Originally printed in the Batesville Daily Guard
Halloween is upon us and what better time to catch up on your horror movie watching?
Sure, you can say “I’m already watching ‘The Walking Dead,’” but that’s just a soap opera with zombies. No, what you want on Halloween is something that will make you feel uneasy, frightened or at least a little nervous … not a TV show that frustrates, angers or even bores you.
So, today I’m passing on a couple of movie suggestions for those who have a few hours to curl up in front of the TV Halloween night while the kids are out or have been put to bed. Each movie represents what I would call a different sort of fear so that the viewer gets a nice rounded experience.
“Carnival of Souls” (1962)
Ghost stories were being passed from generation to generation by humans way before Halloween was ever conceived. “Carnival of Souls” is a ghost story, but it isn’t about a haunted house or vengeance from beyond the grave. Instead it’s a movie about a protagonist, a woman who is the only survivor of a car wreck at the beginning of the film, growing more detached from, and eventually rejected by, the world and people around her. Eventually, the only ones who seem to notice her are the ghosts she sees more and more frequently.
The film never goes for outright scares. Instead, the events in the film build upon each other. The increasing isolation of the movie’s lead character from the world around her and the final confrontation with the ghosts, who appropriately gather to dance the night away at a carnival, leave the viewer with a sense of hopelessness and futility instead of fear.
“Night of the Living Dead” (1968)
If it weren’t for this movie, you wouldn’t be watching “The Walking Dead,” reading “World War Z” or playing “Resident Evil.” We’re so accustomed to cannibal zombies in media now that they’re no longer scary, but back when George Romero made “Night of the Living Dead,” they were something new.
Sure, there had been zombies in movies before, “White Zombie” jumps immediately to mind, but until “Night of the Living Dead,” they had been mostly portrayed true to their roots in African culture — a dead person brought to life to serve a single master. “Night of the Living Dead introduced much of the world to swarms of flesh-eating zombies that overwhelmed their human prey by sheer numbers. It also introduced that other zombie movie trope: You often have more to fear from your fellow man than the zombies.
“Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (1974)
Along with “Night of the Living Dead” this is considered one of the movies that modernized horror. Before these two movies, horror movies largely followed a monster-of-the-week type pattern where the monster died in the end and the, usually male, hero got out alive, if not unscathed. “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” turned that formula totally on its head. Not only was our “monster” human, the “hero” (survivor is more appropriate) is a woman.
It follows, and pretty much established, a formula we’ve grown used to. A bunch of teenagers or 20-somethings go out in the middle of nowhere and are killed one-by-one until the lone survivor fights off the killer/monster and makes it out alive and damaged. But unlike its lesser descendants, this movie goes for unsettling over disgusting. The Sawyer family, whose interior decorating was inspired by the home of Ed Gein — the real life inspiration for Norman Bates in “Psycho” and Buffalo Bill in “Silence of the Lambs” — and their twisted abode will cause several nights of restless sleep for the first-time viewer.
“The Thing” (1982)
John Carpenter is a director whose name is synonymous with Halloween. After all, he introduced the world to Michael Myers in, well, “Halloween.” Halloween was a very influential horror movie, but it was not Carpenter’s best. His best work would be just four years later when he delivered what I, and many others consider his masterpiece: “The Thing.”
“The Thing” is a violent film, no doubt about it. The violence isn’t from slashing, bludgeoning or drilling as we are prone to see in horror moves nowadays. Instead, the violence comes from the creature being revealed, transforming its human forms into something truly horrific. The scares don’t come from the boogeyman sneaking up behind you or coming out of the dark. Instead, he hides right in front of you, within the skin of your co-worker or friend, waiting to take you when it’s only the two of you in the room. Worse yet, he can be more than one person, or animal, too. All through the film, even in its last scene, you’re left to wonder “is it one of them?”
“Session 9” (2001)
By 2001, most mainstream horror movies were trending toward jump scares and way too much self-awareness thanks to movies like “Scream” and “I Know What You Did Last Summer.” “Session 9” is one of the few movies to buck that trend, largely hiring actors to play characters instead of pretty faces to play victims.
“Session 9” doesn’t start with a bang. It hardly has any bangs at all. Instead, you start out having a feeling something is very, very wrong on what should just be a regular job for a group of contractors removing asbestos from Danvers State Hospital, a real-life psychiatric hospital that once stood in Massachusetts. The movie builds on that feeling, every scene removing layers beginning with the normal and pealing away to the horrific.
The sense of unease is not lifted by the end of the movie, instead you’re left to wonder about who, or what, is to really blame for what unfolded. Danvers State Hospital is almost a character itself, with its decaying walls, massive empty rooms and small hallways. Danvers State Hospital was totally demolished in 2006.