Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on October 30, 2014
Halloween is fast approaching and tonight TCM is starting the party early with a batch of great haunted house films beginning at 5PM PST (8PM EST) followed by a 24-hour classic horror movie marathon that’s sure to please the most finicky horror connoisseur. With so many terrifically terrifying films to choose from I decided to ask some of my favorite female film journalists who also happen to be fellow horror devotees to join me in recommending one movie from TCM’s Halloween line-up for your viewing pleasure. I think you’ll enjoy our enthusiastic endorsements but you might want to approach them with caution. A few contain minor spoilers along with some surprising scares but I hope that won’t stop you from joining us in celebrating Halloween with TCM. Demonic monsters, scary chauffeurs and axe-wielding killers are just a few of the shocking thrills that await you!
CURSE OF THE DEMON (aka NIGHT OF THE DEMON; 1957)
“It’s in the trees! It’s coming!” Jacques Tourneur’s superb occult thriller may have an American star (Dana Andrews) but its chills are quintessentially British, not surprising since it was loosely based on Casting the Runes by M.R. James, author of some of the spookiest short stories in the English language. Andrews plays a visiting psychologist who scoffs when the leader of a devil-worshipping cult puts a hex on him in the British Museum, only to find his cocky skepticism gradually undermined in the days that follow by a mounting terror and a sense that he’s being followed… Purists insist the film was marred by producer Hal E. Chester’s insistence on adding shots of a hokey special effects demon, but as far as I’m concerned it just makes it all the scarier. Chester also gets a credit as screenwriter, though the film’s uniquely tense atmosphere is almost certainly due to the film’s other writer – Charles Bennett, who had scripted some of Alfred Hitchcock’s best-known movies. Peggy Cummins is on hand to try and convince Andrews that he really is in mortal danger, and Irish actor Niall MacGinnis, affable yet sinister, makes an unforgettable villain.
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CAT PEOPLE (1942)
There are many things to love about Val Lewton’s CAT PEOPLE—the suggestive use of shadows and sound, the empathetic focus on the characters’ fear rather than a full revelation of its cause, the setting in a then contemporary New York City. It’s a lovely, eerie Noir about a woman, Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon), who fears that if she becomes aroused, she will transform physically into a panther. I love that while CAT PEOPLE seems so much about hysteria and fear of female sexual desire and its cure via marriage or sex with an ethically compromised and generally skeevy psychiatrist, Irena is absolutely right about what she is. And while I’m glad we never see her transform, I am glad that she actually becomes the cat, because it complicates the picture. Also, like Lewton, I just love big cats.
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Carol Borden writes about comics for The Cultural Gutter and is the editor for the Toronto International Film Festival’s Midnight Madness and Vanguard Program Blogs. See her various shenanigans at monstrousindustry.wordpress.com.
BURNT OFFERINGS is a striking work of the supernatural that first came into my periphery back in the mid 1990’s, almost 20 years after its initial 1976 release. Fresh in the throes of a now long-standing adoration of actor Oliver Reed, I immediately sought this one out. The combination of the inimitable Reed, the late, great Karen Black and the even later and greater Bette Davis, coupled with apt direction by DARK SHADOWS creator Dan Curtis, it was only natural for it to be such a strong and unique feature. The plot involves Reed and Black as Marian and Ben Rolf, a married couple whom, along with their young son Davey (Lee Montgomery) and Ben’s Aunt Elizabeth (Bette Davis), move into a gorgeous old house in the countryside for the summer. Things soon take a turn for the strange, including an eccentric pair of siblings, the Allardyces (the great Burgess Meredith & Eileen Heckert), who run the estate, their mysterious Mother that demands total privacy and my personal favorite, the highly creepy chauffeur that keeps appearing in Ben’s visions. The Chauffeur, played to haunting, Sardonicus-smiling perfection by character actor extraordinaire Anthony James, is one of the most unforgettable figures in 1970’s horror. BURNT OFFERINGS is such a compelling movie, playing with familial tensions, the fear of the unknown and the sheer fetid heartbeat that permeates the Allardyce residence. Rich with atmosphere, like that musty old den in a long forgotten house that holds old secrets, and riddled with some strong performances, it’s a terrific film to curl up and watch on a dark, dark night.
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Heather Drain is a film writer from the South who currently writes for Dangerous Minds, Art Decades and Mondo Heather. She is also working on a book about the work of Stephen Sayadian and co-authoring a memoir-movie book with Eric Edwards.
Lucy Harbin (Joan Crawford) returns home early from a weekend trip and finds her man in bed with another woman. She grabs an axe and, well, she lets loose with it enough to make even Lizzie Borden take a step back and say, “Now that’s a bit much, don’t you think?” 20 years later, the “love slayer” is free, but she may not be free of her demons. She’s picked up a new wig in a bid to recapture her lost days, but will she also pick up a new axe? STRAIT-JACKET is a pure delight from start to finish and yes, it’s everything you might expect from a William Castle horror show. It’s campy, it’s shocking, it’s cheeky and gleefully gruesome…but it’s so much richer than that thanks to a bravura performance by Crawford. She runs the gamut from formidable to fragile and affords Lucy Harbin an effort equal to that she gave Mildred Pierce 20 years prior. If STRAIT-JACKET wasn’t relegated to the B-Movie slush pile (where, make no mistake, it belongs), surely Crawford’s name would have been bandied about during awards season. You will believe an axe murderer can be sympathetic. You will sort of believe that a 60-something actress makes for a convincing 20-something woman. Such is the power of William Castle, Joan Crawford, and wigs!
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POLTERGEIST holds a special place in my memory (or is it nightmares?) as the first horror movie I ever saw. I was far too young to see it (I was roughly Carol Anne’s age) and it traumatized me. To this day, I can’t watch it without reverting to that terrified five year old and I still watch the dreaded clown doll scene between my fingers. But no matter what your age, POLTERGEIST is frightening. On the surface it’s the traditional horror story of the monsters in the closet (or under the bed, or in the backyard…) being real and actively trying to harm you. But underneath its moldy skeletons, POLTERGEIST is the horror story of being lost. When you see it as a child, it taps into your dread of being torn from your home. We all have that time when we got lost in a crowd and spent what felt like an eternity trying to find our parents, certain we’d be separated forever. As Carol Anne wails for her mom, we recognize that cry as one we made ourselves, and our hearts begin to race in that same sweaty panic wondering if we’ll ever be rescued. As an adult, it works on your fear of losing a child or sibling to some unknown assailant. The way the family shatters when Carol Anne goes missing is achingly real and poignant. Even if you don’t have a child it’s hard not to choke up when Diane (Jobeth Williams) cries about feeling Carol Anne go “through my soul.” And the older you are, POLTERGEIST suggests the terror of what lies beyond and what insidious things whisper there. I can’t think of many horror films that are quite this nuanced and full of jump scares too!
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Elisabeth Rappe’s writing survives in Google archives and the World Film Locations book series, notably World Film Locations: San Francisco. She can also be found writing cups at Starbucks.
I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (1943)
I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE takes place in Haiti, and follows the seduction and haunting of young Canadian nurse, Betsy Connell (Frances Dee) by a mysterious sugar cane plantation owner (Tom Conway)and his freakish family. The flick has a terrific tagline: “She’s alive… yet dead! She’s dead… yet alive!” (Take that, BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN!) Although the poster and related art is dripping with dread and is heavy on the horror, the film itself is more chilling than thrilling. It’s my favorite kind of zombie movie – all about the alchemy of evil, and the magical mix of voodoo with insidious ill-intent. There are no shambling brain-eaters here; just poor, lost souls in search of meaning. Heavy with atmosphere and imbued with a sense of foreboding, this Val Lewton / Jacques Tournier collaboration has the same silky, shadowy look and feel as their first outing, Cat People, which was released the year before. I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE is a great one for a night at home alone, with the lights down and the volume up.
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Staci Layne Wilson is the writer and director of Fetish Factory, a horror-comedy about pin-up vixens vs. bloodthirsty zombies set in a post-apocalyptic Hollywood. The film is due out in 2015. You can also find her online at StaciLayneWilson.com.
HOUSE OF WAX (1953)
My final recommendation is André de Toth’s HOUSE OF WAX (1953). You don’t need 3D glasses in order to appreciate this dazzling full-color production that made Vincent Price a horror icon. After being horribly disfigured in a fire that destroyed his waxworks and left him unable to sculpt, Professor Henry Jarrod (Vincent Price) decides to restock his museum with human corpses. Wearing a black cloak and wide brimmed hat that make him look like a misshapen phantom; Jarrod heads off in pursuit of his next victim until he makes the mistake of crossing paths with the plucky Sue Allen (Phyllis Kirk). Their encounter leads to a terrifying chase down foggy gaslit streets and through dark alleyways that still manages to chill and thrill this viewer. Watch it on Halloween if you dare but don’t be surprised if Vincent Price visits your nightmares afterward.
Kimberly Lindbergs is a Movie Morlock and she approves of all these messages!
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