Scary stuff, kids!
If you’re seeking scary movies for Halloween viewing, don’t be content to round up the usual suspects. Instead, consider these alternatives, easily accessible for rental, purchase on downstreaming at various online and brick-and-mortar outlets:
THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD (1951)
CAST: Kenneth Tobey, James Arness
THE PITCH: At a remote Air Force outpost in the Arctic, a research team discovers a long-frozen spaceship – and, more important, a long-frozen spaceship pilot. After the ice melts, scientists try to reason with the defrosted alien. When that fails, a gung-ho commander (Tobey) switches to Plan B.
THE VERDICT: Forget about the John Carpenter remake and the recent prequel/sequel/whatever. Arguably the scariest monster mash of the Cold war era, this sci-fi shocker is best enjoyed with all the lights turned out. Hey, even the folks in Carpenter’s own Halloween were caught watching it.
CAT PEOPLE (1942)
CAST: Kent Smith, Simone Simon
THE PITCH: A handsome architect (Smith) hastily woos and weds a beautiful artist (Simon), then finds himself frustrated (to put it mildly) when she insists they cannot consummate their union. She claims that, if they enjoy conjugal bliss, she’ll turn into a murderous panther. Trouble is, she’s equally likely to get catty if she suspects her husband is romancing a co-worker.
THE VERDICT: Val Lewton brilliantly exploits the power of suggestion in this wide-awake nightmare of eerie shadows and unseen terrors.
CAST: Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing
THE PITCH: A tarot reader (Cushing) predicts some seriously fatal futures for his fellow train travelers: A jazz musician will pay dearly for “sampling” voodoo chants, a newly married professor (an incredibly young Donald Sutherland) will discover his bride is a vampire, an evil art critic (Lee) will be pursued by the severed hand of an artist he drove to suicide…
THE VERDICT: The very best of the Brit horror anthologies produced by Hammer and Amicus studios during the 1960s and ‘70s.
CAST: Simone Signoret, Vera Clouzot
THE PITCH: At a boy’s boarding school in a Paris suburb, the sadistic principal (Paul Meurisse) brutalizes his mistress (Signoret) and torments his wife (Clouzot). So they drown him in a bathtub, then dump him into the school’s swimming pool. But when the pool is drained, the body is gone. Uh-oh.
THE VERDICT: Henri-Georges Clouzot's classic thriller has spawned three authorized remakes, and influenced countless other films. But the ingeniously creepy original remains in a class by itself.
CARNIVAL OF SOULS (1962)
CAST: Candace Hilligoss, Sidney Berger
THE PITCH: Low-budget cult fave about a woman (Hilligoss) who seemingly survives a car crash, then endures much dislocating weirdness – and many spooky hints that, hey, maybe she didn’t survive the crash — when she moves to Salt Lake City to work as a music teacher.
THE VERDICT: Herk Harvey’s stripped-to-essentials ghost story offers a nifty final twist that was echoed decades later in The Sixth Sense. The minimalist production values somehow enhance the overall sense of mounting dread. And the University of Houston’s very own Sidney Berger gives an iconic performance as a supporting character best described by Roger Ebert as “the definitive study of a nerd in lust.”
THE WICKER MAN (1973)
CAST: Edward Woodward, Christopher Lee
THE PITCH: While investigating the disappearance of a child on a small island off the Scottish coast, a police detective (Woodward) finds a contemporary cult still sacrifices innocents to ensure bountiful harvests. The situation is even more dire than it sounds, since the detective is – well, let’s just say he could have starred in The 40-Year-Old Virgin.
THE VERDICT: Robin Hardy’s subtly scary occult thriller – incalculably craftier than the misguided remake starring Nicolas Cage — continues to cast a spell on connoisseurs of the cinemafantastique.
HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM (1959)
STARS: Michael Gough, Shirley Ann Field
THE PITCH: Long before he was a faithful manservant to three different Batmen, Gough played a malevolent mystery writer who raises bloody hell with real-life mayhem.
THE VERDICT: Still shocking after all these years, this grisly horror show begins with horrific carnage – think binoculars booby-trapped spring-driven spikes – then turns even nastier.
THE OLD DARK HOUSE (1932)
CAST: Boris Karloff, Ernest Thesiger
THE PITCH: On a dark and stormy night, stranded travelers seek shelter in a decaying mansion way off the beaten track. This, of course, is a big mistake. Karloff plays a mute butler who knows where all the bodies are buried, quite possibly because he buried most of them himself.
THE VERDICT: Call it an early draft for The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and you won’t be far off the mark.
INVADERS FROM MARS (1953)
STARS: Jimmy Hunt, Arthur Franz
THE PITCH: A younger (Hunt) awakens from a bad dream to see a UFO landing near his home. Unfortunately, no one believes his story. Even more unfortunately, many grown-ups – including the boy’s parents – start acting really, really strange after they visit the landing site.
THE VERDICT: You may watch this one with your kids, but don’t be surprised if you, too, wind up having to sleep with a night light in your room.
DON’T LOOK NOW (1973)
STARS: Donald Sutherland, Julie Christie
THE PITCH: A restorer of ancient churches (Sutherland) fails to appreciate his powers of precognition, even after he foresees the death of his young daughter. Which means, alas, he can’t spot portents of another untimely demise.
THE VERDICT: Strictly for grown-ups (and not just because Christie and Sutherland share a notoriously erotic bedroom scene), Nicolas Roeg’s sophisticated stunner is well worth a look.