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Best Hallow E'en Movie Ever

Hallowe'en is fast approaching. That means it's time to run to the video store and prepare for a night of cinematic terrors. Well, that's the ritual at my house, anyway. As October 31st draws near, my patient wife and I stock up on Twizzlers, marshmallows, and, most importantly, our favorite scary movies. In honor of the yearly ritual celebrating all matters dark and spooky, this month's column remembers four of this author's favorite scary movies; his contenders for the most frightening of all time. Naturally, the list is subjective, and that's why this column is named after the catchphrase of that obnoxious and obese comic book shop owner on The Simpsons. Prone to debatable declarations about the quality of video games, comics and movies, he always opines "best movie" (or what-have-you) "EVER."

In that spirit, here are the best horror movies EVER.

  1. The Blair Witch Project(1999). Many people thought this was all hype when it premiered in the summer of '99. Others complained the movie was a shaggy dog tale, a long joke without a punch line. But, for those with imagination, The Blair Witch Project is the ultimate "trick or treat" movie. Playing on a basic fear, getting lost in the woods, this harks back to archetypal source material such as the fairy tale Hansel and Gretel. Kids (not siblings this time, but squabbling film students) lose their way hiking and encounter a witch...maybe. What remains great about The Blair Witch Project is the manner in which it expresses its terror. The film's unusual technique (documentary style video and film footage "recovered" from the missing teens) is authentic enough to make the film's story seem true (and indeed, many audiences accepted it as a true…). On top of that, the frenetic camera work is wholly anxiety provoking. But the most interesting element of The Blair Witch Project is the way in which it hides answers from the audience. That old house at the end of the film is one such mystery. Look closely at it to find clues about the origin of the witch. Spy the black handprints of her victims—children—lining the walls. Ask yourself, is Josh really calling to the lost filmmakers, or is the witch mimicking him? On top of these questions, the film's ending is the most chilling yet put to film, again, for what it fails to reveal. This is the kind of movie that will make you scared of the dark, and wonder if terrible things do indeed exist.

  2. Hallowe'en (1978). You could hardly go wrong by adding a number of John Carpenter films to any Hallowe'en viewing roster, including the ghost story The Fog (1980), the icy The Thing (1982), or even Prince of Darkness (1987). But for goose bumps aplenty, there are few films scarier than Carpenter's 1978 contribution to the stalker sub-genre, Hallowe'en. Michael Myers is a screen icon now, resurrected in seven sequels (he didn't appear in Hallowe'en III: Season of the Witch), yet it's probably best to forget Myers' status as horror king. Just sit back and enjoy the original for what it is, a terrifying slice of mid-1970s American middle class life. A young Jamie Lee Curtis heads a fine cast of likeable characters who, on October 31st, confront the unthinkable in their safe little community: a serial killer/bogeyman, an unstoppable monster from the id. Michael Myers (at least in his initial incarnation) is especially terrifying because he has no real motive. Later movies in the franchise establish Jamie Lee's character as his long-lost sister, but that's a stretch to justify a sequel (and another, and another, and another.) In Hallowe'en, Michael remains the ultimate question mark. Shot six times by Donald Pleasence's Dr. Loomis, he survives. He can catch up with his victims at a slow pace, even while they run from him. If a would-be victim thinks of closing a window or locking a door to protect oneself from his murderous affection, he has already climbed through that very window or unhinged that lock, and is waiting. He is inhumanly patient, biding his time, waiting to strike until he is ready. Myers is utterly terrifying because we all fear being pursued by something unstoppable, relentless. And, his strange white William Shatner mask is part of the mystery. It reflects our terror while sharing none of Michael's secrets. The Hallowe'en movies have become more ludicrous over the years, as filmmakers seek to explain Michael. But he is more potent as John Carpenter and Debra Hill envisioned him in the seventies: a shape in the night, a shadow emerging from darkness, a half-seen ivory blur moving outside our bedroom window. Hallowe'en is one of the classics and it holds up well on repeat viewing. As soon as that trademark Carpenter soundtrack kicks in, so does the terror.

  3. The Exorcist (1973). William Friedkin directed this adaptation of William Peter Blatty's best-selling novel, and it is another classic. Not just for the notorious head spinning and pea soup special effects, but because of the emotional, human fear it generates. In this case, there is an acknowledgment that real spiritual evil, in the Christian form of Satan, exists, and waits for us after death. Worse, in some cases, this enemy can possess the living, defiling our innocent children. Friedkin's brilliant, realistic direction provides numerous opportunities for fear. From the unsettling prologue in Iraq to Regan MacNeil's (Linda Blair) grotesque trip to the hospital, to Father Merrin's (Max Von Sydow) nail-biting exorcism in an icy bedroom, the film never fails to fascinate or scare. Here, the terror is quite interesting; not only do we see the existence of evil in our universe, but our own powerlessness before it. Witness the scene in the hospital. Regan visits a state-of-the-art (for the 1970s) facility and is subjected to, in excruciating detail, a battery of medical tests. We watch in shock and disgust as a hypodermic is injected into her neck, then dye into her veins. We see blood spurt from a tube as it is capped in her throat. Then the arcane machinery begins to hum and vibrate, having its weird way with the troubled, uncomfortable girl. After this horrible detail, what conclusion does medical science draw? The doctors suggest she see a psychiatrist! That's the best they can do! And what does the psychiatrist suggest? Religion. Exorcism. It's a fascinating example of how modern science fails society. And better yet, Regan isn't just a child, she represents the future of humanity (as do all children). The Exorcist seems to indicate that our children are endangered by evil, and all tomorrows are threatened.

  4. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974). I've never seen a movie more brutal, irrational or disturbing than Tobe Hooper's independent film about Leatherface, the mad butcher. Chain Saw pits a group of selfish teenagers against a brutal family unit with a crazy sense of values. Leatherface and his slaughterhouse clan view the teens only as meat, ingredients for a dinner banquet. For 80 minutes, the clan takes on the teens with sledgehammers, meat hooks, knives, and other blunt instruments, until the movie reaches a fever-pitch of insanity that has never been recreated in the history of cinema. The movie's terrors are twofold. Firstly, Hooper (w/a writing assist from Kim Henkel) puts the audience in the position of a cow or a lamb. It's as if we're in the slaughterhouse ourselves, facing the inevitability of that hammer blow. Has the vegan ethos ever been expressed better on celluloid? Secondly, Hooper creates a universe of utter purposelessness. When Sally, Franklin, Kirk and the other teens are murdered, the universe takes no notice. Some viewers can't make it through this nihilistic movie, and that's because there is no artifice in it. Most films offer the audience a slice of comfort here or there. Not so Hooper's debut. It denies the audience everything, from likeable main characters, to motivation for the villains, to narrative development. One of the things I absolutely love is the manner in which Hooper kills his leads. Pam, Kirk and Jerry all meet their maker in identical fashion: they enter the Leatherface farmhouse and are captured, killed, and cut up for supper. No additional information about the killers is gleaned in the death scenes, and no plot progress is forged. These characters go to the farmhouse and die, and in the process, typical movie structure is flouted. The audience learns nothing from the violent demises.

There are many other great horror movies worth a look this Hallowe'en, and I'm going to recommend one more that isn't as notorious or popular as those listed above. Don't Look Now (1973) is a terrifying film about the ways in which man can or cannot control his own fate. It features a specter from the beyond (a shadowy, running figure in a red slicker...) and psychic visions, but at the heart of this film is a meditation on the connections in life that we sometimes fail to make. Nicholas Roeg directed this stylish thriller, set in Venice, and it has just recently been released on DVD.

Hallowe'en is the one day of the year when it's not just acceptable to revel in the ghoulish and macabre, but expected. So whatever movies you finally choose, remember to shut off the lights, lock your doors and windows, and turn down the phone.

Trick or treat!


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