes haywire, thanks to Freddie. Soon she is a widow and her son is haunted by nightmares, and Robert Englund has fled to parts unknown. Once again, but now for real, Heather must engage in a fatal battle of wits with Freddie.

“The Blair Witch Project.” A movie that proves you don’t need monsters or slashers or blood-suckers to be downright scary. Just noises and creepy ritualistic figures made of vegetation, and stacked rocks.
The movie is not a movie. Instead it is video recovered a year after three teenagers (Heather Donahue, Michael Williams and Joshua Leonard) disappear in the woods near Burkitsville, Maryland. Heather had planned on making a documentary, thus the video, on the Blair Witch, one of those spooky stories that survive for generations. The Blair Witch legend includes child abductions and mutilations.
The carefree teens take to the woods and soon find themselves lost and apparently stalked by some unseen person or force.
How effective is this movie? Well, it gave me nightmares, something I had not experienced from a movie since “Alien” in 1979.

“Paranormal Activity.” The “recovered footage” era that began with “The Blair Witch Project” received another boost with this 2007 cheapie that has become a franchise. In a nice Southern California suburb, a young couple, Katie (Katie Featherton) and Micah (Micah Sloat) are experiencing strange events. Micah buys a nice video camera and sets it up to record all night in their bedroom.
Written and directed by Oren Peli (although Peli admits most of the dialogue was improvised), this little movie is a master of suspense. You watch the recorded nighttime footage on edge with nervous anticipation, not knowing what to expect. The paranormal activity starts out benignly, like doors moving and lights switching on and off, but soon escalates. Katie begins to walk in her sleep. A couple of times she gets up in the middle of the night and stands frozen for a couple of hours, staring at the sleeping Micah.
Never has the video clock at the lower right-hand side of the screen created such anxiety. As it passes quickly on fast forward, you relax. But when it slows back to normal speed, you tense up, knowing something is about to happen.
“PA” has been followed up by “prequel” sequels and regular sequels, which do diminish the initial impact of the original story. But even repeated viewings of “PA” leave you feeling uneasy all the way through.

So … BOO! Happy Halloween.

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